Come August and September, there is a chain of festivals that get triggered and that sets off a series of memories that transport me to a different world and era indeed.
I really really miss the smell of new clothes on festivals, dabbing some turmeric to something new before wearing it while your parents check and double (and triple) check on whether you have done it or not, what a celebration new clothes were because they signified a special day or event. Oh that hustle in a market that smelt of fresh jasmine and marigolds and kanakambri, camphor, agarbattis and banana leaves that heralded a festival! Or when it inevitably rained on your day out but nothing mattered, not even the fact that you parked roads and roads away from the shopping street because you could look at all the new dresses on display, the happy smiles on people out for shopping, wondering what their shopping bags contained. And finally that moment when you found something you liked and your parents remarked it looks good on you, the pride with which you watch your parents pay for it and clutch it tight all the way home only to do a dress rehearsal again. I do feel happy when I buy something new, but these shopping trips that happened before festivals and birthdays, occasionally will always remind me of gentler lighter times, of unbearable happiness and rich pride. So when I do wear something ethnic especially on a festive day, it takes me to those times even if it is for a brief moment and I feel ridiculously happy to have those memories to relive until we recreate them again, someday soon.
As if there are not enough reminders of how long it has been since my last meal in Mysore home, ma’s puLiyogre gojju/puLikaachal is now teetering between dangerously low and tearful levels. I am very good at making things last until my next trip back home usually but who am I kidding? The pandemic has thrown any semblance of such pride in the air. And am not over reacting. I can learn to make this myself and try to recreate ma’s presence like I do with a lot of my cooking but I refuse to. Not this time. Those dabbas of poDi and uppinkai and thokku and gojjus that I carry from home after my father carefully double and triple packs them and meticulously weighs them so I never have to suffer at the airport are my way of having ma in the kitchen, in those jars with their lids tightly shut only to be embraced every now and then, preciously, deliberately and very very conscientiously. There is a lot of love that goes into them, there is a lot of excitement in making them and a lot of satisfaction in them being being used to make a meal. Objectively speaking, making a great gojju or pickle is not something only mothers can do and yet to me, they are unparalleled. Colour me sentimental and overcome by an extreme longing for home, but what is my food without it?
I love how seasons speak to my soul through my taste buds and of course gut. I never knew growing up, that I would remember food and associate it with a lot of happy memories years on. But turns out, I very very happily do. For someone coming from a place that boasted of moderate weather through the year (well, the summers have gotten hotter now) seasons trigger a lot of special and specific memories. And of course, the availability of seasonal produce had a big role to play and I fondly remember how seasons primed cravings and continue to do so, as I write this.
Having moved to UK, I have fallen in love with autumn and winter. It is every bit as beautiful and picturesque as I had imagined. What compounds this love is my love for the food that winters are made of – warm, comforting to the point that a dish regarded as an indulgence or sometimes even not the healthiest for your diet, becomes comfort food. I am talking about the pakodas, samosas and their clan, ofcourse. The last couple of months have seen a fair share of snacks and chaats and we had the perfect excuse for it – the weather. Growing up, we did not eat a lot of fried food at home. The amboDes, bajjis and pakoDas were occasional and immensely appreciated when they did happen. But we always had easy access to fresh puffs and aloo buns from the local bakery and our evergreen and ever favourite Ragavendra bakery in the city that makes puffs and rusks like no other.
But I always remember tamaashi bajji. Literally translates to “fun bajji” but when pa says it, he probably means “special bajji”. I have never asked. When ma made onion and potato bajjis (fritters for lack of a better word), some bajjis would have potato slice and some onions in them instead of being exclusively either. So we’d happily start eating one of them thinking it is an onion bajji but a potato would surprise us! And these were far and few but they were there surely in each of our bowls and would have us squeal in excitement when we found one. I make these tamaashi bajjis for K and myself sometimes. I realize now that they are as tamaashi making and sneaking into a loved one’s bowl as much as finding in mine. Pa has nailed it as usual, of course. Crispy along the edges and soft inside, these disappear by bowl-fuls. The perfect accompaniment to all this has to be the ginger-cardamom chai that K makes so so well. We make a big pot of tea and help ourselves every now and then. The bajjis moved us to a state of calm and snuggly and only whetted our appetite and souls for more.
