Curd Rice with Sugar

My sister falls asleep when she eats food. It’s a rare, humiliating sickness. She’s thin as toothpick and my father says that her clothes wear her and that they look fuller on a hanger. Dinner is usually at 8:00 pm and we gather around the dining table. One by one, we finish and when we take leave, we all secretly look at her plate to take note of how much food there is, so that hours later, when we look again, we can decide how much she ate.

Mother mixes sugar in everything she gives her hoping my sister will eat fast. We’ve made many innovative dishes. Upma with sugar; rice sambar with sugar; rice, fried onion, milk and sugar; dosa, milk and sugar; chapatti, milk and sugar; and the ubiquitous curd rice, also with sugar. One night, she made history.

We started dinner at 8 and finished at 8:30. Titanic was playing on Sony Max so some of us hurried to the living room, leaving my sister behind. Titanic began and we sailed on, Jack and Rose fell in love, ran, did it in the car, the ship sank, Jack died, Rose cried. Three and a half hours later, we switched the lights off and went to the dining room to see my sister fallen asleep on the table, her right hand still in the plate, her palm dotted with dried bits of curd rice, a pool of saliva slowly collecting on one side of her cheek.

Ma started beating her chest — strangely without making noise, dad sat down next to her in all seriousness, observing my sister’s calm, sullen face. They were afraid to startle her. He woke her gently almost expecting her to wake up in horror and scream. She stood up suddenly and looked taken aback at my mother’s obscenity and then took one long, pitiful look at the clock. As if setting her mind to prepare for an exam, she sat at the table again with renewed motivation and took a heavy morsel of curd rice, and dumped it into her mouth.

Swallowing it must’ve been hard considering dad who continued to look at her with all the sympathy in the world while ma was still beating her chest, now with both hands and muttering something about therapy – for her or my sister, I don’t know.

Walking

Pondicherry

Day Two – 10/10/16

Google Maps is more reliable in strange towns. In my own town, it is an enemy. Surviving day 2 became easier only because of the GPS. I stepped outside my room nursing feel -good thoughts about coming back only in the night, and my anxiety from the previous evening dimmed slowly. I left to Cafe Des Arts at 9, found the same corner seat from the day before and spent most of my morning reading Kundera. It is an old french home with big windows and tiny doors. The furniture is a dark brown wood, the walls are painted white but have chipped and gathered themselves in dusty little corners. It is a very quiet place mostly because of the free WiFi. They have good breakfast, strong coffee and an assortment of mixed fruit juices.

cafe-des-arts

Cafe Des Arts

Rannvijay Singh walked in with his crew at one point and I was amazed by how much his voice sounded the same off screen.

Lunch was a tall LIIT, fish moilee, masala fried prawn, and rice at Villa Shanthi. For a while, I wondered if my restlessness had anything to do with the food and how much I was not looking forward to it. This was a definite dampener in an otherwise obnoxiously high spirited holiday.

Two years ago, when I traveled alone for the first time, it was hard to stop myself from feeling anxious everytime people left their tables. There would be no conversation with anyone, not even eye contact but their departure seemed personal to me in more ways than one. Their voices and conversations were comforting, like a background to resist feeling suddenly lonely.

My first dinner here was at Blueline, where I called ahead and made reservations. When I got there, the restaurant was empty. There were no strangers at the tables around me. I was left alone to read and it seemed strange that it should feel brutal.

I got over some part of this nonsense while I walked around the city today. After lunch, I walked to Zuka – the chocolate shop that apparently gives you chocolate cups that you can eat after you drink from it.

There were all manner of chocolate pastries, cakes and candies. I stood at the counter ogling at them all and sipping on a tiny cup of hot chocolate. Of course the cup wasn’t made of chocolate. The spoon was. Travel allows one to see how spoons become cups in stories.

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Hot Chocolate. And The Spoon.

I walked back to Le Club for dinner and found on the way– old, semi demolished houses with broken white pillars in the courtyard. There was a particularly old one with a large, carved wooden door at the front and a black, old-school sewing machine in the corner. The floors were all red oxide and a slab was cut out in the other side for people to sit.

