Whenever I sit down to write down ideas for blog posts I come up with something that is related to food – a recipe, a weekly prep idea, something my kids enjoy eating etc. I have beat myself up over this many times in the past simply because I felt like I should let the food bloggers do it. But with time, I also realized that I keep getting back to this topic because food is something I truly enjoy – be it cooking, or eating, or trying new cuisines or even just trying to mix and match different flavors and textures.
I do not come up with restaurant level/fancy instagram level dishes everyday and I do not nail the flavors and taste every single day. There are also many days when things don’t turn out a certain way in spite of my best efforts. Despite all this, I keep going back to cooking and that says something, no? Agreed it’s also because I don’t really have a choice but if it was something I didn’t enjoy enough, I surely wouldn’t be talking about it as much, yeah?
It’s like my escape from reality on most days because the kitchen feels like my kingdom where no one can tell me what to and what not to do. It’s my haven when I feel overwhelmed. It’s where I let off steam or calm myself down by sitting with a cup of chai when I can’t quite scream out loud.
I’m possessive about my kitchen as some people are about their partner/spouse. I am extremely conscious and a fair bit uncomfortable when people stand behind/with me when I’m in the kitchen because it feels like my privacy is being invaded. Of course this doesn’t include my kids because they are almost always there I like it or not. But you get the picture, don’t you?
That said, it’s also a place where I want to make memories. The first house I moved in after I got married was absolutely gorgeous but the kitchen was a disappointment, to say the least. It was tiny and barely got any natural light irrespective of the time of the day. I couldn’t even open the windows. But it is also the kitchen where I really fine-tuned my cooking skills. It’s where I grew from someone who made appalam (papad) for rotis to someone who could actually make a soft roti (even if it looked like a map of Africa). It’s where I made my first briyani. It’s where I first cooked an entire meal for friends and family. It’s where I baked one too many cakes. It’s where I steamed the first apple my son ever ate. And when I think about it, it still holds a special place in my heart.
Amma even managed to whip up food for over 20 people in that kitchen. Can you believe it?
Similarly when I think about all that my current kitchen has witnessed, I can only think of the happy kitchen picnics, popsicle stained faces, cake batter on the tips of noses, two monkeys impatiently waiting for the pasta to be cooked or gobbling up grated cheese, of being asked for thaenga podi to go with literally everything, and that of the kitchen floor and walls being filled with ‘doodles’ while I went about cooking or baking. It has also seen me scream at the top of my voice for all the mess being made, no denying that, but that isn’t the first thing that comes to my mind and I really hope it won’t be for my kids either, when they are all grown up and think about their childhood.
It also strikes me that every time I go back to a favorite memory from my childhood or teenage years or early adult life, it almost always has a food memory attached to it.
My very early memories are that of times spent with my cousins in my paternal grandparents’ place during summer holidays. It meant Paati making us all sit in a circle and feeding us endless urundais (balls) of paruppu saadham with any kai, kootu or kozhambu (“vandhu okkarungo ellarum, kaila saadham tharen/ come sit together, let me feed you all”) and us fighting for more because someone almost always thought the others got/ate more. It also meant that we would play in the motta maadi all evening because Aththai (aunt) who was a school teacher then would organize games for all of us and we’d end up having ‘nila choru’ (dinner under the moonlit sky) post that.
I don’t think I ever remember a day when there weren’t at least ten people eating at meal times in that house. There was food available at all times for anyone who bothered dropping in and irrespective of the time of the day.
My maternal grandmum was/is no less an Annapoorni. #LakshmiBhavan or Lachu to insta folks, who’ve been following me and amma for a while – her dosai and molagapodi and feather light fluff balls for idlies and vella dosai (jaggery dosai) are legendary. Although paati isn’t too fond of making rasam, I love her version. Also her ladies finger/okra, potato and brinjal karis (stir fries) are something else. So is all her typical Thirunalveli (almost Kerala-ish) food.
When we moved out of the joint family to live closer to school and amma’s work place, we had the loveliest neighbors who fed my brother and I the best food. Aunty’s rasam, egg kozhambu and Jayanti akka’s omelette were the best.
My brother and I would make this onion-tomato gravy of sorts and we even had a song we’d sing as we made it – “thakkali vengaayam fry fry fry, thakkali vengaayam fry fry fry”. Now is when you thank you stars that I didn’t actually add an audio of the so-called song.
I can still picture my appa diligently chopping veggies while my amma went about cooking ten different things for the three of us in lightning speed before she headed to work. Our sunday meal of chinna vengaaya vathakozhambu with potato kari (or kathrikkai kari just for me) with one large sambadam (jar) full of applam (maracheeni/kappa/cassava ones mainly for me) will always be special. It’s still what I request for when I go home.
Another absolute heart-warming memory is that of my appa finely chopping every vegetable he could lay his hands on to make his best vegetable rava khichdi which my amma could never quite replicate. But amma gets a 100 for her avasara (quick/hurried) rava upma which is happiness on a plate.
A lot of holidays and weekends were spent at Peripa-Perima’s (paternal uncle & aunt) where we would play endlessly, spend our days cycling around the locality and read plenty of books. The day would invariably begin with a tumbler+davara of Boost or Horlicks with Milk Bikkis (in a steel sambadam/jar) for dipping. We waited for days when Maggi was for breakfast because we could make it ourselves. Lunch was simple South Indian fare with sambar, rasam and the likes. I can almost taste Perima’s sambar as I think about it now. It was always less spicy than my mom’s and had a whole lot of paruppu/dal and tangy.
