A short food memoir by Ruchir Joshi
A friend of mine who grew up in rural Haryana in the 1950s insists that he remembers the taste of bhindi in his mother’s milk. His theory is that there was such little variety in what he and his family ate then that his early memory is uncluttered, that other external tastes didn’t erase the first set of flavours to which he was exposed. Among my acquaintances I suppose this friend is unique (there were samosas in his village, but kids were not allowed to eat them—he ate his first only when he came to attend college in a big city) but perhaps not alone in his uniqueness. To a greater or lesser degree we all grow up in the ghetto of tastes with which our families surround us. It’s only later that our tongue begins to venture out, probing the wider sapidary universe, circle by circle.
For instance, it always amuses me when someone identifies me as a ‘baba log’ type who must have grown up speaking English the moment I was out of the womb. The truth is I grew up with three Indian languages squabbling for my attention: Gujarati at home, Bangla on the street, Hindi (of the Calcutta Bihari-Marwari dialect). I struggled with Angreji for a long time and it was only when I was eight or nine that English began to speak to me and vice versa. Likewise, I grew up in a strictly vegetarian Gujarati household where even eggs weren’t allowed to cross the threshold.
My first memories of food coalesce around the classic Gujarati quadrumvirate of dal-bhat-rotli-shak or dal, rice, roti, vegetables. The dal was typically sour, slightly sweet, chilli-hot, and flecked with big black mustard seed and kokum (perhaps my mother’s addition in a nod to the sambar she loved); the vadki, or katori, of dal a repository of layered, complex taste; and the central spindle around which every meal revolved. Later in life, when I missed my home food, this was the first thing that came to the mind and salivary glands, this proof of mother-love, the first reward upon return after long absence, the first mouth-borne evidence that I was finally home. The rotli was a thing of delicate beauty, no thicker than two unfolded handkerchiefs lying on top of one another trapping a tiny disc of scalding air, the leopard-dotted upper surface polished by a smear of ghee. If made by your mother each rotli also becoming a bead on the abacus of what you owe your Ma. Across life I learnt to appreciate many different kinds of roti and unleavened breads but the default is always these thin rotlis. The shak/vegetables came in many shapes and sizes, the many potato variations, the beans, bhindi, karelas, or papdi, different piles of green hiding such different tastes—the dry ones, the ones with just a coating of gravy and the wet ones swimming in tiny pools of magical flavour. Alongside these were the kachumbars and pickles, the different raw salads, fresh semi-pickles, the fully pickled and aged athanas and chhundo, and the farsans, the vast array of steamed or fried foodlets, dhokla, khandvi, patra, muthiya, handvo, dhebra, theplas. In summer, nudging out the dal as chief protagonist would be the kairi no ras, the thick mango pulp-juice made of either Hapoos/Alphonso or Kesar, to be had alongside all the savoury and chilli food, to be eaten with rotli or delicate little puris.
Just as I learned languages, so also I picked up this ever-widening vocabulary of tastes and textures. Just as I could hear love or scolding in the tone of my mother’s voice, so I could sense laughter, mischief, affection or disciplinarian terseness in the food I was given.
As a small child I took this—the luxury of one of the world’s greatest vegetarian cuisines—completely for granted even as I was being introduced to other great desi vegetarian food. There were the street snacks, the jhalmuri and the chana jor garam, the samosas, kachoris and chaat, and so on. We lived close to the Lake Market area where most of Calcutta’s South Indians were concentrated, and my first memory of idli-sambar, vada and dosa, is of eating them on Sunday mornings in an open-air courtyard with large marble-topped tables. It took a long time and a trip to Chennai before I could recapture that first magical taste from Lake Market.
When I was about seven or eight I had a nasty altercation with measles. Our family doctor and friend, Dr Patel, told my mother I needed more protein than our diet provided. My mother promptly took me to the Doctor’s house, where Mrs Patel, aka Y-mashi, ran a legendary kitchen that did not ban eggs. Something was put in front of me. “This is a kind of pudlu. Try it.” My mother growled. A pudlu was a kind of chickpea crepe of the kind you find all over India and this glistening yellow cluster looked only vaguely like one. I put a bit in my mouth. Then some more. Then I wanted another one. “That was an omelette,” said my mother. “You can only have one a week, otherwise it will create heat.” I remember my mother being both annoyed and relieved that I’d taken to this egg thing so enthusiastically.
When eating that first rudimentary omelette little did I know that I was embarking on one of my life’s central food arcs. As a teenager in a boarding school with terrible food, I would desperately miss my mother’s cooking. Solace came from a completely non-Gujju corner: the Maths Whiz in our house was also a whiz at making bun-anda. Late at night we’d queue up in the dorm, contraband eggs and buns having been smuggled in by the farrash (the house staff ), and the Maths Whiz would make us the most scrumptious omelette sandwiches in a battered frying pan on an electric coil heater, chalking up favours from each of us as he did. If the tired strips of murdered egg we got in the mess breakfast were omelettes then these were anti-omelettes: the slightly charred buns were sweet, the perfectly flipped eggs were gooey and salty with the sting of green chillies, and when you were done you always, always wanted another one.
