My earliest gustatory memory is potatoes. Boiled, peeled and sprinkled with salt, my carb/vegetable fix as a toddler. Non-spicy and oh-so-divine. Later, the weekly Sunday lunch of fragrant basmati rice, aromatic chole and fried papads, eaten while watching one of the Sunday serials on Doordarshan (Mahabharat?). Numerous memories of cold curd rice with naarthagai (most of them associated with recovery from bouts of viral or suffering through morning sickness, when it was the only meal I could retain). My mom’s koottu is, in my humble opinion, world-class, and I am yet to replicate the exact same taste in my kitchen.
My kids (who call my mom, Naani) had the good fortune of being at the receiving end of her cooking almost every day, for 5 years. Even now, my teenage son will view a simple sandwich prepared by me with great suspicion. "Is it naani sandwich?”, he will ask, to my fuming self. Naani sandwich, naani paal (milk), naani dal are the gold, nay, diamond standards, as far as my kids are concerned.
I used to ask my mom, in great frustration, how it was possible that the humdrum Bournvita milk tasted better than the one prepared in my home. Apparently, my kids could detect a quality difference! What was the secret ingredient? Her answer was shattering in its irritating brevity. “Love”, she said. A retort designed to elicit a manic eye-roll from me, and much glee from my husband. Months later, as the latter churned out a perfect roti in the kitchen and I asked him how he managed it, he smiled and said: “It’s made with love”.
In my 40s, I have come to accept, if grudgingly, that it may indeed be love. Love - which is nothing but a judicious blend of infinite care and patience, tossed with generosity, seasoned with comforting familiarity. My strategy of rushing into the kitchen with the sole objective of rushing out in the shortest possible time, is usually adequate, rarely excellent.
When I was growing up, my friends from school/college used to troop in at all hours. My mother would press a meal on them, every time. It wouldn’t be fancy, just whatever we were eating at the time. If tiffin time - rava upma, bondas, idlis, dosai, or vermicelli - washed down with hot coffee or tea. If lunch or dinner - rice with rasam/sambar and a curry. But no one went away without a full stomach. She would even remember to call my friends if she was making something she knew they liked. After many years have passed, old friends will ask about mom first thing, fondly reminiscing about a meal they ate at my home.
I often wondered where she hid the Akshaya Patra which I was sure was around somewhere in her very Spartan kitchen, so effortless the whole undertaking seemed. She has always maintained she is “very slow” in cooking and expressed wonder at how "fast" others are. Yet for decades, she has fed her children’s friends, her relatives and random others who trooped through our house. Unfailingly generous, uncomplaining, she seems to consider it her duty to keep her family and friends well-fed and watered.
This obsession with food and eating well seems to have ended with that generation of mothers. I used to be alternately amused and annoyed with my grandmothers’ unrelenting focus on food. “Saaptiya?” was the usual greeting when one arrived home, whatever the time of day! Our mothers thought nothing of heading straight to the kitchen after a long day of work or returning home after a trip, or in the middle of the night when someone landed up from the airport and demanded food. In any of these situations, my generation (I am sure there are honourable exceptions) will either order out or fall back on Maggi!
The food was (and is) a proxy for - yes, you got it - love! Not one to hug or kiss and be otherwise demonstrative, this is the only way mothers would show their love and affection for their children and families. With my mom, in particular, it is just symptomatic of her endless generosity, empathy, selflessness and grace. Just as I remember my own grandma’s exquisite cooking, I am glad that my children will remember their Naani’s food with nostalgia and affection. Not just the complicated festival fare or the sweets, but also the humble dal and milk and sandwich!
To be sure, one of the biggest highs from a few months ago was when my son noted that my dal tasted just like my mother’s dal! Sadly, he hasn’t made the same observation again but it gives me hope :)