If not in Chennai, holidays were spent in Bangalore at another Perima’s house (maternal aunt). Perima was and still is one of the best cooks in the family. She’s the one who introduced us to pizza, homemade – no less. Rainy summer afternoons in Bangalore with homemade pizza in what was a dreamy as hell, well-lit, spacious, gorgeously maintained house is a memory I’ll take with me to my grave.
At least one day was dedicated to going to Shanthi Sagar in Indira Nagar. It is where I first tasted paneer butter masala. Oh, and the pav bhaji, mmhmmm. It was an event in itself. If plans had to be changed for any reason, we’d head to the motta maadi with whatever was cooked and enjoy it there.
My other maternal aunt/perima is just as good. Her Malay-inspired Indian food has a special place in all our hearts. It’s like nothing we get at home and that’s probably why it is also a favorite.
In school, I had this large group of friends and we’d all sit together and share food during lunch break. I still remember how one friend’s mum used to pack torn pieces of chapathi so that it was easy to pick and eat (and share). I also distinctly remember another friend’s keerai saadham (spinach curry + rice) lunchbox. Another friend used to get a jar full of extra vathakozhambu just for the rest of us. That glass jar with oil floating on top of the kozhambu is something I’ll never forget. Another thing I still can’t forget is the garlic pickle and curd rice a friend used to bring. I also remember going (or more like self inviting ourselves every chance we got) to one friend’s house who’s mum made absolutely delicious North Indian fare.
When we moved to Delhi, food was certainly one thing that helped me make friends. I would take idli or dosai in my lunchbox and would get the best parathas and achaar in exchange. Or rajma chawal. Our school canteen had the best samosas and chole-bhature and it was all gone if we went 30 seconds after the lunch bell rang.
Post school, we’d share a Mother Dairy ‘lic lolleez’ or if it was a celebration, we’d walk to the Sector-8 Market, RK Puram for a pineapple pastry or golgappas or both from Supreme Bakery. As my brother and I walked back home from the bus stand, some days we would stop for the redi-wala/cycle-wala chole kulche. Sometimes it was rajma chawal from Shiv Bhojnalay in Munirka.
Summer days spent drinking mango milkshake and winter afternoons drinking mixed fruit juice from Shiv Juice in Munirka are hard to forget as well.
I also have distinct memories of going to one of Amma’s friends house over the weekends where aunty would make a large cooker full of spicy, delicious biryani which we ate by the plateful even if it meant eating with tears streaming down the face. Other weekends were spent at AP Bhavan where we thulped the BEST Telugu vegetarian meals I’ve had in my life.
My first time having a McD burger was during this time too. Not talking about my memories of street side chaat would be blasphemy but the Ram Laddoo from Sarojini Nagar Market will forever be my most favorite. Oh, and how does one ever forget the halwa-puri prashad eaten at various temples?
One other memory that always brings a smile on my face is the langar we had at a gurudwara in Punjab on the way back to Delhi after we visited the Golden Temple. Oh, the sheer simplicity of the food there and the joy of service on people’s faces. Sigh.
When we eventually moved back to Madras and I made friends again (and for life), I was introduced to many, many amazing places like Brilliant Tutorials Kaiendhi Bhavan (best ever ghee podi dosai and chinese), Shirdi Quick Bites (huge and absolutely delicious parathas with chole/dahi and achaar) in Cathedral road, Mithai Mandir (for ghee phulkas + gobi manchurian) in Vadapalani, Bakya Fastfood and OSB Chaat in West Mambalam, Matta and Manthope Colony Panipuri Wala in Ashok Nagar, Pupil in Besant Nagar, Blueberries in Pondy Bazaar, Bombay Chaat in KK Nagar, to name a few. If I had a penny for every time I’ve eaten bajji and egg omelette sandwich at Marina, I’d be a millionaire today.
Hunting down and heading to every dessert joint that opened in the city with my BFF (you know if you know) was an activity I thoroughly enjoyed. Also the occasional fancy-ass buffet lunches with her when salary was credited.
And then when I started working, I had this colleague who’s mum made the BEST sepankizhangu/arbi fry amongst other things. Crispy even after being in the lunchbox for hours, I waited for days when he’d bring that for lunch. I also blame him for inculcating the (now addiction level) habit of having something sweet after every meal. Another thing I thoroughly enjoyed during this time was the egg-potato masala sandwich at our canteen on days when I didn’t carry lunch.
There were other options too for which I’d skip carrying lunch – like the apple-walnut salad from Seasons or a paneer tikka sub from Subway at the Food Court in Olympia or the absolutely delicious full meals available at the office canteen.
Fast forward to me getting married and moving to Abu Dhabi. My first time eating proper Arabic food and falling in love with Za’atar Manakeesh and the spicy Labneh-Falafel Manakeesh from Armani Pastries and then of course Karak from one too many places. The rest as they say, is history and is all over my Instagram feed.
.. and this is when I realize I’ve actually written about most of my life by way of food memories and that I must stop. Trust me, this doesn’t even cover half of it because I’ve not even talked about train journeys, tours we took and all the food we’ve eaten during those, road trips we went on and all the food we’ve eaten during vacations and all the food that my other aunts and uncles cooked. Can you even blame me for wanting to talk/write about food all the time now?
This post is also a fair warning for all the food related posts that are to come in the future. Don’t come at me later. That said, I have no intent to turn this into a food blog. There will still be a lot of other things I’ll talk/write about or random posts like this one which will be nothing but me reliving the good times.
Until next time.