Food For The Soul

Photo by Daniela Constantini from Pexels

There is a scene indelibly imprinted on my mind. I am four, perhaps five, years old and gazing fixedly at a picture of infants Romulus and Remus suckling from a she-wolf. Sitting next to me in the sun-soaked balcony of our Calcutta home, ma is trying to feed me rajma-chawal, normal every day food that she tries to jazz up by giving the notional guise of nadi-pahaad – rice on one half of the plate is the mountain while the river of rajma is flowing next to it. As if getting me to eat weren’t a task daunting enough – or maybe because of it – she is, alongside, narrating the story of the mythical twins who built Rome. “Unko ek basket mein daalkar paani mein baha diya tha,” ma is telling me as I, more interested in the tale than in the eating, turn my head away from the spoonful she is holding out for me. She though is not giving up. “Un dono ki tarah hi iss rajme ki nadi mein mere Shethu ka chammach tairega,” ma is pantomiming the flow of the steel spoon in the gravy on my plate. I instantly fancy the imagined river of rajma as the Tiber of Romulus and Remus, and gobble up every last bit. Ah, soul food.

If the food we eat tells a story, memories of the food of my childhood reveal a series of love stories, tender and idyllic. Like lovers who keep red roses pressed inside books as souvenirs of a past romance, I too have a collection of pressed roses given by multiple lovers. An irrepressible mother. An indulgent father. A loving big brother. A doting sister. An extended family that was brought together by the love for food. My notional red roses have faded to an ombre of maroon, black and pink, and the satiny texture is now crumbly from withering. Yet, every petal still lies snug in my mind, overlapping layers of smells, sights, tastes and stories of food of something stirring, something simmering, something sizzling. Of ma learning that recipe of besan barfi I had enthusiastically devoured in my best friend’s house, and of daddy unfailingly buying for us the freshest pastries and strudels on his official trips to Bombay. Of the slushies jiji would make me on hot afternoons with shaved ice and rose/khus syrups, and of his share of pork salami that bhaiya would let me eat to bury yet another hatchet. Of nani’s fondness for doodh-shakarkandi, and of her adoration for us that took on the form of Bengali mithai every time she visited. Of ma relating stories about the Bihari food of her parents that she now made only sporadically as the rest of us hadn’t acquired the taste for them yet (dal pitthi, choode ki khichri, pitha), and of daddy explaining how Chyawanprash will give me strength while mixing a spoonful in the glass of milk. Of the ‘ishtawberi’ ice-cream ma’s distant-yet-close aunt would make for us, and of the bottles of lasode ka achaar one of my seven buas would make and somehow send across from Ajmer for daddy in Calcutta. 

Discounting the ‘kawwa bottle le gaya’ yarn ma spun to wean me away from the milk bottle as well as the pulpy mango guthli (seed) I used to suck on as a chubby toddler – sitting in the middle of our humungous dining table and stripped to my underwear, I’d be bathing in the dribbling, dripping mango juices as my parents approvingly oversaw my ingestion – my earliest food memory is of poriyal. There was a young Tamilian couple, recently married and new in our building in Calcutta, whose favourite pastime was to play with the neighbour’s girl – me, not yet three years old. They indulged me, babbled with me, gushed with me, and even fed me. Certainly there must’ve been pongal, upma, vadai, murukku, but all I remember – and vividly, at that – is chopped French beans with grated coconut that I’d eat on most mornings with uncle before he left for office. Ma had to learn the recipe from aunty because, it seems, that is all I agreed to eat and the only thing I demanded to be fed. 

Mealtimes were about intimacy and bonding. Without being pedantic, daddy-ma would neatly wrap firm censuring and lessons on the manners we were expected to have around an easy banter about friends, sports, tests and marks: To not speak with our mouth full, not make loud chomping sounds, to bring the spoon to our mouth and to upturn the soup bowl on the opposite side … there’s so much we learnt while eating. Ma would insist that breakfast is non-negotiable. Daddy would explain why wasting food is a crime. Yet, under the guileless assumption that no one will notice my smart act, I’d fish out every single insipid green pea from my teheri and chuck it under our huge dining table, thrilled with myself. 

In fact, I tackled every food item I despised by adopting either similar mischief or defiance or tantrums that got me nowhere. But try I did. Every morning that I wasn’t having breakfast with my siblings I’d batter the yolk of my boiled egg into pasty lumps with the fork and artlessly tuck them under the shells they came out of — certain they will not be traced back to me. Once or twice I overdid my cleverness by pretending to tilt my glass of Horlicks towards my lips and deliberately pouring it all over my front. Alas, there never was enough time to gloat over my ingenuity. As the unofficial Devi incarnate of the trinity of Holmes-Poirot-Feluda, ma would promptly detect my subterfuge and the threat would fly: “Phir kiya toh dekhna …”. Yet, on the days I was being an especially difficult eater, she would indulge me by making tiny balls of a mixture of dal-chawal-sabzi and teach me counting. “Bas ab paanch hain, dekho … ab chaar, bas …” It was a food game I loved. 

If am fastidious about food, the blame squarely lies with my parents: Idli has to be moist and soft, khaman has to be sour-sweet just so, pakodi kadhi has to be sour and soft … I can’t do without heeng in my dal or heeng-zeera in my curd as that is how I saw daddy eat. While doodh-shakarkandi is a nod to nani’s legacy, makhana reminds me of daddy’s kheer. Crackers with butter, fried peanuts with onions, dhaniya ke aloo, Tabasco sauce on shavings of cheese — sliced off from a block — are all reminders of the flavours that nourished our senses. 