I stood watching this for a while and forgot about taking a picture. The rest of the walk was spent fantasizing about old and forgotten houses. Fallen ones, ones still standing tall, the black house in Mangalore where ma grew up, the small one in chikkodi with purple walls and the two windows at the front that dad is so fond of. And the quiet, crumbling house with an exploding mango tree above it, that stands meekly on the main road towards Kammanahalli. Slowly I came around to the fact that I’ve never lived in a house with a courtyard or a nalukettu.

***

At Le Club, it begins to drizzle a little and the people around me stop their conversations midway and look up smiling. Some look nervous because the only table with a canopy is occupied. Some carry on with their lives, convinced there won’t be any rain. Le Club is huge. I am noticing details that I’d noticed the first time I came here years ago and then I’m not sure if I really did come here and wonder if it was perhaps another place.

It rains. They show me to the reception with big and dusty sofas, I sit with my feet up and look around. A couple is perusing the menu and debating ordering steak. They are wondering if they can both share one.

I let my wine sit in its glass for over 2 hours. The waiters get restless and keep asking me if I want anything else. I wait for the rain to stop, finish the novel and leave. My walk to the room isn’t made as dramatic by Kundera as I’d wished. I am taken by the quiet I feel everytime I finish reading his novels. I am unsettled by how well he knows his women characters, and both charmed and annoyed by his assumptions but then I always forgive him.

Ruzena’s uncertainty, Kamila’s insecurity and their eventual freedoms were both very reassuring to read. It is quite possible to fall in love with people in a matter of seconds, just as it is possible to fall out of love with them overnight. After a long day of walking, this is the most comforting thing to think of in bed.

 

Other Beef Things

Bornagain Titus and I met in my final year of M.A. I took a liking to him immediately because he was slightly mad. He is my only best friend today who doesn’t know any of my secrets. In 2015, I come to learn that that’s how one keeps best friends; by not sharing secrets. I also like him because he reminds me of actor Dhanush. His relationship with his mother is the funniest thing ever. On Mother’s day, Titus decided to wish his mother after having annoyed her by missing Church one Sunday morning. When he giggled and wished his mother, she threw a glass of water on him and told him to get lost.

One day, Titus fought with his neighbour because the neighbours’ toilet exhaust fan was right in front of Titus’ bedroom. When they were fighting, the man called Titus a ‘third class’ fellow. Later that evening, when Titus’ mother asked him what he wanted for dinner and Titus said ‘Beef fry’, his mother whacked him on his head and told him not to say it loudly because beef was why people thought they were third class.

This reminded me of my Brahmin friends who intimidated me then and make me giggle now. They would jump four benches away on days that I brought chicken curry and eight when I brought fish. They stopped talking to me once for repeatedly saying ‘Chicken – mutton – fish – Kolla Puchi’. I don’t know what Kolla Puchi means but my father would say that to irritate all the vegetarians in my family. My mother, for instance, who had became a vegetarian only because of an oath she had taken to save my new born Jaundice-ridden brother’s life.

I was 7 when I watched my Mother perform Madastana. That morning, we woke early and I saw that my mother was wearing a saree. She usually wears churidhars so I was mildly surprised. I don’t remember the color of her saree but it may have been cream or even white. Madastana is when lower- caste women roll on the temple floor, on the leftovers of Brahmins’ food. I saw crumpled banyan leaves along with grains of rice and drumsticks that were chewed until all the juice had been squeezed out, stuck to the sides of mother’s saree.

My father stood close to her, bending now and then to make sure that her pallu sat tightly around her chest. I know there must have been another elder person there with us, keeping watch over me, as I ran helter-skelter through the courtyard and came back panting to catch up with my parents. I stopped only once because mother had started to cry. I was afraid because my father looked more upset than I have ever seen him.

Now when I gather what had passed that day between them, my father hated that mother was being stubborn and wanted to do the Madastana. They stopped talking to each other for a while after that and resumed only after my brother regained his health, which is why the Madastana had happened in the first place.

When a friend took me home for the third time, his sister asked me which god we worshipped at home. I didn’t know and it didn’t matter because what she actually wanted to know was my caste. When I told her I was Korama and that I didn’t know much about it, she told me not to mention it to any of the other people at her home. It seemed like she knew a lot more about Korama than I did.

