A piece of home from anywhere in the world can be the most satisfying.
Tuck — Noun: Brit. informal food, typically cakes and candy, eaten by children at school as a snack: (as modifier): a tuck shop.
The dictionary says the origin is from old English tûcian “to punish, ill-treat”; related to tug, influenced in Middle English by Middle Dutch tucken “pull sharply”, though today the connotation “tuck” carries is the reverse: simply the thrill of a treat. In boarding schools and college hostels, tuck means food parcels of not-so-perishable food sent to “starving” children from parents. The joy of receiving parcels of food one likes hasn’t withered away, though the list of desirable edibles — from home or abroad — has evolved. We used to gloat over a bar of Toblerone, “the legendary triangular Swiss chocolate with honey and almond nougat” and as time went on, over Lindt und Sprüngli, and then, the next decade, over the ribboned gold and green boxes from Belgium, of Neuhaus chocolates. We oohed and aahed over descriptions of the shop, where you could choose a bit of this and a bob of that from glass cases filled with different varieties, each with different fillings. Until one day a box from Japan arrived, with strict instructions to keep it “refrigerated, not frozen” and we opened an insulated container and layers of tissue paper to find a box containing a flat, smooth brown brick, with a small plastic spatula to prise out squares of the most delicious chocolate ever. Royce. It melted in the mouth to coat it with molten silk and I, not a chocoholic, am an addict ever since.
And so it was with cheese. To a child, Kraft’s Cheddar was the acme of foreign perfection; La vache qui rit was flat and tasteless — although pulling open the tab on the foil-wrapped triangle was exciting; Philadelphia cream cheese was good only for my mother’s cheesecakes; Camembert too ripe and Gorgonzola and blue too adult — only my father had a stomach for them. Until we discovered Brie and Boursin; Gouda and chèvre until they became local; Scamorza and Pecorino Romano, or just plain Pecorino. We waited for foreign cheeses, turned up our noses at Monterey Jack and longed for Scamorza, Taleggio, Haloumi and aged Parmigiano.
Food from abroad, whole hams from Germany, salted dried plums from Singapore, wasabi from any country that sold Japanese food, Tong garden wasabi green peas from Bangalore airport, were flash in the pan flavours of the month. But abiding favourites were the parcels that came from home: tuck boxes. It all started with college hostel, hunger, deprivation, nostalgia and penury. Even before I unpacked my trunk at the beginning of a college term, nails were broken opening the large Sway detergent tin filled with matthis packed by my mother. Oily seasonal pickle was smeared on the matthis, each artistically decorated with three peppercorns. Then there were marbled coffeecake, applesauce spice brownies and besan ki barfi, covered with slivered almonds and crunchy with sugar. Others brought different pickles, kababs, and those from the hills their beloved bal mithai, the malty brown ingots coated with tiny white sugar balls.
I’m a century older but still open the “tuck box” from home with the same anticipation. Now it contains home-grown lettuce and knol khol, gur and shakkar in winter, and jams and jellies around the year. This year there’s been guava jelly, strawberry jam and gooseberry pickle. Cape gooseberries, rasbhari, Physalis peruviana, that we love to call raspberries, make the best jam and even I, a klutz in the home preservation area, can make it. But receiving Bhagwan Singh’s neatly labelled jars is a benediction.
Apart from home, I wangle parcels from wherever I can. Back in the day, my father brought banana chips from Kerala and even now, I prefer those to what Delhi shops sell. Kasundi is better than mustard, English or French, and nolen gur sweetens and colours kheer and dahi gently and subtly in a way sugar can’t. Fresh walnuts from Kashmir in October; real saffron, as opposed to the dyed and perfumed corn silk you buy here; such bari to flavour my attempts at Kashmiri cooking; murukku and Mysore pak from Chennai; shami kababs and taftan from Lucknow; crunchy chikki from Lonavala and Shrewsbury biscuits from Pune that taste like solid cakes of milk powder; meen puli from Kerala to sour my fish curries; hard, yeasty poi from Goa to mop up a chorizo stew and dried shrimps to make a quick kismur and liven up a boring lunch; long green lemons from Guwahati whose rind is sweet with fragrance… does anyone need convincing of the pleasures of food hampers?
Now I send my daughter food. She wants intensity, the smell of desi khana in a bottle. So she gets a strong garlic and chilli paste that she can add to the blandest fish and chips and get a whiff of home.