As a kid of three or four, going to Casa Montessori in Bombay (now Mumbai), I would come home in the afternoon and wait eagerly for my lunch, which had to include tomato soup. This soup differed from the thick creamy tomato soup that I relished in my later years. The tomato soup of my childhood had only tomatoes, peeled, boiled and mashed, creating a semi-solid consistency sweetened with a little bit of sugar. But oh! How I enjoyed that soup placed by my mother’s careful hands in a stainless steel katori (cup) from which I could easily sip, spoon after spoon.
Casa Montessori, my nursery school, was just around the corner from our apartment building. As I sat in the second floor balcony eating lunch, I could see the cars on the street, the crows perched in a line on the wires and once in a while, a candy-floss-maker on the pavement below. He stood spinning warm pink sugar into fluffy cotton like delicacies. We would troop down with our change and stuff our mouths with the warm sponge-like sugar.
My other requirement for lunch was what I called glass parappu, yellow lentils cooked in a pressure cooker in a steel davra (container). To the budding poet in me, the top crust appeared like a glass window-pane and so I nicknamed itglass parappu.
As a teenager, the favorite food I never had was ganna ras or sugarcane juice. The guy at the street corner store would crank long sugar cane stalks in a hand operated machine and pour out glasses of sugarcane juice that thirsty office workers, clerks, peons and manual laborers would gulp down. But my mother forbade me saying, “Look how many flies are sitting on the juice glasses.” The sugarcane juice stand being close enough to be visible from our apartment building, I felt that I would be caught if I indulged. How much I craved that thick, green, frothy, sweet fruit juice!
However, bhel puri in Kudere Park—with those horse rides for little kids—was another story. My friends and I sneaked there to eat the delicious spicy bhel. The street vendor added tamarind and coriander chutneys. I refused to consider how dirty the water may have been that was used in the preparing of the chutneys. But the memory of those spicy sauces, blended with the puffed rice and crisp mini puris and served in the recycled newspaper conical bowls, still makes me salivate. I was scared my mother would find out and that I would get jaundice. But the pull of the bhel was strong. Looking back, maybe that had been my one small act of teenage rebellion.
I still yearn for the foods my mother prepared especially now when she is no longer with me. My mind journeys back to her pearl onion sambar, and tomato and Amul cheese grilled sandwiches, and the way she made those sandwiches on the gas stove, filling the kitchen with the aroma of fried bread and melting cheese.
I picture the somases (made with maida flower and similar to samosas, though not quite) she crafted, filling those with dates and cashews and then braiding the flour puffs at the edges like plaits before frying them.
And, of course I recall the badam kheer that I had enjoyed with my maternal grandparents at Woodlands hotel on Marina beach in Madras (now Chennai). My mouth also waters remembering the kozhakattes, the rice flour and jaggery dumplings that my paternal grandmother used to make.
But most of all I long for my mother’s everyday cooking, including minor mishaps like her broken dosas. Whenever she made dosas for me—the lentil and rice flour crepes—the first one would invariably tear and break while I distracted her by telling her about my friends, my classes at college or complaining about how someone had treated me unfairly.
As I write this, I am transported back to that 12th floor kitchen, my mother lighting the gas with a matchstick and putting the tava on the stove to start making the dosa while I chatted about my day. Time slowed for both of us then. It did not matter that the kitchen felt hot or I had homework, or she needed to send clothes for ironing or cover my brother’s books with brown paper. Those were our private moments, the memory of those moments I cherish more today than the meal itself.
Since my husband left me, I cook for one and do not prepare more than a handful of the delicacies my grandmother and my mother taught me. But I still have the tattered black notebook with their recipes and I turn the pages over sometimes and read the recipes, recalling the taste and the emotions that accompanied each of the foods.
Roopa Ramamoorthi is a biotech scientist working in global health, and a poet. Her essays poetry and short stories have been published in various venues including a perspective piece on NPR, an essay in the book “She is Such a Geek,” in India Currents, Berkeley Daily Planet, Khabar and Konch.