by Smitha Murthy
Smita’s essay first appeared in Hippocampus Magazine, and appears in episode 41 of The Dirty Spoon Radio Hour.
The sun breaks out for just a moment, drawing light away from the clouds. It’s the monsoon that is hanging heavy this late in September. The kitchen and the dining room are flooded in that brief moment, illuminating the table that is meant for four but is set for six. One of us will adjust, as we always do, making do with balancing a plate on our lap. From the pooja, or prayer room, that’s just behind, a bedecked elephant God, Ganesha, to all of us blinks contentedly from where he is perched, modaks and kadubu set in prayer in front of him.
As I walk into the kitchen the sunlight fades and, instead, the harsh tube light illuminates the steadily humming chimney hob. Smoke fills the air from the heavy kadai my mom is presiding over. The oil is scalding as she makes a small ball from the batter in front of her. It’s the Ganesha festival today, and lunchtime is ‘round the corner — and I, as always, am getting ready for my main role in our family: the chief taster.
I spoon some batter for the spicy lentil mix, or ambode, into my hands. My mom slaps my wrist, but I can’t resist even as I watch her press the batter between her hands and drop it into the sizzling oil. The spicy mix is flavored with green chilies, coriander, asafoetida, and that indescribable ingredient that goes into so much of our family’s cooking. Is it love? Is it care? Is it home? Perhaps that’s the right word for it. Home. This food is home. And my home is food.
I grew up in a traditional South Indian Brahmin family in Bangalore. The kitchens of my childhood were always smoky — at first with the firewood and, then, later just smoky with the aroma of food. We moved from cooking with kerosene to buying our family’s first gas stove. Then came the more sophisticated “burners.” The old two-flame gas stove gave way to a surface where my mom could boil lentils, set the pressure cooker for rice, and simmer the sambhar even while making the seasoning. The aromas were spicy and the food spicier.
The ingredients were all hand-crafted: pounded and powdered with precision. Garlic was never used, and as a result, I would in my adulthood grow to love the aroma and taste of garlic. Eggs were meant for the dog and occasionally for my sister to condition her hair. Breakfasts were hot and spicy: steaming hot idlis or rice dumplings ladled with the greenest mint chutney or the crispiest dosas (savory crepes) stuffed with a potato mix were common. Lunch was always rice with curry and salad or vegetable fry. We would have it from our plastic dabbas, or containers: my sister, brother, and I at school, my father in the aircraft manufacturing plant he worked, and Mom at the government school.
Dinners were solitary affairs too, each of us immersed in our own private worlds. We usually never sat together, as a family, around the table. We ate separately—in our rooms, with our books, by the TV, or just as I used to, gazing at the chaos and noise outside as traffic flowed in maniacal patterns. Perhaps, I didn’t realize then the magic of food. Perhaps, we took for granted its textures. Perhaps, we ignored the care. Perhaps, we were just a busy middle-class Indian family that had to make do with every day. No one noticed.
But it would all change with a festival.
Festivals in our family weren’t grand affairs. There were no ornate displays. Our celebration lay not in dazzling fireworks or brilliant lights but in our food. Always the food. The first festival of the year was the Kannada New Year, or Ugadi, which takes place sometime in April. I was always the last to emerge for the morning prayer where my father would be waiting to hand me the bevu bella, the Ugadi tradition where you had to consume a mix of neem and jaggery. The bitter and the sweet, Dad tells me with a smile. The essence of life was distilled in this simple start. For lunch, the main meal of the day, we would sit together at the table. My mom and her help, our adopted sister, would serve us all. We would have guests every now and then. A brother-in-law joined us later. The steel plates in front of us. Occasionally, banana leaves, if we were lucky.
First, the payasam, or rice pudding. Tradition is to taste the sweet first, unlike the West where you have dessert later. Then followed a salad — soaked lentils with grated cucumber or carrots and always spiced with green chilies. Pickles by the side. Finally came the grand entrees. Sizzling ambodes, the outer crust giving way to the crumbly lentil mixture. Hot bondas, deep-fried gram flour with red chili powder and cradling a soft, potato mix. Spicy pakodas with the onions poking their ribs. The curries and the dips. The chutneys and the mixes. The food was part of the show. No. It was the show.