Years later again, as I was discovering French and European cooking, I would come across the English food writer Elizabeth David’s classic book, An Omelette and a Glass of Wine. One essay is dedicated to the greatness of the humble omelette, where David describes French food journalists’ hunt for ‘the best omelette in France’. The champion omelette is discovered in a bistro in a small town. The Madame who makes these describes her method in the most unpretentious terms (“I beat good fresh eggs, put them in a very hot pan and then I just shake them about”), and then David gives us her own recipe for a cheese omelette, involving nothing fancier than three eggs, two kinds of cheese, butter, salt and pepper. Recently, I watched an interview with a high-end chef in London. “One basic test I have for any young chef I’m hiring is to ask them to make a simple omelette. It’s more difficult than it looks and it gives me a sense of the person’s skill and sensitivity.”
Across my life I’ve had many omelettes. The kind you get in French bistros is a thing of pure bliss, the baby bolster of egg quivering on the plate, the stuffing leaking out seductively. At the other end of the spectrum there have been the ghastly Indian Railway omelettes, the eggs tortured and stamped into grey flatness. And then there is the bun-anda variation the omelette-stall guy makes just outside my home in Calcutta, where he slaps eggs, onions, green chillies and thick bread into mustard oil, flipping everything over several times and coming up with a cross between a savoury French toast and the bun-anda from my school dorm. The Maths Whiz from school now has one of the highest-paid AI jobs in America, but I often fantasise about getting him to visit me and try my omelette-walla’s dobbol deem amlait.
The execrable food in my boarding school Mess led me to other discoveries that wouldn’t have pleased my mother. To be fair, the Mess food wasn’t unhealthy, it was just that everything tasted like badly spiced cardboard. Being a vegetarian limited your scope even further because the non-veg guys at least got to curse the apparently dreadful meat curry once a week. The one local respite, the mirage-like oasis in the desert, was a restaurant in town called Honeydew. Run by a Sikh family, Honeydew was the only place nearby where visiting parents could take their child and his friends. It was also the place we all made a beeline for, on the few days we boys were allowed into town.
One such afternoon, I was happily digging into my paneer pakodas when my friend Sudeep got himself a ‘hamburger’. “Give us a bite,” I said. Sudeep pulled his plate away. “This is non-veg, you fool!” The madness of some unnamed hunger had been triggered in the twist of my 17-generation Gujju vegetarian DNA. “I know,” I said, “Give me a bite.” Sudeep passed me his plate and I took a bite. Then I dipped it in tomato sauce to see how that tasted. Sudeep’s eyes widened. “You bloody bugger, you’ve eaten the whole thing!” I was chewing in heaven and I didn’t care. “It’s ok. Let’s get more. I’ll pay.” A reverse engineering of memory tells me that this hamburger was nothing but a basic shami kabab and a raw onion disc sandwiched in a bun; whatever it was, the dark depths of that sweet-salty, spicy, minced goat taste set off a life-long addiction.
Once home, I negotiated with my father who was far more approachable about this life and death issue than my mother. “I suppose one can’t stop you eating meat. But I beg you not to tell your mother. She won’t be able to take it.” I agreed and kept that promise while my mother was alive. But once the world of meat opened up there was no stopping the exploration. I never took to fish or seafood and have remained a waste of gourmandising space in a city like Calcutta, but between the north of India and Bengal there were whole universes of red meat and chicken to discover.
My father was a writer, and a year later he and my mother were invited to a theatre festival in Nancy, in north-eastern France. My dad and I left earlier, with my mother coming a bit later. The ten-day gap allowed me the freedom to explore the full range of the French food that I’d read so much about; once my mother joined us it would be strictly veg plus egg dishes for me. I tried various things with the greedy wonder of a kid in a large toyshop, but the best meal came on the evening my father had gone to Paris to pick up my mother. Roland, the French gent who’d invited us, decided it was time to show me what real French cooking was about.
I accompanied Roland and a group of his friends. We came to a nondescript door and a man wearing an apron led us down into a basement. There were a few simply laid tables and everything was the opposite of the fancy, curlicued, grand French restaurant I’d imagined. The patron embarked on a long discussion with our party. Then he went away and returned with a few bottles of red wine. Roland showed me a bottle. “Look. The label is not printed but written by hand. Just the vineyard it comes from and the year. This means it’s the wine the wine-grower keeps for himself, so it’s possible it is really, really good!”
Perhaps you can map each life by the intense ecstasy points a person has experienced. The first taste of a sweet dish; the first time you hear a great musician live; seeing the first shot a batsman plays in what will turn out to be an epic innings; the first clear sight of Himalayan peaks; the first proper kiss; the first time you take a car up to a high speed on a clear highway; the first sentence of a book that ensnares you and changes the way you see life. My first gulp of red wine was nothing like any of these. It was also nothing like I’d expected because each sip, each gulp, seemed to taste slightly different, some new element coming in on the tongue, something else being taken away from the top of my mouth. If I expected to be jolted into drunkenness I was disappointed; the liquid kept going down nicely and inviting the next sip. After nearly three glasses, I was feeling masterful.