But if there is just one food I had to pick from my childhood, it’d be cheeni paratha, messy and sticky. As ma would break a piece and shove it into my mouth, the crisp exterior would crunch into a chewy soft lava of molten sugar.

All I have to do is close my eyes and think of that cheeni paratha. Instantly, I see a tiny girl, roly-poly and hungry with greed. And I see a young mother — her thick hair tied in a long plait, wearing a sari, a round red bindi, gold baalis, a picture of patience and maternal love. She breaks a piece of paratha and extends her arm towards the girl. No stories of Romulus, Remus or Tiber are required. 

I’m that tiny girl. 
I am a child. Once again. “Mooh kholo … aaah!

Shilpa Gupta
Shilpa Gupta

Shilpa Gupta (formerly Rohatgi) is an insatiable travel writer and photographer who, in a former state of sobriety, had worked as a journalist with some of India’s top publications including India Today and The Indian Express. Owing to the peripatetic nature of her husband’s job, she is constantly on the move. Which is just as well because there is nothing she likes better than being like a marble on a slope, never to be found in the same place again. Shilpa brings back beautiful memories from their sojourns, of course, and priceless souvenirs too. But doubling up as memories and souvenirs are the countless articles and photographs she has been contributing to international travel magazines, webzines and travel anthologies.

Read more by Shilpa Gupta


Picture Credit : Daniela Constantini from Pexels

40 thoughts on “Food For The Soul”

    1. Thank you! Those beautiful days of childhood when we had not a worry of calories or weight … sigh!

  1. Thanks for yet another great piece of yours, Shilpa!
    You have a magical way with words….they conjure up scenes so vividly….
    Keep them coming!

    1. Thank you, Sagar! I may or may not have a way with words but you definitely have a way with compliments 🙂

  2. A very interesting & well written anecdote by Shilpa.
    Her flair for writing is commendable.
    Loved reading this story.

  3. Shilpa u have the magic of words and expression. Very interesting indeed. Brought me back to my childhood days. 🙂🙃

  4. Your stories always make me smile! Brilliantly written! Eagerly awaiting the next story from you …

  5. This is only your second piece that I’ve read and I’m already starting to get a sense about all that I may have missed! I must get my hands onto that trasure trove soon!
    This is beautifully penned…conjured up the most vivid images and took us with you to your home in Kolkata 🙂
    I too grew up in a home where food and family was tightly knit together….unending memories of those two together.
    Thank for this joyful read …look forward to more.

  6. I don’t think reading this flavourful article after a meal was such a good idea. It filled up the senses with such savory-sweet food memories from childhood, I’m full and hungry for more. Such a fulfilling read!

    1. Your comment reads like a masterclass in writing! Such beautiful words and so delectably strung together. Thank you, Divya!

  7. Lovely Shilpa ! You are obviously a foodie . I was always a lover of sweets . All other food was incidental . I remember my mom’s home made kaju barfis so much ! I used to gobble them by the dozen at a time . Still go to TEWARIS in kolkata to get hold of the kaju barfees, which do not compare to what my Mom made , but the best I can get under the circumstances . Jilebees were another favourite . When I first came to cal in1977 I discovered a jilebee vendor in central avenue who used to make delicious jilebees fresh and hot for just 10 paise a piece . 20 jilebees in one sitting was par for the course for me . But was never a foodie otherwise . I still remember as a small child of 3 or 4 when my parents had to go out for dinner , and my supper was left on the hands of my nanny , she had to blackmail me to eat by telling me that she would turn blind if I didn’t eat . And the compassionate 3 year old that I was , I would believe her and promptly eat my dinner to ensure that no harm would come to her .

    1. The compassionate kid has grown up to be a compassionate man, as far as I can discern! Yes, Mahesh, I am a foodie and the mention of kaju barfi just didn’t help, you know! Now I’ll rest only when I satiate myself with a few of those. Wish I could’ve had the version made by aunty. As for jalebis, I’m very particular about desi mithais being made only in desi ghee. Which is why Tewaris was the top choice for imartis. There was a shop called Sharma-something in Cal which had the best motichoor ladoos at the time.
      I want to come to Cal so bad after this.

  8. As usual a brilliant one again!! So beautifully expressed Shilpa !! I am a great fan of your style of writing and you know that. There is so much of soul in it!
    Keep it coming Shilpa !

    1. Wow, such a lovely comment! Thank you, Mrs Jha. Your appreciation fills me with a sense of purpose. Warm regards.

  9. Hi Shilpa, your writing is not only rivetting but fun to read because of the simplicity of narration and also because of the ease with which the reader can identify with each incident as his/her own ! And as for those dried rose petals…you forget the one you got from Mukul ! Enjoyed reading !

      1. Great reading… Got back memories…feel like eating all the food you mentioned…. I remember stories being told by mom while feeding us. Table manners being taught by our father. Keep writing…..we r.eally enjoy reading your peices

    1. Thank you so much for reading through and also for giving your feedback, Mrs Joshi. Glad you enjoyed it.

  10. Ah ha….now we know where this beautiful art of yours stems from….u indeed have a legacy…both in story telling n food….beautifully depicted once again…awesome read…loved it.

    1. That has to be one of the nicest comments ever! Thank you! Yes, all I am is because of my family and upbringing.

  11. Beautiful piece where mind flows effortlessly with the magical trail of words. Love your comfort with words. Amazing read.. 💕

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