Another too-hot-to-be-outside kind of the California afternoon forces me to grab a book and settle down on the couch. The Mango Season by Amulya Malladi. I turn the first page and the recipes start pouring. I am not ready to read yet another novel by a desi author who serves stories with food. Growing up with a mother who was an avid reader of female authors, it was almost impossible to miss clichéd lines like, “Rashmi cut the potatoes and onions to season the bisi bele bhat that she was making specially for Rajat who was coming home after a long time. Rajat said no one else in the world could prepare the dish the way his big sister did. Rashmi added the spices while the happy memories of childhood days surrounded her.” Then there is Kamila Shamsie who marinated the story of grandmas and dard-e-dil with the not-so-twin spice and simmered and seasoned it with Masood and Mariam Apa’s unusual love story. Except for an Imad Rahman (“I dream of microwaves.”) here and there, desi authors still haven’t moved beyond the traditional spice saga.
Here in my hands is The Mango Season that promises much more, an actual recipe instead of the good old dining-table and kitchen references and the spinning of situations around them. I wonder if I ought to give the book a chance. The avakai recipe, the avial recipe, and the curd rice recipe. Gathering courage for yet another expedition of the curries, I read it, and am glad to have done so. For once, the recipes mean something. Most of the story revolves around characters that spend time in the kitchen, sometimes spicy like the mango pickle, sometimes bland like avial with a minimum of spices. Compromises are made and conflicts resolved while mixing curds with leftover rice. And of course, the unforgettable line: “You can’t make mango pickles with tomatoes.” I wonder why we are so indulgent about food. Why does every Indian-American author feel that she is the culinary ambassador of the spice land? Just like the brown skin, it is as if talk of browned spices is indispensable for us.
Dining and Entertainment
The new wave of American Desi movies shoving bland ham-and-cheese samosas down throats. Dharmendra’s favorite gajar ka halwa and Sunny Deol’s kheer talk. The “mooh meetha karo” episodes. The dining-table squabbles. Hero washes off his hands in the plate, indicating that he is done with his dad and zooms away to the next scene while “ma” can stop neither son nor husband. Hero abruptly ends his meal and goes on a mission while mom or wifey sheds a tear or two while a sad ghazal plays in the background. From Rajendra Kumar to Shah Rukh Khan, they all are obsessed about one thing—ma ke hath ka bana khana. And every movie or tele-ma always offers a laddoo after the daily puja dose. (How she manages to be a supermom and superwoman who can sing prayers in her calmest voice dressed in her best zardosi sari hardly before sunrise is another story.) Before our dapper hero or pretty petite heroine dashes off to college, ma is always heard saying, “khana to khati jao.”
Moms and Food
Every weekend you call home and the first question you end up answering invariably is what you ate and what you cooked that day. While parents nowadays are modern enough to accept that we eat out most of the time, they still need to know what you ate.
Two girlfriends talk, and there is food. Small talk depends on the level of intellect, the culture, the circumstances, and context. And food. You can’t stop it. Think about the last conversation you ended without talking about the latest South Beach or low-carb diet, Diet Coke or Diet Pepsi, lean meat or mean meat, mood swings or mood foods, pounds or calories. Your favorite cuisines and, of course, restaurants and dishes you can vouch for. Just an allotropic form of the eternal food jabber.
With desi friends there are three levels of food talk. Food and movies for the intellects, like Broadway shows and the $700 caviar omelette in some upscale restaurant. The second group can go non-stop about Nagesh Kukunoor and Italian cuisine, about Hyderabad Blues and creamy pasta sauces. And then there are some who just love to describe every detail of the zardosi sari Kajol wore in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Ghum over a plate of steaming-hot homemade samosas with fresh green chutney. Not to forget those earnest queries about who cuts the vegetables, what are the spices in the phodni, how many times a week you cook, and what do you do to eliminate freezer burns.
Guys and Exotic Meals
Two guys meet and there is a barrage of Banglore MTRs and Poona Zaykas. The filter coffees and the masala chais. Idli-dosas and spicy chats. West-coast sizzlers and east-coast sauces. The weak economy did force the guys to talk of something other than IPOs, restaurants, and real estate for a couple of years, but good days are back again. Now that the job market has improved and the restaurants are affordable again, guys are talking about exotic food and restaurants again.
And, of course, ask any guy about mom, and you’ll get the inevitable reply, “Oh, I miss all the good food my mom cooked.” As a wife you are first enraged that in spite of all your culinary experiments and expertise, he still misses his mom’s special dish. On the other hand, you are annoyed that he misses only the food and not the love and care the old lady offered non-stop.
Craving Hot Rotis
Women have finally broken the shackles of the kitchen but food still binds us. No matter where we are on the corporate ladder, we are still concerned about cholesterol levels in the cafeteria food and junk foods in vending machines at the kids’ schools. We know how little time a career-driven girl has to learn the art of simmering and sizzling. Yet, prospective desi husbands (anywhere in the world) feel free to quiz her on culinary intelligence.
My dad told me, “Learn to cook what you crave for.” I remember telling him that when mom could hire a servant to roll chapatis for the household, I would hire a full-time cook when I got married and didn’t need to waste time on cooking and cleaning. But when I crave for a simple dinner with soft and hot rotis off the tava and spiced dal in my California kitchen, I know exactly what he meant. Food and the art of cooking are indispensable.
Oh, and before we forget the leaders of the nation and their food obsessions, let me tell you that ragi mudde owes its name and fame to the former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda and that Laloo Prasad Yadav savored the dal-chaval cooked by none other than Madame Chief Minister Rabri Devi in his jail days. Atalji loves spicy food. Lal Krishna Advaniji loves rasmalai! How do I know? Food talk with celebrities, courtesy NDTV. A few days in the office, and Mrs. Singh will spend a day with NDTV talking about Dr. Singh’s favorite parathas and pickles.
It is not that I haven’t caught a glimpse of Emeril Lagasse go “Bam” with the garlic and cayenne or chefs struggling to balance the five-foot-tall cakes on Food TV channel, but desi food prattle is invincible! For us food is mainstream. Not just another channel of life.
Meghana Joshi is an architect who lives in Pasadena, Calif.