Crab Story

The spicy crab meat soup yesterday was an oval red in a white ceramic bowl with a blue border.

When I was 9, I ate crab and my lips swelled up like a big balloon.

When I was 24, I ate crab again and didn’t care because its meat brought the sea to my mouth and I grew more and more carnivorous with every piece of shell I cracked.

When I slide my index under its shelly stomach, the meat yields and polishes my fingernail, like cutex.

There’s Mangalore Pearl and Carnival De Goa and Fishland. I also have a Souza Lobo on my crab list now.

In Souza Lobo, they gave me a black pot with the biggest crab I had ever seen. It took me an hour to finish it.

I am all hands, fingers, mouth, hair, and cheeks when I eat crab. Sometimes, I think crab is flavorless, lost now and then in overpowering enthralls of coconut, spices, and garlic butter.

But I eat it anyway. Hands, fingers, mouth, hair, and cheeks.

Yauatcha

Photo Courtesy Zomato

      Photo Courtesy Zomato

When I called them, the automated voice of a lady asked me to dial 1 if I wanted Yauatcha London, 2 if I wanted Yauatcha Bangalore, and 3 for Yauatcha Delhi. I was stumped at London so I had to redial to get to Bangalore. Eventually when I made the reservation and got there, I had the wrong place. You don’t want to go to Lido, where there is a life size poster of Yauatcha with their sticky rice, and their various colourful sauces in little black ceramic bowls because Yauatcha isn’t there. It is 2 buildings away on the fifth floor in One MG Road Mall, sharing luxurious space with a couple of other restaurants.

Upon entering, I was delighted to find a busy and steaming open kitchen on my right, and parallel lines of tables on my left. It was like being on a train, long and neatly lined.

Seats were taken, sly glances were thrown across the shiny plates on other people’s tables, and Dim sums were ordered. A Pork Charsui bun and a Pork &Prawn Shui Mai. And throughout the evening I was left struggling with the words Sui mui Sui mui bubbling like soap in my head. I liked the Pork & Prawn Shui Mai. The roll looked like cotton dipped in water. It looked translucent enough for the prawn and pork inside it to become shameless teasers. I am going to borrow the cotton comparison for the rest of this piece. The Pork Charsui bun was the lightest bun I ever ate. It looked like white sponge, only better. I expected it to crumble in my hands and leave its white after colours on my fingers but it would apparently only break smoothly in my mouth. The pork inside was sweet, the sauce smooth.

The Sugarcane chicken roll was probably an over-kill although I continue to wonder how sugarcane and chicken could possibly come together in the most laughable combo. It was chicken pakoda with peas and chillies wrapped delicately around a juicy sugarcane toothpick. This was serious food and absolutely un-laughable. I decided I had seen everything in the world and that now I should retire and pass quietly, rubbing hands on my tummy.

But I shouldn’t hurry because the Sticky Chicken Fried Rice with egg and the Spicy Wild Prawn Curry are now coming with the modest Wrapped chicken with black pepper. I noticed with struggling demeanour how the waiter scooped the sticky rice with a Chinese soup spoon and shook it down on my plate. It’s out of deep respect for the waiter, and the people at my table that I sometimes manage to resist diving into my food the minute it leaves the ladle. Even when I do that, I am contemplating how little food there is on the table compared to how hungry I am and how tasty the food is going to be.

When I am lingering on the first seven bites, I am still strongly of the opinion that there is very little food on the table. By the time I have reached the 14th morsel, I begin to devilishly look about what’s left in the bowl and how soon my stomach seems to be filling.

The sticky rice was sticky. The Prawn in the curry outdid everything else I had had so far; well everything except the dim sum. There were 6 massive chunks of prawn in a mustard-yellow curry. I was more smitten with the sticky rice and wrapped chicken with black pepper so I dutifully ignored the yellow curry and carried on. The prawn had spent just enough time with its curry to not be bored by it, while having absorbed its spice; it had retained enough to spurt some in my mouth.

