I should not be writing about food.
I grew up in Shillong in the 80’s. I knew Khasi food and Bengali food and nothing else. I didn’t taste a Biryani or a Kabab till I was 16, while a Dosa was as exotic a dish as any I had ever tasted. Even today, I know nothing about ingredients and flavours and technique, I don’t know how dishes are created and made. In fact whenever I’m asked to judge a food award I feel surprised... because I’m not a food expert or food critic or food blogger. I’m just a guy who likes to eat (a lot)!
So why is it that I’m writing about food? Because contrary to what the experts claim, food isn’t really about just how it tastes, nor is it about how it is created. Of course these things are imkportant, but food is an experience that goes far beyond the sensory.
Close your eyes and think of the best food memory you have. What you remember is not how it tasted, but how it made you feel. Chances are your memory is closer to an aloo paratha in Karnal than a 5-Star meal, shared with people you loved, from a time in your life that was special. Food’s ability to blend memory, nostalgia and emotion, to transport you across time and place and relive the “feeling” of a moment and the sense of intense connection with the people you shared that moment with... this ability transcends taste. It allows food, like music, and like love, to form one of the bedrock emotional foundations of our lives.
When we think of the emotional experience of food, we are often transported to our childhood. However, my own experience tells me that the emotion of food has nothing to do with childhood or nostalgia but to the sense of discovery and freshness. Childhood is the one time in our lives when every experience is fresh, not completely hard coded into fully developed synapses. Whereas in our adult lives far too many of us have very specific tastes and likes and dislikes, favourites and touch me nots, rigid rules and strong preferences fused together with society and conditioning, having buried the openness to new experiences we have as children.
From the explain what I mean by the emotional experience of food. Last year in October I ate Thomas Zachariah’s Malayalee Duck Curry at The Bombay Canteen, made with his grandmother’s recipe, a silky smooth peppery curry with a perfectly cooked duck, crisp on the outside, moist on the inside. As I broke off a piece of egg appam and had my first bite I had to close my eyes. I felt transported to Kerala, I could see his “Amma” serving a bunch of mischievous children, I could sense the coconut trees around me. But this didn’t make sense! I’m not from Kerala. In fact, I’ve been there 4 times in 4 decades. The coconut and banana trees are miles removed from the pine scented hills of Shillong. Yet there I was, transported into an emotional memory, created by my imagination, triggered by taste, like a character in a Marquez novel.
Which brings me back to why am I writing about food. Because while I may not know anything about how food is made, I do know how food can make you feel, its ability to take you to a place of surprise and imagination or to the comfort of memory. I have spent much of my adult life creating these magical moments from the back streets of Nizamuddin to the world’s greatest . In a world where everything we consume is superficial, from the books we read to cookie clutter 5 Star beach resorts, food allows me to discover and explore aspects of the world that are hidden away, to have conversations with strangers that illuminate a culture, to create memories infused with happiness.
My father passed away in November and a week after that I had this great craving for a Spaghetti Carbonara, one that was finally satiated when the great Chef Gresham Fernandes sent some pasta across. I wondered later why Spaghetti Carbonara, because it literally had nothing to do with my memories of my father or growing up, in fact I don’t even like pasta that much! But then it struck me. 15 years ago, in my early twenties, my parents visited me in Bangalore. My career was just starting to take off, my parents were in good health and so I took them to a restaurant called 100 Feet in Indiranagar where I ate a spaghetti carbonara. It was a day I remember still, the future pregnant with possibility and the present suffused with pride and happiness, at the inflection point between youth and adulthood when the boy was not yet a man.
Without my knowing it and realising it, my craving took me back to the emotion of the moment, giving me, as I ate the pasta, a sense of fulfilment, gratitude and closure.. a reminder that for all of life’s vicissitudes we’ve been fortunate to live the lives we live and have the families we have.
That is the power of food, and that is why I write about it.