Anton Ego scornfully digs his fork into what looks like a ubiquitous but flavourful dish of ratatouille. Within an instant, his life flashes by him and he’s transported to a memory from his childhood days when a young Ego would delightfully gorge on the “peasant-dish” that the ratatouille is considered. The scorn dissipates and he’s left with a heady mix of nostalgia and the “perspective” he had ordered off the menu.
That’s the power of food. And that’s what makes it such an integral part of one’s consciousness. This scene from Ratatouille — a film that encapsulates through its rat protagonist Remy the notion that anyone can cook — defines the very indelible link between food and memories.
During the planning stages of my book Karwar to Kolhapur via Mumbai, I was a bundle of confusion. Armed with pages and pages of recipes from my community, my marriage and my life experiences, I sat down to systematically collate them only to find that they seemed soul-less without the various stories that brought me to them in the first place.
For instance, among my greatest associations with chicken ghee roast and steamed fish in raw mango chutney is a picnic my family went on with my mama, my maternal uncle in Karnataka.
My uncle, who was a government doctor, was stationed in Bellary and we would visit him during the holidays from time to time. On one such trip, he decided to take us on a picnic to the Tungabhadra dam near a town named Hospet. The two-hour drive from home ran parallel to a few lush green forests until we reached a breath-taking spot on the dam that towered over a tributary of the Krishna river.
I don’t quite remember much else about that day besides the staggeringly vast body of water and the shiny crystal-like stones I collected as mementos from that picnic. But the meal that followed was unforgettable. The tangy whiff of the mango chutney and the freshness of the fish served as a stark contrast to the earthy flavour of the ghee roast that enveloped the chicken pieces.
Even today, these dishes take me back to the time spent on the dam and remind me of the stones I had so gleefully collected. They provide a unique perspective (borrowing from Ratatouille) and ingrain the delicacy as a sensory experience.
So I was in two minds about putting together a cookbook. Should I leave out the memories and simply collate a cookbook that’s an ode to my roots or should I transfer my deep-rooted reminiscences onto a literary format using food as the catalyst? Can the two be mutually exclusive? Yes, they can; but would I then be able to relate to what I’m doing? Probably not.
Tracing one’s culinary influences is like time travelling through Middle Earth. Context is just as important the content because the process of cooking itself is as much about measurements as it is about immeasurable joy. While popular notion of comfort foods is restrictive, each individual goes back to their childhood or a stage in their lives that links joy with relief. A customised bowl of ready-to-make noodles, a plate of masala curd rice or a quick-fix chicken salad serve the same purpose for different people; to create a sense of instant relaxation that tags a memory.
Even today when I have crab curry, I am reminded of the time many moons ago when my father came home one day with what seemed like a sack of 100 jumping crabs. On one rainy evening when we were grounded at home as Aai (mom) didn’t want us to get wet and fall ill, our driver Felix came up with a sack of something. Behind Felix was Baba standing with a big grin on his face. It felt very odd. The sack was moving and we were wondering what on earth Baba had gotten home. Normally it would be fish (loads of it), vegetables, or flowers.
Baba didn’t say anything in spite of being questioned multiple times about the wriggling bag and instructed Felix to go straight to the kitchen. We followed him with the wonder and excitement toddlers associate with circuses, completely unprepared for the drama that would ensue in the kitchen.
Baba then shut the kitchen door, masquerading as a magician in the kitchen he opened the sack and Lo! what seemed like a hundred crabs just scampered out of the sack. In no time, they were all over our kitchen. I quickly jumped on a chair while Baba, his brother (Kaka) and Felix chased the ones that escaped. After a lot of commotion, the trio was triumphant about catching all the crabs that were on the run. Baba announced that he now planned to clean the 100 crabs and cook them. Aai flatly refused to help. So the men sat down in the kitchen to painstakingly clean the fresh catch amidst yelping sounds that were a result of snapping crabs.
Two hours later, I was eating the most decadent crab curries I have eaten ever since. And for years to come, my association with crab curry will always take me back to that commotion in the kitchen.
Tracing my culinary journey is like sifting through a photo album or listening to your iPod on Shuffle mode. Recipes like songs or photographs, are sensual, unfailingly reminding you of a bygone time. After all, you are what you eat.
Smita Deo makes her literary debut with the autobiographical cookbook Karwar to Kolhapur via Mumbai