The Wrapped chicken with black pepper was simple although it looked anything but simple when it arrived at the table, literally wrapped in an oil paper, all hugged out with the black pepper.

The Raspberry Delice which was Raspberry dark chocolate mousse, hazelnut brownie, and raspberry ice cream was a little sour for my palate after it had been massaged by the pork and prawn predecessors.

I had anticipated the bill to puncture the table and it did, albeit a little too loudly. But I left with my faint heart full of promises to return and my belly aching with fullness.

Waffles and Holige

When Richard Gilmore instructs Lorelai to start her day with half a grape fruit in Gilmore Girls, I was disturbed. I thought a grape fruit was grape and couldn’t understand why somebody sensible would tell people to begin their day with some peanut sized fruit. Months later somebody told me that grape fruits are what we call mosambis. I couldn’t tell if I felt more amused or stupid. I had had a Secret Seven flashback. In one of their adventures, The Secret Seven come across a cave that they decide, will be their meeting place. They start decorating the cave with all manner of food and drinks. There are cookies and marmalade and ginger buns and croissants and lemonade. The closest I came to tasting a cousin of the lemonade was Rasna. I was not happy. When I sent mother out to bring me cookies, she got me Good day biscuits and said that all the shops that she went to gave her biscuits when she asked for cookies.

I came across the word waffles in an american TV show. I tasted a domestic version of it years ago and disliked it immediately. The waiter brought to my table what looked like holige/obattu with maple syrup. A month ago, I saw a packet of giant cookies smiling at me from the table. Dad’s friends from Belgium had paid us a visit. I smiled and felt great affection for my dad because he socializes and everything. I took a bite and cried. Call me crazy, I have never tasted waffles, but deep in my mouth, I knew that this is what waffles taste like. I am not a big fan of sharing food, especially when I love what I am eating. I gobbled my way to 30 waffles in 2 straight days and looked like the constipated cow in Tom & Jerry for the rest of the week.

Sushi, like the far away cousin one has always been curious about came to me only recently. But all the wait seems to have been worth it because my best days have sushi in them, or the kimbabs that I am especially fond of. I seem to enjoy eating Korean food now. I like that I can eat most of it with sticky rice, I like that the kimbabs aren’t hot, I like that the food is mostly dry, I like that I can eat it real slow and nothing is going to get colder.

I need to come out of my Spaghetti- fiasco and start trying to cook again. I miss it.

Food

When I was 23 and a seemingly pesky girlfriend, I discovered Zomato and all the various voyeuristic delights it offered. In much the naïve way, I had also introduced my unadventurous boyfriend to ‘Chungh Wah’, after which he married the restaurant and took me there 4 times a week for lunch. I mournfully lost my appetite for Chinese food but soon started looking elsewhere to raid all the other cuisines I had been dreaming of. Somewhere around this time, I discovered steak and dragged my boyfriend to ‘The Only Place’.

Midway when I was struggling to eat what I had ordered, which, on the menu sounded European and true to its name, turned out to be a gooey mess of cream cheese and meat, my boyfriend led me to an unkind revelation about myself. He said ‘You only like food, but you can’t eat it. You don’t have the appetite’. My nose puckered and I was mad at him for several weeks but I couldn’t run away from what he had said. Maybe it was true; maybe I just was/am a fake foodie.

As a young girl, I always found food to be more interesting in other people’s homes and plates. Even if I would be eating the same food on my plate, it would look dull, dry even. The earliest memory I have to prove this is when I was around 8 in Mangalore; Mouma made page (conjee) and Channa gashi for dinner. We sat in the hall, all the tube lights were off and only the colours from the TV fell on our faces as we cringed to look up.

Bubbly got her dinner and started eating it with wild interest. I looked into her plate. It smelled great, like good food. I hollered at Mouma to give me the same food that was on Bubbly’s plate. She looked at me suspiciously because she knew I had absolutely no appetite for page. When my plate arrived, it looked nothing like the food on Bubbly’s plate. It was, like all my food nightmares, gooey and messy. My nose puckered.

