Tell us about your favorite childhood meal — the one that was always a treat, that meant “celebration,” or that comforted you and has deep roots in your memory. Today’s twist: Tell the story in your own distinct voice.
I’ve always been at a loss explaining to people about my roots . After years of staying in Delhi, we have adopted a Punjabi way of living. But along with the identity comes a judgement of the food we eat. Whenever I travel, curious women ask me what food I could cook with the intention to swap recipes. Was it Dal Makhani or was it Punjabi Chhole? Neither? Why?They would be disappointed with a hint of suspicion that maybe I was withholding the recipes. Was I not a Punjabi? Was I not from Delhi? I then would go into a short explanation of my roots which sadly
was is limited till my great grandmother. She belonged to a Durrani family from Central Asia and has apart from the food recipes, left us with some stories about uncles with blue eyes. That I am an Indian Hindu is still a mystery to me and most of my cousins I gather, have given up thinking about the strange gene pool.
Religion apart, my mother’s side has always prided themselves on the food.
“Our food is very different” my mom would say, with a sense of pride.
My aunts would nod in silent agreement, sighing about the old times.
We were also fond of entertaining and the house would be filled with guests quite often. At a lunch party, lavish helpings were continuously served to the guests till they would clutch their tummy and complain. It was a great source of embarrassment (and sadistic entertainment) for us kids, as the cornered guest, visiting for the first time, would look towards us with pleading eyes as if to be saved from this situation of being over fed. We could do nothing more than smile slyly and continue picking on our food.
According to my mother, it was a form of offense to the guest, if he was not continuously served with the choicest dishes. But there was a catch, the informed guest also needed to keep refusing some of the helpings served else it would appear rude to the host being confronted with a gluttonous guest. Whew!
Few could but resist the lavish spread. Two types of chicken were generally offered, one with a curd base and the other, with a tomato-onion base. Mutton Roganjosh was also cooked, with a deep red gravy of Kashmiri red chilli and offered as the main dish. Rajma (kidney beans), Cottage Cheese in thick gravy, called Chaman, (sometimes made along with green peas); a light Saag (Spinach) with or without Shalgam (turnips); fried Cauliflower and Dum Aalo (roasted potatoes in yoghurt) were the other accompaniments. Nadru (Lotus stem) would sometimes find its way to the table, when a gracious guest coming from Kashmir would bring it. But the main dish was always the mutton or chicken dishes. Along with a lot of white steaming rice flavored with cinnamon, cardamon, bay leaves; and sprinkled with raisins and cashew nuts for a more special occasion.
My mother later started adding north Indian staples like Dal (pulses) and dry seasonal vegetables, though reluctantly, for the unknown guest’s food palate; along with the Chapatti/Roti, a staple in the plains. Not less than ten different dishes, welcomed the “lunch” or the even more special “dinner” guest. You needed an iron strong will to resist any of the spread. Whatever was leftover of the main meal, and always plenty, would be parceled off as a token.
Having experienced this as part of my childhood, it was shocking when I got married and was faced with oily parathas and dal, subzee (dry vegtable) -Roti combination which was eaten each day of the week. I could not fathom the side dishes that once were placed at the periphery of my mother’s lunch table, were the food that I had to eat everyday. You weren’t goaded at the dinner table to eat a special this or that. The special day would be Sunday, when a Rajma (kidney beans) or a Chhole (chickpeas) would be cooked with a gravy and boiled rice to go with it.
Ten years from then, I have my own place and we have a guest home. Following my mother’s principle, I laid six or seven dishes in front of him, unsure what he would enjoy eating. Both he and my husband were overwhelmed by the spread.
“He is just interested in eating home food.” said my husband, his cheeks turning a red; whether it was pride or embarrassment I could not make out.
“Yes,” agreed my guest. “I would be happy with just that.” He said pointing at a dish. The dish was an unassuming Dal that I had dished out as a last minute extra.
I smiled and remembered my own childhood experiences. Over the years my mother and most of my aunts have stopped eating the lavish fare that used to adorn their dinner tables decades back. They cite health reasons.
“Too much oil”,
“Not suitable for this(plains) climate”,
“That was for hilly mountain regions” ….
I wonder whether it was the lack of appreciation they got due to their unusual feeding customs or not being able to whip up ten dishes effortlessly with age catching up. What remains is memories and an aroma filled with cinnamon, cardamom and bay leaves. Tough to replicate today. I wouldn’t even try.
A Writing101 exercise