Until recently, I didn’t realize that that used to be my routine when I returned from school every afternoon in wintertime. As a young schoolgirl, intentionally I’d slow my steps to inhale the aroma before knocking on the door, trying to guess what my mother had prepared for lunch. One whiff of the Ma-special potatoes and peas cooked in tangy mustard-oil with the bare-minimum of spices would make me smile from ear to ear. Those were also the pre-frozen-food days, when peas were available only from late October to mid-March or thereabouts; and peas in my lunch signaled wintertime. And trust me, no bag of frozen peas can compete with that heavenly fragrance of fresh peas shelled just before cooking. Or was it just the way Ma cooked it?
I would barely have the patience to take my off my bulky bag and change my clothes – yes, Ma was a stickler about this – and I would soon fall upon the shining plate of steel laden with the golden potatoes, shiny, sweet peas, and hot rotis gleaming with generous dollops of ghee. Heaven! “How often can you go on enjoying this?” Ma’s eyes shone with evident pleasure as the mound got smaller on my plate – true appreciation is definitely the speed of food disappearing from the plate after all! “Every day!” I would exclaim, chasing an errant pea across the plate. I meant it then, and I mean it now.
And then I’d go yet again – yay, baigan-bharta tonight, as the smokey, garlicky fragrance of this dish permeated the house again at night, as I huddled under the ‘razai’* (comforter), pretending to study, waiting for Ma to call “Dinner!”
Is it just because I am a foodie or is it true for all of us that our memories are so intricately interwoven with fragrances from our mothers’ kitchens?
Another image which my mind never fails to conjure up is the rich, brothy fragrance of rajma, cooked during winter. On chilly dark nights, my grandpa and I were on our ‘moodhis’*, huddling around a squat, wooden stool on which stood a steaming vessel of rajma. At the other end of the small kitchen, gold bangles jingled as Ma’s plump arms got busy over the stove, rolling, baking one after the other – soft, fat rotia, anointing them with ghee, serving them as swiftly as any seasoned chef.
Usually, we sat and had meals together at the huge oval dining table but eating rajma was different; we ate rajma in the kitchen with piping hot rotis coming fresh off the stove. If rotis were served with a subji that I didn’t care for, then, I was capable of feigning feeling full after eating half a roti; but with rajma, I would happily devour three fat rotis and be ready for a fourth! Across the world, well at least all across India, rajma is almost always eaten with rice but until you’ve had it with crisp hot rotis, you don’t know what you are missing!
The special ingredient of a mother’s love aside, most of the food that we taste first comes from our mothers, and if one is especially lucky, as many in our generation were, also from our grandmas. You eat it, love it, and as your sphere of taste expands with shared or stolen bites from your friends, your extended families and of course, restaurants near and far, it recedes from your memory. But memory is funny and it’s not till you are really far from home when a stray fragrance from a window from the apartment above hits you like a ton of bricks and you are back in that kitchen from years past.
I now understand the pride a friend felt on making poori-choley in Germany. Poori-choley or chicken-rice or sambar-chawal or even the simplest aloo bhaat in a foreign land means so much more than the same dish prepared in India. And when you recreate a delicacy served during festivals, it is a major achievement all right!
Every Indian on foreign shores has felt that indescribable joy at discovering some special ingredient at the Indian store – thank goodness for them – and then, using it to recreate a special fragrance and aroma from back home. Oh, the joy and pride of creating something which tastes just like home!
Even though cooking has never been a big passion of mine, strangely enough, it kept me anchored in this new land even as I encountered many things to be quite different – the people, their accents, and their food. Every weekend I would throw myself into cooking. In the pressure-cooker hauled across continents, I rediscovered myself. When I cook, I improvise, trying to recreate tastes from home and rediscover an inner balance. As the fragrances and the warmth from the stove fill the apartment, I feel that I am home.
Madhumita Gupta is an English Instructor in Nebraska, a freelance writer and a children’s author.