In school, my friends had far more interesting lunch boxes than I. They brought sandwiches and other unembarrassing food. My lunch box would open up only to see my curled up face at the sight of uppitu or chitranna. I had forbidden my mother from packing egg or chicken in the box because it seemed to have offended a lot of my Brahmin friends who would assemble physical distance between them and my lunch box. Some would cover their ears in horror at the mention of chicken/mutton. Some of them are my Facebook friends, still. When I feel pathetic about myself, I go and see their marriage laden – babies infested profiles and feel immensely pleased.

Anyway, so I started to hungrily eye my friend Deepika’s lunch box in school. Deepika was a Jain girl which meant that her lunch box had the standard Roti, Raita, Dal and on some special occasions, Sabzi. I was thrilled when she opened her lunch box. We would stand by the parapet overlooking the school playground and eat. She would politely offer me some of her food and I would reluctantly refuse it, hoping she would insist and I could finally sigh and eat her food.

When it came to just food and me, I think I felt repelled by it. I didn’t like meal times. I detested the business of eating with the family, under everybody’s watch. I hated even more that I couldn’t waste food in front of strangers and relatives. I owed them an explanation, an excuse – not feeling well, too spicy, heat boils in my mouth and fever were the top contenders. Most meal times were therefore self inflicted rounds of guilt and desperation.

It must be why it took me by surprise to see myself noticing food, a lot later in life. Around 4 years ago I ate the best prawn curry and rice in Pondicherry. I think that is a kind of moment worth going back to because a) I don’t have many and b) that is the one earliest memory I have of discovering food and c) it has prawns.

We were sitting at a table by the beach, and were both starved. It is indeed quite the tale because up until that point, I had only made bad food decisions, I never could order wisely. I would order all manner of exotic sounding things and waste it. I think I must have really followed my intuition that day because I did want to eat prawn. The only other item on the menu, competing with the prawn was the fish; butter fried in lemon sauce. Eventually I picked the prawn and when it arrived, I had no idea it would be that good. I mixed a bit of rice with the prawn curry and put it in my mouth. It had a warm coconut-y flavour which kindly held back all the spices that usually make prawn curry spicy. I don’t know if it was the wind or the sea breeze or the salt on my face or in the air or the fact that we were sitting by the beach but that was some spectacular food. The prawn just sank into the coconut flavour and the spices whirled about in my mouth without stinging it in rude burns. My eyes closed in agreement to this and the whispering breeze around my ears and the crashing waves beyond it.

A lot of my food connection since then has been largely restricted to coastal cuisine. I fondly remember that evening when I ate Idiyappam and Kerala chicken curry at a modest hotel in Trivandrum. After that, I seem to have developed a delight for food even though my appetite is embarrassingly the same. Even so, I have my moments. One morning, for instance, I decided to give Dosa and Avrekai Palya (Val bean curry) an overdue chance. That is the Sunday staple breakfast at home; Dosa, Avrekai palya and batata bhaji. As a child, I had very little patience and taste for spicy food. Anything my tongue found remotely stinging would be instantly dismissed or sweetened by five spoons of sugar.

It took me a while before I realised that the right kind of spice can be just as pleasing as sweet itself. I am trying not to sound too Gordonsy here but there is a kind of meditative throbbing in the left overness of spicy food on your tongue. Like the kind only a partially cooked plain dosa can rescue. Or like the explosion of heat in your ears from eating spicy lemony chitranna (lemon rice) that only the crunchy groundnuts in it can save. Or like harassing your tongue with Vali Ambat (Malabar spinach Sambar) that even the graceful red rice cannot salvage. On a bad day, I immediately cheer up at the sight of Dal, batata upkari and seeth (Lentil curry, potato fry and rice)

But I wasn’t always here. It took me a long time to learn how to like home food. I think the preamble to this journey was that one day when I was on some sort of food ennui and everything I thought of eating filled me with disgust and nausea. The only thing that brought me out of this misery was a plate full of page, gosalla upkari (Ridge Gourd Stir Fry) and mango pickle. Although to be fair, Ash had the same items on her plate and something about the way she was humming with every bite she took made me eat it. I must have really liked it because my ennui disappeared and has never once come back.

I think I’m no foodie but I am just happy that I started to enjoy home food and that my appetite seems to have developed some meek taste for food beyond my preferences.