If there is one experience all NRIs can collectively relate to, it is the feeling of longing for home. Growing up in the Middle East as the daughter of first-generation immigrant parents, a large part of my life experience was the consistent search for a home. On some days, when the sky slowly darkens, and grey shadow clouds dance across the horizon, I would remember the smell of earth after the first few drops of rain hit it. The buzz of mosquitoes, the croaking of frogs and the melody of water splashing against the asbestos sheet were what had once reminded me of home. When I moved back to Kerala, memories of home took the shape of food. Listed below are a few items that would jostle the memory of any Gulf NRI searching for a home between two worlds, neither of them completely theirs.
Prince Chocolate Biscuits
There was nothing more gratifying as a child than sneaking the large, blue packets of Prince chocolate biscuits into the shopping cart while our parents were busy debating the prices of vegetables and fruits. There is probably nothing exceptional about it, but my hazy memories will always cherish the first bite of the chocolatey-biscuity heaven as I opened the packet before we even left the parking lot, splitting it into two and handing over the smaller piece to my brother.
You may call yourself a connoisseur of pastries, but nothing screams veteran Gulf NRI more than those who have watched the phenomenon of the ‘croissant glow up’. From the plain, cheap, boxed cheese croissant of the past to the confusing yet fancy world of flavoured croissants we find in supermarkets today. I mean, a chocolate or vanilla cream croissant was probably my childhood fantasy, but nothing can beat the original cheese flavour, especially after you throw the whole thing in a microwave for thirty seconds.
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Assorted Chocolates from Lulu
Lulu Supermarkets are a household name in the life of every Gulf NRI. In fact, we are indebted to the supermarket chain for meeting our grocery requirements with an ample number of deals and discounts. Their random assorted chocolate collection was the best of my childhood memories. We would often buy kilos of these chocolates, the cream-filled ones, the golden and silver hearts and the white chocolate domes, before every visit to India. We would then sit down, in the midst of messy, unpacked suitcases and then separate them out, sneaking in a few samples for the sake of ‘tasting’, despite them all tasting the same.
Flavored Drinking Water
Well, water is definitely the most basic, universal drink. I didn’t think you could apparently innovate water. And then Masafi did just that. I remember the first time my dad went to grab a bottle of water at a gas station during the road trip and returned back with two bottles of flavoured water for ‘experimentation’. This might be a very niche area of NRI food habits, but one that screams childhood to me when I didn’t have to worry about the ingredients of food items or what was deemed healthy or unhealthy.
Quality Street Chocolates
If you grew anywhere in the Middle East or have relatives who live there, I am willing to bet that you must have come across these brightly coloured jewels of milk chocolate at least once in your life. If there was a popularity contest for the kind of sweets people distributed on their birthdays, ‘Quality Street’ would win the prize hands down, year after year. And most of our wonderfully gifted DIY enthusiast parents would probably start a steel bowl collection once the chocolates vanished!
Mister Baker Chicken Sandwich
Okay, I am really not sure how popular these were, but where I lived, every celebration called for a Mister Baker Chicken Sandwich. There was absolutely nothing bougie about these sandwiches, just a plain and simple log of bread wrapped around shredded chicken, mayonnaise and the Mister Baker magic (which I still haven’t figured out). Primarily a bakery, my family never went to Mister Baker to get a cake, but for one of the only savoury items on the menu – their chicken sandwich.
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Garlic Butter Bread
If you are from the Gulf and you belong to an Indian family, then when I say Garlic Bread, you don’t think of the fancy ones you get at Pizza Hut or the bakery. Instead, you probably thought of silver and blue wrapping paper and a large log of bread placed quite conspicuously in the department store’s bakery section. Garlic butter bread was a family staple of mine, every time we went grocery shopping. I mean they were best when heated, but my brother and I couldn’t wait to get home to throw it in the microwave, so we would rip it apart with bare hands in the car and eat them cold on way back home.
Hello Panda Biscuits
Before Oreos were a thing, the original chocolate filled biscuits were Hello Panda. Eating them in school was like making a statement about how cool you were, it earned you both friends and an empty tiffin box. Shaped like cute Panda faces and filled with chocolate cream, these were rare but delicious delights we got after a lot of begging and a lot of crying in the biscuit aisle.
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What are your favourite NRI food memories?