Getting sick is a definite downer, but there are certain gastronomic upsides

Have you ever wondered how some stuff tastes best only when you're in a particular state? And by state I don't mean ‘contemplative' or ‘pensive'. We're looking at something akin to, uhm, ‘Sick as a dog'. When you're very sick, under the full-blown effects of whatever bug got to you, there's very little you register. And when you're almost well again, you want to do nothing but get out of bed and on with your life. However, there's this zone in the middle, where you're out of the delirious part, but just sick enough for food to bring you comfort. That's our stop. That's where this really great joint is.

A rasam made with powdered pepper, a couple of cloves of garlic and lots of cumin. Mixed generously with rice to make a runny, steaming dish that brings tears to your eyes. Oh yes, the pepper draws out the tears too. For some reason, your sickness muffles the bite of the pepper, the sharpness of the garlic. The first spoonful wakes up your taste buds like a serving of sunshine.

Incidentally, most of the stuff you're given when you're sick is runny and a tad pasty; one major reason why you wouldn't touch it with a barge pole when you're out of it. Oh, but that comes later. Let's stay sick for a little while. Now ‘idli' has always been a bit of a controversy. The little dumpling is either loved loyally, or fiercely hated. However, it must be mentioned, because it always finds its way onto your plate when you're sick, like it or not. It's either a miracle food, or you're mother's decided it's a quick and easy way of wrapping up dinner.

There's the ever-welcome soup and its myriad manifestations. Colds, bad tummies, even particularly painful bruises seem to trigger the soup-mode. And it's always served at insanely high temperatures. But those long minutes of blowing on it, feeling the steam on your face and letting the broth slide in your gullet…sigh. It's like providing your innards with a warm blanket. Bread and milk, or rotis soaked in slightly sugared milk, bring back childhood memories. The milk is just on the other side of warm. There's really no grown-up way to eat this, and you always end up with a trail of milk on your chin. Right on cue, parent fusses over you, wipes your chin. A typically south-Indian recipe for a bad stomach is really thin buttermilk rice, with a piece of very salty, chewy ‘narthangai', a kind of tangerine, sun-dried and salted. When you're feeling like a scuffed and wrung out khadi towel, there really is no meal to equal this.

Every household has its own unique menu for when family falls ill. Boiled bananas, toast, green tea, crackers, malt drinks (ahem, the ones you can mix in milk and serve to children). I daresay none of these tastes as good when you're healthy. You could blame it on the blandness/runniness of the food, or on your weakened condition. But there sure is a secret something that flows from the vulnerable concern, the fragile resolve of the loved one who makes you that meal. It does something to the food. Sniff. I can feel something coming on.

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Anand VenkateswaranJune 19, 2012