GOURMET FILES Vasundhara Chauhan

This time around...

Illustration: Satwik Gade  

I wish I could say, like Edith Piaf, “non, je ne regrette rien” But no, je regrette beaucoup. I regret a lot: I regret refusing food, and I regret eating it. Last week my father was visiting and together we visited many old friends and relatives. I was surprised and touched at the warm insistence of everyone we met that we eat something. Lunch, tea, high tea, dinner — any time we arrived — by appointment or without — food and drink were pressed on us. Sometimes it was impossible to refuse, but one evening we succeeded in coming away un-stuffed.

That was a Sunday, we’d eaten a late kadhi-pakora lunch at home; since it had been late we’d overeaten and so by the time we reached Pushi Auntie’s there was no room for anything save a glass of water. She was laid up in bed but tried very hard to make us have at least a little something. She even said that her cook would be heart-broken, could we at least let him pack a little for us to take home? She said there were papri chaat, egg sandwiches and cake. After much tortured thought I refused. This was a dilemma I haven’t recovered from. I came home and told my daughter and she gave me what for, because frail Pushi Auntie had gone to so much trouble and I had spurned it; had I not remembered, even for a moment, that I had a starving daughter at home; had I not thought that the sandwiches could have been of white bread, the crusts removed, and cut into tiny squares? Of course I had, but too late. Don’t I know how chaat hits the spot on a rainy afternoon, and how cake fills the crevices in one’s soul on said rainy afternoon, and isn’t it a recorded fact that I’d sell my soul for egg sandwiches? The trouble is, I know all that. Thence the dilemma, unsatisfactorily resolved.

I was talking to a friend with similar appetites and she said she regrets refusing the traditional delicacies of her childhood. When she was young, every other day her mother would steam for breakfast, as in most homes in Kerala, kozhukottai, the little steamed bundles of rice flour casing filled with jaggery and grated coconut. Her mother flavoured them with cumin; other homes used powdered cardamom seeds. She says she would make an ugly grimace and push away the dish — it was so boring. And now she longs for that taste, that softness, that flavour, and there’s no one except she herself to make it. I feel that way about the meethi rotis my mother made. Whole wheat atta kneaded with a solution of gur, jaggery, and rolled into thick rotis, stored in a round brass box for weeks, and eaten with cold white butter straight from the fridge. They were not too sweet, brittle but soft, and with the flavour of dry-roasted atta and malty gur. Now I could eat a stack, right now, as I type. But then they were spurned: entire corridors of hostel rooms snacked on them, but I was bored. As I was with her baking. I wish I could have one butterscotch brownie, smelling of toffee, one lozenge of guava cheese that she wrapped in red cellophane and kept on the sideboard in a tall blue and silver basket, one Swiss roll filled with marmalade and dusted with caster sugar. My regrets are all for sweets because then, when I was thin, I didn’t like them and now I’m not and there’s no one to make them but myself.

Regret is two-pronged: when someone offers me a plate of Mysore pak, I say no thank you, it’s full of ghee and sugar… okay, maybe I’ll have a bit and I cut myself a small cube. Then that smooth, ghee-laden sweetness works its magic and I cut myself another cube. And then, throwing care and caution to the winds, I finish the entire ingot; about cholesterol and calories I care not. The regret comes later, when the drug has worn off. But then, if I hadn’t eaten it, I would remember and curse myself for not having eaten it when I could. Like the other day I wanted to eat some caramel custard but had the usual compunctions. Also I still perpetuate the myth that I don’t like desserts, so I asked whether someone would share it with me. Jyotsna said she was having one of her own, but she’d help me with mine. When I began to eat it I got carried away with the smooth creamy egg and bittersweet caramel and looked up at Jyotsna, expecting her to generously wave it away, but she held out her hand and said she was wondering how much I was going to eat. I regret eating only half.

Anita mocks me to this day for the bonda episode. Many long years ago when I had greater abilities she and I and a group of friends had lunch in the upstairs lounge at the IIC. We ate and talked until the staff started winding up, when we moved down and sat in the verandah overlooking the water. Then a tray walked past and I just had to have what I saw: a pair of fat golden alu bondas. Mine eventually came, crisp crust without, steaming masala potatoes within, green chutney on the side. Despite the raillery, I have no regrets.


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Printable version | Dec 7, 2021 1:00:59 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/Vasundhara_Chauhan/this-time-around/article4959627.ece

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