That Madeleine moment
We all have food memories that take us effortlessly back to the past
I don’t know about you, but I rather relish the prospect of room service breakfast at a posh hotel. There is something so glamorous about being served on a starched, white table-cloth with a red rose standing stiffly to attention on the side, while a gloved waiter pours you a nice cup of coffee. And what could be more decadent than having someone squeeze a glass of fresh orange juice and cook a nice French toast for you (note to self: must get out more!) first thing in the morning?
Though I usually go for the more sinful options when it comes to hotel breakfasts – bring on the pancakes, the waffles and the parathas – last Sunday I decided to go for the (relatively) healthy option and ordered akuri. For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure, this is basically Indian-style scrambled eggs seasoned with lots of onion, ginger, tomato, and green chillies, and liberally garnished with coriander. It is usually served with toast but on this occasion the chef sent it with a Bombay-style pau (the kind that makes up one half of pao bhaji).
I stuffed a generous dollop of the eggs between two halves of the pao and popped a generous mouthful in. As the buttery eggs coated my tongue and the ginger and chilli hit the back of my throat, I was instantly transported back in time. With just one bite, I was taken back to my days as a callow, young sub-editor on her first job, who kept herself fortified for the long nights of page-making with a double-roti and omelette sandwich in the ABP canteen in Calcutta.
And even though the akuri was perfect – just on the right side of runny, creamy and unctuous, at that moment I would have killed for the sandwich of my misbegotten youth, oily junk food though it might have been.
Now, I don’t want to get all Proust – remember his Madeleine? He certainly did – on you on a Sunday morning, but it is strange isn’t it, how some kinds of food suddenly evoke a memory so strong that you find yourself going back in time? Which bring on such a craving that you can’t think of anything other than their taste, their smell, and how you can best replicate them?
Like most people, my food memories are rooted in my childhood. I still remember the taste of those tiny, pink berries that I would tear off the tree in the back garden, having slipped away to investigate the vegetation as my mother undertook her afternoon siesta. If I close my eyes and think back, I can still taste the shingara (that’s samosa to all you non-Calcuttans) and jalebi that used to be my holiday breakfast as a child. The coconut-jaggery prasad that used to be served on Janmashtami has assumed near mythic status in my mind. And nothing tasted quite as good as the churmur chaat that we used to eat during the break in school, with the chaatwallah slipping it under the school-gate like the contraband it was (having been outlawed by the nuns, like everything else that made life worth living).
As you can tell, most of my food nostalgia is Calcutta-related: the puchchkas in front of New Market; the jhaal-muri outside Loreto College; the dosas of Jyoti Vihar; the junk Chinese served up in Chung-Wah, the official canteen of all ABP employees back in the day; the biryani of Shiraz; the rolls of Nizam.
As they say, you can take the girl out of Calcutta; but you can’t take the taste of Calcutta out of the girl. (And please don’t send me irate letters about how it is now Kolkata; it will always be Cal to me.)
But even if you discount my food memories of Calcutta, there is still a vast swathe of things that I feel nostalgic about. The home-made idlis that a former colleague would bring to work (paired with the most divine gunpowder and green chutney); the chilli con carne I once had in a Washington restaurant; the pad Thai served up at a roadside stall in Bangkok.
There is certain pattern to food nostalgia. Britons living abroad often long for a taste of Marmite as a reminder of home. Americans express a craving for steak or the barbeque sauce of their childhood. Italians long for sun-dried tomatoes and a good olive oil. And the French turn up their noses at any cheese that doesn’t stink like the ones they grew up on.
Ask any random sampling of Indians living abroad what they are most nostalgic about and the phrase ‘dal-chawal’ will drip off most tongues. And I can totally relate because when I come back to India after a vacation abroad, the first thing I want to eat is dal-chawl with a nice spicy pickle and lots of roasted papad and lashings of raw onion.
Within India, food nostalgia can be rather region-centric. Rare is the Punjabi who isn’t nostalgic about the kadhi-chawal or rajma-chawal or aloo-vadi that his mother or grandmother made. Bengalis tend to wax eloquent about their fish curries or shukto. Gujaratis bang on about the fluffy dhoklas and the perfect theplas that their Maharajs turned out in their ancestral homes.
As for me, I still fantasize about the double-roti omelette, the shingara-jalebi, and the puchchkas of my youth. And I often wonder if they would taste just as great in real life as they do in my dreams. Or whether remembrance has given them a flavour that they never possessed in reality.