I must admit that the vaDa pav is not a winter comfort alone, at ours. We eat them almost every fortnight. We have a favourite little restaurant in Hounslow called Shree Krishna VaDa Pav that makes them so well that we drive all the way there because it is just so incredibly worth it. With storm Dennis and incessant rains, our plans to head out for vaDa pav went kaput. So I decided to make them from scratch at home, the vaDas and the chutneys I mean. The pavs came from Morrisons. The chutneys are the heart of the vaDa pav, to me. I need all of them to have a full-fledged experience. Haha I am serious. The sweet and tangy imli (tamarind) chutney, the green corriander chutney, the chilli- garlic powder that is bomb-diggidy and of course the butter. As I blend the coriander chutney in the blender, with the tamarind chutney simmering away on the stove-top and the potatoes cooling down in the pressure cooker, K makes a vaDa pav playlist (extremely soulful Bengali music) as his tea masala in the mortar and pestle makes the environment heady. This is how I remember the makings of vaDa pav from that day. Ofcourse, it helps that K called them “so fantastic” in between a big bite because who doesn’t enjoy making loved ones happy?
When you have pavs at home, the only logical next step after you have had your share of vaDa pav is pav bhaji. This is so simple and versatile to make with vegetables at hand though potato is a must. So ofcourse, it happened. I started making pav bhaji a few years ago but I can see I have come quite far with this one which is funny because like I said, it is not that hard to make. I admit I make small changes that my heart fancies but I wonder if those little changes have helped or if I have grown to like what I make. All questions don’t need to be answered so I shall let it be.
Somewhere along an extremely easy peasy chole chaat with onion-corriander leaves- cumin seeds-tamarind paste masala topped with Greek yoghurt, chopped onion, tomatoes and nylon sev happened. This is sort of my go-to for a chaat craving. It comes together in a jiffy and the minute I garnish it with finely chopped onions, fresh corriander and yoghurt, I know I want it.
You have to forgive me for grainy, badly lit pictures as I click hurriedly under the exhaust light trying to stand as far as I can to avoid a shadow. I do have a quiver of excuses about short daylight, extreme hunger, impatience, a phone that had absolutely zero storage (a dropbox activity that I have procrastinated for long and hence this day has creeped up on me again) that makes me take shots on instagram and do poorly edits before posting and yada yada but underneath them all has been my laziness to change some of that. So even though the picture of the ghughni (dried peas cooked in a gravy) is grainy, the experience is crystal clear in my mind – piping hot spicy ghughni with buttered and toasted sourdough (feel free to butter them again) in a dimly lit conservatory as we ate in silence with little nods and sighs of satisfaction – bliss.
It was on one of the drizzly evenings we decided to bring a dhaba home. We often think of these roadside restaurants often along highways in India serving some fantastic local fare both meals and snacks that sometimes make journeys that much more enjoyable. Even now, every time we go on long drives, I look forward to the pit stops. So I made these pakoras with marinated baby corn and fried some poblano peppers and they were so perfect for the time and place we were in.
The comfort and joy of making dishes from scratch is unparalleled especially when you are in the mood for it. These samosas stand testimony to that. These take a bit of time but it is quite something when you make samosas and chai in your kitchen. Now that we have reminders to stay safe, slow down, rethink our actions and use the opportunity to bring the best out in ourselves, what better way than to create some of those moments in the kitchen? If you are someone after my heart, you will know what I mean.
To create is to find a voice and communicate – ideas and emotions. This winter, I did a lot of it. And, I cannot be more grateful.