Food has the power to make a difference every single day. To me, it can revive memories, restore indifferences and rejoice over the simple things in life.
When I first travelled alone to the United States from my hometown in Chennai, I was 16 years old and was absolutely petrified about doing everything on my own. The whole battalion of cousins, aunts and uncles and of course my parents were there to send me off. The one person who was a little worried about my safety and my eating habits was my grandmother. She had secretly tucked away a bottle of prawn oorgai (pickle) in my suitcase, lodged between piles of old clothing, so that it wouldn’t break during the journey. My biggest fear was not getting the smell of pickle on my clothes but the thought of an airport official confiscating it from my luggage. If that had happened, I knew I would have lost a little piece of my heart. That was my jar of happiness.
The first 2 weeks in a foreign land gave me a sense of excitement and wonder. I was just caught up in the moment of trying new things, especially the food of that country. The next few weeks, everything seemed to taste the same, the experiences, the food — all boring and bland. That’s when homesickness kicked in and my whole being was aching for a simple meal of rice, sambar (lentil stew) and poriyal (vegetable stir-fry). The prawn oorgai saved the day for me. A spoon of that and I was in food heaven.
This “food memory” is a well-known phenomenon that all of us experience in our lives.
Through smell, taste, texture and visual appearance, food can connect you to your cultural roots and your childhood. It takes you back home to where it all started…
Food takes me back home
The evocative nature of family recipes is that it follows particular rhythms and rituals in the kitchen that’s powerful enough to build bonds, reconnect with abandoned parts of ourselves and connect to our ancestral roots.
As a teenager, I travelled a lot abroad and those meal mixes and pickles were the ones that came to my rescue every time I wanted a taste of home.
Food tethers all of us to our homeland when we travel or move away to a different city or country. It’s the most tangible thing that we create every day but take for granted.
I remember my childhood days when I visited my grandmother during the summer holidays in Yercaud. This quaint little hill station is a 45-minute drive from Salem town in Tamil Nadu.
As the car made its way through the bends and curves of the ghat roads, I was greeted with the sights, sounds and smells of lavender coloured trees called Jacaranda, coffee plantations and the majestic beauty of the Shevaroy Hills.
My stay there was filled with fun, frolic, food and of course the close company of relatives who came from near and far. My grandmother always used to say that April showers will bring forth May flowers. I never quite understood that term as a child but then realised as I got older that she was talking about her coffee plants. They were strategically placed on the slope of a tiny hill overlooking her bedroom window. The plants would be ready to pick only during the months of May and June after the April rains. Some mornings I would wake up to the sounds of the estate workers plucking away the fruits of the coffee plants. The aroma that wafted through the clean mountain air is something that I will never forget. From bean to brew, my grandmother would oversee the work of removing the pulp from the coffee seeds, drying it in the sun after rinsing it out, roasting the seeds and grinding it into powder.
It didn’t stop there for her. She would invite neighbours and friends over for an afternoon snack just to give them cups of steaming hot coffee in brass tumblers. If coffee can be a conversation starter, food also has the power to unite people at the table.
Food brings people together
Preparing ingredients in an open kitchen, scraping and stirring large kadais and clay pots, the smoke arising from the firewood stove and my grandmother’s smile as she talked and served food to all of us — this is my food memory.
My love for food comes from my grandmother. She would see to it that every one of us got a taste of our favourite dishes. For me it was her Sundiya, a special meat delicacy from Thanjavur, which usually takes hours to prepare.
As I grew older, my food influence was a mishmash between so many different things — my passion to try something new and my grandmother’s legacy to live up to. I discovered that I wanted to stay rooted to the food knowledge of my childhood. This is where I found peace, joy and contentment.
As I recreate recipes from my mother’s and grandmother’s kitchen, I was a strong believer that authentic taste and flavour cannot be packaged. It has to be recreated in your kitchen with ingredients that you are familiar with and that’s native to your region. Well…I was wrong.
This ideology was broken a few months ago, when I tried out a masala packet from a brand called Annapoorna Masalas & Spices. I was introduced to this particular brand through my boss from Madarth Agency in Chennai. As a zealous foodie and home cook, I was excited to try out their products. True to their messaging, the brand has lived up to its name. That was the first time I found something in a packet that I was passionate about. That was my “wow” moment, because the tastes and flavours connected me back to my childhood. For the first time in my life, my mother and I are on common ground. We didn’t just come together over a plate of food but also a product that talks about uniting people through food.
My grandmother will be pleased to hear…