Here was home as I had always known it. Gentle conversation. Family gossip. Here, even the gossip was gentle. Somehow, the food mellowed everyone. We would accept scandalous “love marriages.” We would only briefly talk about a divorce. How about that cousin who married that Ukrainian? Food for thought? Perhaps for a minute. But it would pass. We would gently mull over these un-conventions in a society that prides itself on convention. I have always wondered at my family’s sense of acceptance — we wouldn’t ever have garlic at home — but we would accept inter-caste marriages, intercultural relationships, alternate lifestyles, divorces, adoptions, or mental illness in a society that still struggles to accept most of these.
We would argue over the obattu, the sweet flatbread. There were two varieties: either stuffed with jaggery or with coconut. I liked the jaggery. My sister and father preferred coconut, but all of us agreed on one thing: The flatbread had to be coated liberally with ghee. Only occasionally would my mom give in to my demands for the pancake with jaggery; she most often tried to please the “majority.” As a child, I viewed this as unfair, yet another indication of what I thought was the privileged status my dad and sister were accorded. For years, I simmered in resentment until the day, through another festival celebration, I realized we had never asked Mom what SHE preferred. Coconut, it turned out, when I did ask. My choice of jaggery — what I also assumed was Mom’s choice — would never have been the majority if she had only voiced her choice too.
Food, for my mom, was always to be given away. In the food she cooked, did she pour out all that she left unexpressed? In the luscious swirls of the kodbales where the deep-fried gram flour left imprints on our food-hungry souls for days. In the bisibele bath, that traditional hot lentil dish of my hometown that my Christian friend would take back to her house, deep-freeze, and have weeks later. That’s not how it should be had, Mom would cry out in shock. But that’s precisely how it should be had, my friend admonished me gently. It’s relished and cherished. Every last spoon, frozen or thawed. Years later, my friend would move to Germany, where she could no longer share our bisibele bath. There, the food left her frozen, pining for the warmer days in Bangalore. Send me your mom’s recipe, she would beg when the winter’s night was too long, and her heart ached for spice. My mother would be perplexed at this request. Because, you see, there was never a recipe. No app, no notebook faded with the jottings of years past. Just her memory. And, for us, the memories of her food.
Over the years, the people seated at our dining table for festival gatherings changed. My sister married. So did my mother’s help, our family’s all-encompassing guardian. My brother left for worlds we struggled to name, leaving us trapped in our little pockets of grief.
But then a nephew joined in, changing grief into hope. My sister always came for all of the festivals, the two of us clad in different clothes, but wearing the same soul. From the Ugadis and the festival of lights, Diwali to the Ganesh festival and Sankranthi — through all of them — the hot oil, the sweets, and the curries remained unchanged, their flavors no match for the ever-changing dynamics of our lives. Through them all, we aged, too, wearing our years on our hearts and lightly immersing our grays in the comfort of the black.
But perhaps nothing symbolizes age’s clawed hands more than my mother. Crippled and tired by a lifetime of fighting diabetes, her forays into the kitchen are restricted to lunch. No longer is she able to make the rich breakfasts that our relatives in New Jersey or New York would dream of. Instead, we order breakfast from another “Brahmin” family. Lunch is no longer an elaborate meal, and dinner is ordered out. Now that we can’t take food for granted, we miss it.
I feel unmoored, as if one anchor that has held me down amid the driftwood of my life’s mess has floated away. Will our festivals ever be the same again?
As I sit down at breakfast to have the fat dosas, tepid, dank, and moist from being carried inside the casserole dish from a kitchen outside this house, I long for the days when my mother would make the crispiest, crumbling dosas — back when I would grumble that it was not crispy enough. I think of the elaborate masala idlis, sprinkled with ghee and served on tiny banana leaves, all aching with the tenderness of the morning. I crumble to dust that memory as my fingers weakly break open the store-bought idli that has only plumpness to its name and none of that warmth.
I think of food’s march through my family’s past. I picture us huddled around a table, scant space and all, heat rising through the rice, wisps of smoky spice wafting through the hot sambhar. The sweet and the sour merging with the banal words of our conversations. I inhale the aroma of ambodes. I can smell each memory. Each festival. Each celebration.
I close my eyes then in that sweet ache of the past. I see that I am home.
Original artwork by Claire Winkler
About the Author
Smitha’s book “World’s Apart, ”published in 2012, is based on the real-life epistolary correspondence of two friends who hadn’t met. When not writing books or wondering about happiness on her blog, Smitha likes to drink many cups of tea, indulge in conversations about life and its many meanings, watch the rain, and just read.