The Taste of My Childhood

By Ira Pande  

WHEN I WAS A CHILD, everyone I knew celebrated festivals the same way: in the family home with a variety of sweets and savouries made according to recipes jealously guarded by a grandmother. Days, often weeks, were spent in cutting, chopping, boiling, frying and storing these goodies to be shared with every neighbour and relative within reach. As children, we became willing couriers, ferrying large platters, covered with crocheted doilies, for the reward of a silver coin that awaited us at each end of the trip. My childhood was spent in Nainital, then a small, sleepy town high up in the Himalayan foothills and we lived literally on top of a hill. So let me tell you that today I wouldn't carry even a feather up and down those steep slopes for all the gold in Fort Knox. In any case, who makes those complicated (and unhealthy) sweets and savouries now?  

I now package these memories as popular bedtime stories to tell my wide-eyed grandchildren. And they are bestsellers: I barely finish one, when they beg another ("One more, please Ayya, tell us the one with the flowers!"). Since my grandchildren live abroad, additional information has to be provided ("Diwali is like your Fourth of July") to serve as cultural footnotes. Of course, there is an underlying regret for having surrendered something so vital as our language, dress and cuisine to another culture. But, if I can kindle a fairy world where food was cooked in huge pots and over firewood stoves, where spices were ground on stone grinders and water had to be stored because the kitchen had no taps, why not? In winter, I tell them, our cook had to melt snow to make the morning tea and their eyes become like saucers: this is better than Goldilocks's world, I can sense them think, triumphantly.

As I recycle my memories for more bizarre facts, I realize that what has also vanished with those day-long kitchen chores is the special flavour of slow-cooked food. Since pressure cookers were admitted into the kitchen by the Brahmin orthodoxy only in the early 1960s, our food was often cooked overnight to be ready for the morning meal. This was also the secret of the melt-in-the-mouth Awadhi dum-pukht food cooked overnight in huge pots with their lids sealed tight with dough. The dal makhni of Punjab is another delicacy, made smooth and buttery by being slow-cooked in a clay pot.

Try overnight cooking in a modern kitchen and the fire alarm will startle your neighbours out of their beds at night. I tried making parathas for my granddaughter in a fancy Los Angeles kitchen and by number two, just as she was waiting for her next one, the fire alarm shrieked so hard that I nearly had a coronary. The janitor came running and looked strangely at me as I sheepishly explained what had set off the alarm. After that, I did not even dare to try frying puris or making gujiyas to show off my culinary skills.

Recently, both my little granddaughters-the other one is half-Brazilian and lives in Rio-spent a month with me in our home here in India. Their demand for rotis, parathas, puris,dosas and idlis filled my Indian heart with pure joy. "Ayya," said seven-year-old Anvaya enviously as she chewed on a chapati, "How lucky you are that you eat like this every day!" Her parents, who are Californian vegans with many food fads, understandably forbid her from eating junk food, sweets and candies, except on rare occasions. Yet one day, when I allowed her to dip a sweet biscuit into a cup of morning tea with me, her expression of complete happiness melted my heart. So I decided that as long as she was with me, she could break every food taboo.My son almost blew a gasket until I explained to him that there must be one place in the world where a child can do as she pleases, else what's a holiday for? He gave in reluctantly but, truth be told, I wish young parents would heed this advice.

Somehow, our most vivid and warm memories are invariably those that are related to food and, often these are connected with the kitchens of indulgent grandmothers. I have never forgotten the taste of my grandmother's ambrosial dal, tempered with a Tibetan herb called jambu [used extensively in Kumaoni cuisine] laced with aromatic ghee and a dash of lemon juice. I remember fighting for that extra dollop of ghee in my dal (just like she served it to my boy cousins) and being told that too much ghee would make me fat and no one would marry me. However, I was the one she tucked in next to her every night as she told us hair-raising ghost stories. Even today, when I am unable to sleep at night, I conjure up the taste of that delicious dal, her soft tummy and the fragrance of the jasmine oil she exuded to retreat to a safe territory, where I am sheltered from all anxieties and cares. I am told that panic attacks can actually be averted by recalling happy memories: that dal must be mine!

I realize now what made those childhood feasts and festivals special: the access to all the forbidden food we never saw the rest of the year. It is precisely their unavailability, except on special occasions, that makes them worth the wait. That delectable plate of korma or seviyan sent by Mrs Khan, our neighbour, at Eid made our families friends for life. Similarly, her children waited for our gujiyas at Holi, and so were forged the bonds that transcended different faiths to last for ever.

Of course, we all miss our own families scattered all over the globe when we cook their favourite foods during festivals or at other times. So now I just send something my eldest one loved, to someone like him next door and glow with warmth when he calls up to say that he remembered his mother as he ate what I had sent.

Editor, author and translator, Ira Pande won the Sahitya Akademi award for her translation of the Hindi novella T'ta Professor into English in 2010.