When I was a kid, there were many days when I’d get home from school and ask my mother what was for dinner.
“Chorum parippu curryiyum, meen porichathum und (We have rice, lentils, and fried fish),” She’d say confidently.
Then she’d see the frown on my face and hesitate. “What? It’s your favourite type of fish,” she’d say, half stern, half cajoling. “And I’ll make some pappadom as well,” she’d add, like an eager salesman trying to close a deal.
I’d hem and haw, twist and turn, feeling frustrated. She was losing my interest.
Sighing, she’d accept defeat. “Hmm, what, you want a burger?”
My face would light up, and I had the gall to pretend like it was her idea and not mine. She’d reluctantly make me a chicken burger, complete with a coat of mayonnaise on one bun and ketchup on the other, with a slice of onion, tomato and lettuce lying above a layer of cheese.
That was 15 years ago. Yesterday, as I walked back home from college, I passed by a house and a flurry of smells wafted out through the balcony. I was immediately transported back, not to a place or time, but across an entire life’s worth of experiences.
And the next second it dawned on me.
Oh, how I miss the food back home!
My friend laughed when I told him that.
“Oh ho, you of all people are missing Mallu food?”
“What is that supposed to mean?” I asked, feeling confused and slightly annoyed that he wasn’t taking my nostalgia and homesickness seriously.
“Ay, onnulla,” he chuckled. “I just thought, you being a Chameleon Malayali and all, you’d be too busy enjoying sayippinde (Western) food!”
I couldn’t blame him for thinking that. Because he had a point.
Growing up, I idolized “western” foods. On one level, that seems kind of obvious, right? We tend to desire what we don’t have. But I wasn’t excited about Arabic food or Mexican food or Chinese food, none of which were available (at that time) in the home kitchen. Instead, I wanted “American” food.
I’m not sure about today’s kids, but in the late 90s and early 2000s, there were many like me, especially in the Gulf, that viewed “American” food as something special. There’s a reason I’m using double quotation marks when using the term American food. Because, to our uninformed minds, burgers, pizzas, and pasta were all American. French fries too. Not to mention pancakes and waffles!
Looking back, it’s interesting to see how media and culture influenced so many of us. Picture a bowl of payar upperi your mom might’ve placed at the dinner table when you were a kid. Now picture a cheeseburger. Does the bowl of payar upperi look sloppy and unappetizing? Does the cheeseburger look like it is the star of a McDonald’s menu photoshoot?
I never realized just how deeply I’d become influenced by pop culture when it came to food. But three months into living in Canada, I can finally admit it. “American” food is overrated. Oh, and I completely took the food back home for granted!
And I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t come to this realization right away. I wish I had. Instead, I once again relied upon the opinion and judgement of Westerners to guide my thinking. It’s something I need to fix, but that’s an article for another day. For now, just know that I’m not happy about having valued the opinion of some people over others.
So when I spoke to Canadians and heard them talk about how much they love Indian food, I was slightly surprised. At first, I brushed it off as them being overly polite. Maybe they thought I’d be flattered if they complimented the cuisine of my country? After a few weeks, I realized that’s probably not it. These people aren’t travelling to London and Paris and Mexico to try Indian food on the off chance that they’ll run into an Indian kid months later who’ll be pleased that they liked Butter Chicken and Mutton Rogan Josh.
You know those rom-com movies where the hero hears a lot about the girl in his class who he always considered as just a friend? And then he finally turns back and sees her in a new light?
Basically, that’s how I started re-evaluating Indian cuisine, and that of Kerala in particular. Simultaneously, just like in the movies, I began to see the flaws in that which I’d idolized for so long.
To put it simply…where’s the salt, man? I used to roll my eyes whenever anyone came back to Kerala from abroad and whispered that “Western” cuisine was very bland. They obviously hadn’t eaten the meals I’d seen in the movies; the ones that I glimpsed being placed on expensive table cloth, lit by candlelight, appreciated by the smartly dressed couple who politely thanked the immaculately dressed butler that’d placed it there.
Just to be clear, I’m not saying Indian cuisine is better than American or Canadian or “Western” cuisine. Obviously, everyone has their own tastes and preferences. What saddens me is how blinded I was by what’d I’d seen on T.V. How it made me disdain the food my mother and grandmother cooked. And perhaps worst of all, how I began paying attention to the cuisine of my country because I heard foreigners praise it.
So by the time I passed by that house yesterday and smelled a mixture of garlic, ginger, garam masala, chilli powder, turmeric and lime, I felt intense regret. I began thinking of ways to make up for the lost time. I thought of all the meals I’d have when I went back to Kerala next summer.
The first thing would be Mutton Biryani, of course. Then Puttu and Pazam (Steamed Rice Cakes and Banana). Lots of fish, both in fried and curry form. A collection of upperis (Vegetable dishes) and curries. Oh, and achar (pickles) and injempuli (Ginger paste)!
When I mentioned this to my neighbour, he laughed and shook his head. “Why wait till next summer? You can have all this right now!”
“Really?” I asked, taken aback.
“Yes, if you take the 765 Bus, you’ll reach the Indian Vegetable Market. They sell all the spices you’ll need. All the pachakari! (vegetables)”
For a moment I was excited. But then a thought landed in my mind. “Have – have you been going there often?” I asked.
“Oh, I’ve been going there ever since I landed in Canada two years ago!”
As I thanked him and walked away, I wondered about that. About the way I view Kerala cuisine and the way he does. He’s never stopped having it. Until recently, I couldn’t wait to stop having it. He nods knowingly when I talk about how amazing the cuisine is. But can he really relate?
Can you truly appreciate something if you’ve never been deprived of it? Maybe you can. I always liked taking hot showers. But I only truly relished them after walking outside in the freezing cold. Throughout school, I’ve told my teachers that “I love my mother”. Only after leaving her presence for good, however, can I really understand the depth of those words.
I always liked Pazam Vatiyath (sauted plantains) with eggs and coconut, fried in ghee. But right now, I can tell you the exact shade of brown the pieces of plantain should be, the consistency of eggs scrambled over them, the amount of coconut shavings that need to be scattered on top of it all. I always liked Pazam Vatiyath. I now truly appreciate it.
So maybe I’m doing the right thing? Maybe we all need to walk away from what we have, to truly appreciate it? I’m not happy about taking Indian cuisine for granted. I’m not proud of paying attention to it because foreigners praised it.
But from now on, I’ll never stop being proud of it.