I am not sure if everyone will relate to this but of late, my taste buds have re-discovered comfort in food I used to detest as a kid and a teenager.
As a kid, I was not too compliant with food. I was a notch higher than a picky-eater and there were instances when my Thatha would threaten to shove food down my throat if I continued to make a fuss. This spelt hullabaloo, followed by tears and my Paati valiantly trying to defend me from her intimidating husband. “Aapudi bezhamuduthandengo! Paavum kozhandai.” – “Don’t scare her! Poor child.” And of course most of my relatives correlate this to my weight, even now. “Sappudata epuudi weight poduva!” – “How will she put on weight if she doesn’t eat!”.
As I grew up, this practice began to fade gradually. I learnt to appreciate the characteristic tanginess of rasam and sambaar. As a six-year old, there were times when I would slurp rasam sadam (rice) from a mini-plate with gusto, just to see a smile of intense satisfaction spread across my grandpa’s face. Honestly, I loved exaggerating the slurps at times. Not only was his grin satiating, but also the whole slurping experience was fun. The adulation I received for merely finishing a meal was undoubtedly encouraging. “Kuuthu! Innu Kuuthhu! Mmmmmmm!” which translates to “Pour some more! More!” Soon, I could proudly tell everyone that potatoes were my among my favourite vegetables. Garam masala and onion-garlic paste were mandatory in most of the sabzis. I developed a taste for omelettes and scrambled eggs. Restaurants began to hold meaning for their gastronomic appeal rather than for their air-conditioned ambience. Though meat was taboo in our household, Thatha unscrupulously introduced me to the world of seafood and tandoori chicken (and I haven’t looked back ever since). Moreover, watching my baby sister happily guzzle mango pulp made me all the more curious about this fruit that had initially seemed revolting. By the time I was nine, Mum had introduced me to paani-puri and chaat, albeit with extra meetha chutney. All said and done, food definitely began to seem more appealing. However, apart from the enthusiastic slurping of rasam, the Tamilian in me hadn’t been stirred completely.
In our meals, rice, rasam, sambaar, kootu (vegetable stew), curd, urrugai (pickle), upma and yes, idli and dosai have always been regulars. Moreover, greens were, have and will always be omnipresent in every South-Indian preparation. Keerai (spinach), Pushanikai (Ash gourd), all types of beans, dudhi (bottle gourd), vendekai (okra), vazhakai (raw bananas), you name it, and it’s bound to be there in our cuisine. I had never been too fond of kootu and greens prepared in this style always eluded me. To put it in simple terms, kootu is a dish with minimal spice, predominated by a single vegetable. The taste of kootu is such that if you were to be subjected to it frequently, garam masala cravings would take over your taste buds. I could hardly understand the relish with which my mother ate keerai kootu, and I’m pretty sure her sensitivity towards my disdain was mutual.
In addition to this, I used to consider ravaa upma to be the most lacklustre breakfast dish ever (to know that it was THE winning dish in the Masterchef UK finals was disappointing). Idlis weren’t exciting, and after a point I lost interest in the good old dosai as well. Pongal was reserved for blocked noses and dormant taste buds. I didn’t understand the point of eating food from a banana leaf, whilst managing those rivulets of rasam and sambaar that formed along the veins of the leaf. Whatever happened to the good old steel plates?! Plus, eating a combination of cucumber raita mixed with rasam with traces of paaysam (kheer) had never been a palatable experience. Consequently, I never looked forward to Tamil weddings. My elitist food habits probably earned me the reputation of being the posh Tamilian in my family. Much to my friends’ shock, I felt South-Indian dishes were far from exotic. I was subject to questions such as “Dude how can you get bored of Dhosas?” *cringe* I had even gone to the extent of eating chana-masala from a fast-food joint in Chennai.
All this lasted till I was nineteen. This I say, owing to a change in my food habits afterwards. The change wasn’t overnight, definitely. It was gradual, and the earliest I realised this was when I ended up eating lunch at five in the evening. Little did I know that lemon rasam could actually quieten my stomach’s guttural tones. I couldn’t believe that I had actually enjoyed a humble home-made meal without onions and truckloads of masala. But then again, hunger is blind. I presumed this to be an once-in-a-blue-moon occurrence, only to be proved wrong again a week later, when a whiff of bhindi-do-pyaaza (one of my favourites) put me off instead of having me salivate. I was feeling ravenous after a day’s worth of hard work, but the only thing I could visualize was a crispy cheese dosa, sitting regally on a steel plate, surrounded by a bowl of sambaar traced with jaggery, and coconut chutney so smooth that even the world’s best bhindi-do-pyaaza wouldn’t do justice to it. I was probably being unfair to bhindi, but at the point I couldn’t care much about it.
There were, of course, many such episodes of sambaar/dosa/vada cravings that followed, some of them being fueled by chance encounters with South-Indian cooking shows on the TV. I partly owe it to them chefs for their minimalist choice of words to describe the process, in their Tamil-tinged accents. “Ippo namba molgai podi podlaam, slight-a, summa konjum colour kahai” – “Now we shall add some chilli powder, slightly, just to obtain some colour.”
However, I achieved a milestone when I helped myself with 3 servings of beans kootu and avial at my aunt’s place. The impeccable taste and texture of these dishes will be forever etched in my taste-buds. So technically speaking, I owe it to my aunt’s magical cooking for helping me discover the delights of our cuisine. Soon after, I began to look forward to Sunday meals, much to my mother’s relief. I learnt the art of eating out of a banana leaf, much to everyone’s amazement. Curd rice and pickle were reliable on lazy evenings and on bloated stomach days. In a nutshell, the graph of my food tastes began to show a significant rise with time.
I guess I have changed as a person over the past few years..and this is by no means a prelude to a long rant. What I want to say is that, my food tastes have evolved as well, simultaneously. I do not, by any means, consider myself to be an ardent lover of my regional cuisine. But I need it after a weekend of experimenting with other cuisines, or on days when the pungent odour of bhuna masala ambushes my nose. Yes, THAT.
A quote from a favourite short-story comes to my mind –
“The asparagus appeared. They were enormous, succulent, and appetizing. The smell of the melted butter tickled my nostrils as the nostrils of Jehovah were tickled by the burned offerings of the virtuous Semites”
(The Luncheon by Somerset Maughum)
Five years ago, the idea of asparagus had seemed totally revolting but now the aforementioned analogy serves as the ideal salivary stimulant. Mmm. Quick, serve me some asparagus.