As I stood up to go to the loo, I found the ground was quite tilty. Roland and his friends were laughing—at me. Then they were cheering and raising their glasses in French. Roland pushed away my glass. “Now no more till you eat something.” I began to protest but suddenly the table was loaded with dishes. My plate had an oblong of dark brown, slightly charred in places, in a lovely looking gravy, and some beautiful little orange cones next to it. “What are these?” I asked. “Carrots, but baby ones. And you said you wanted to taste a steak so this is perfectly cooked steak. This man makes the best steak in Nancy.” Roland took the shining slab of meat and sliced it into bite-sized cubes. After I’d eaten a bit, Roland said, “Now taste a bit of the wine.” I did and was shocked at how many more flavours the same wine now released into my mouth. And, when I ate another forkful of the steak after sipping the wine, it was equally startling how the taste of the meat intensified. It would be a while before I tasted steak or wine of that quality again.
Growing up in India, I had many local comestible pleasures awaiting discovery. In the vegetarian compound of my childhood, Bengali food was regarded as alien and altogether dangerous, where almost everything could be booby-trapped with some taboo fish or meat element (“My god, they even put fish-heads in their dal!” was one horror-loaded lament.). The sweets were another matter, of course, because even Bengalis couldn’t contrive to non-vegetarianise their great rossogolla, shondesh and mishti doi. As to everything else, the pungent smell of mustard oil seemed always to be accompanied with the stink (as I ‘saw’ it) of fish. As I began to be invited to Bengali friends’ houses for meals I realised that there was a lot more to Bangla ranna, not least the fact that it is one of the most sophisticated vegetarian cuisines in the world, rightfully able to sit next to Gujarati and Tamil vegetarian cookery.
Eating was one thing, cooking food was something else. Till my early 30s I had no truck with kitchens except to duck in to make the occasional omelette. Once I began to get my hands dirty, all sorts of food things separated themselves from the mysterious and ineffable and became legible components. I began to recognise the smell of garlic and onions frying in mustard oil and separate them from pescatarian olfactory ghosts. The poppy seed that coated alu posto or the mustard seed paste for chorchori (the pastes always made on my mother’s silbatta and never in an electric grinder) separated into specific taste-colours, even as I was transported back to the mesh of mysterious spicing the first time I had this or that torkari, or luchi and kosha mangsho.
Olive oil, so woven into the first proper pizza I tasted in New York and in all the pasta dishes, now developed specific smells and behaviour. Different kinds of extra virgin olive oil began to colonise parts of my food memory: the first time I ate a simple tricolore salad of tomatoes, mozzarella and basil leaves, the whole thing brought into pungent focus by a dressing of extra virgin o.o., balsamic vinegar and mashed garlic; the peppery and simultaneously mango-like hit of a particular cold-pressed oil from Sicily on strips of grilled courgettes and aubergine, the sweet and capery unctuation of another x.v.o.o. around a ball of burrata cheese.
Not trusting my limited palate, I asked the master-chef of a top Indian hotel about tasting mango in olive oil. “You’re not wrong at all,” he said, “Certain kinds of olive oil are very close to the mango in the taste circle.” The taste circle? The chef explained to me that just as there is a colour circle with all the shades forming a continuum on a ‘disc’ so there is a taste circle which encompasses the main tastes the tongue experiences. Tastes find themselves with strange neighbours on this circle and one of the most exciting things a cook can do is to play around with these connections and contrasts.
A much-quoted line of T.S. Eliot goes: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” I sometimes think I’ve moved from my first complex food ghetto into a series of them, one after another. In this migration, all kinds of tastes, smells and memories constantly play snakes and ladders. Gujarati food is often accused of being too sweet, but when you look at the quarrel between Ghoti Bengalis and Bangal Bengalis you wonder: the Ghotis use sugar liberally in their cooking while the Bangals will do it surreptitiously. Leave aside the Gujjus, when you look at French food and wine and see the constant, amazingly balanced arguments between different kinds of sugars, you have to laugh. There is Japanese umami, and there is also the umami of a val ni dal or in the fermentation of a hadvo or an idli batter or in a thogayal of chow-chow. There are the different roles that bitter taste plays across the world, from alcohol to arugula to the crazy Bengali brilliance of young neem leaves fried to a crisp and then sprinkled over different dishes in April and May, to the deep childhood place that a karela nu shak takes me. There is the surprise and the obviousness in the connection between the taste of a perfectly done rare steak, the centre almost blue, the outside caramelised, and the smell and taste of the best ghee. I may have no memory of any taste from my mother’s milk but every now and then some flavour, some texture will ambush me and take me right back to the beginning of my life and the first shocks and pleasures of learning the alphabet of eating.
This essay was published in the July-September 2019 issue. The theme of the issue was Memory.