Hello to you, my yellow tulip in the sunshine,
This is the day after I finally finished the third rewrite of the book I have been working on for what seems like ten zillion years and also yesterday (seven months total, I counted) and sent it off to my agent to be sold to the highest bidder and began thinking about what to do next and one of those things was writing to you.
Last week I finally finished reading MFK Fisher’s memoir Gastronomical Me. When I say finally here, I’m not being hyperbolic. I began this book in 2018. I read a lot of it and then abandoned it on my bedside table because I got distracted, and then it moved from my bedside table to my towering unread-books-I’d-like-to-read-in-the-future pile during a declutter. (This pile came in extremely handy during the lockdown and the subsequent rest of this year, but then I started buying more new books as my own form of nesting so it’s about the same size as it was before I started.) Gastronomical Me is a great book by the way, and definitely worth reading, don’t be put off by my two year journey into its completion. And it got me thinking about food and memories, how specifically some food can trigger some memories.
My friend Nayantara told me once about what a delight it was to feed her then-infant daughter all these fruits she’d never tried before. The baby’s face trying a fig! A strawberry! A mango! This look of surprise and joy at discovering new textures and tastes! Imagine being a small human and discovering something you love for the first time! I don’t even remember the last time that happened to me, after you’re grown up, you have a dictionary of tastes stored up in your head, hardly anything is new. The first time I ate currywurst on the streets of Berlin, for instance, I already knew what to expect: three familiar tastes in one. Chopped up sausage with sweet ketchup and curry powder on top. The combination might be a surprise but hardly anything is unexpected unless you go in expecting salt and taste sweet. (There’s that Friends episode where Rachel mixes together the recipe for trifle and also for shepherd’s pie? And Ross is like, “It tastes like feet!” but would it taste like feet or just jam and cream interacting with the mince, which okay, is gross, but also familiar flavours?)
Here are my food memories then, Gastronomical Me style. Or Proust, if that’s what you prefer:
Sweet potato chaat in Delhi: Which is this great snack you only get on the side of the road in Delhi during the winter months, the same way you only get bhutta during the rainy season. There’s this roasted potato smell, because the guy has a tall bamboo stand filled with raw sweet potatoes and in the middle, there’s a basket filled with coals and he’s put a couple of potatoes in it and when you ask for one, he digs it out from the middle, closest to the coals and the skin is all blackened and he peels it so the tender yellow-brown flesh comes off in big chunks under his wicked tiny knife into a disposable leaf bowl. I’m explaining it like I would explain it to a foreigner (sorry, Indian readers) but watching the guy prepare it is half the joy. Over it, he squeezes a big lemon and adds a mix—all the guys have a different-but-same version of the masala mix—from a small plastic box with holes along the top and then he puts another bowl on top of it and shakes them together like a cocktail and then he pulls out a stick and puts it on to a potato and hands you the whole thing to walk away with. It’s soft and giving and warm and wholesome and is the perfect snack for a cold day, especially when you’ve been shopping at an open-air market and it’s that awkward hour between lunch and dinner, and the sweet and the sour and the tangy all mix up and when you get to the end, you chase around the leftover masala with your remaining potato and eat it all up. By my college, back when I was in college, the Regular Sweet Potato Guy also had these green tart fruits called amrakh (starfruit to everyone else) and I got into those for a while instead of sweet potato. These are ridiculously sour, green things which, when sliced into thin little discs are in the shape of a star (pretty!) and over which he put the same masala mix, so instead of the sweet of the potato you had this super tart gets-in-your-teeth-and-makes-them-squeak citrus snack which I was really into then.
Frankies: As a Delhi person, I was always kind of snobby about kebab rolls anywhere that wasn’t North India, but I lived in Bombay for some time, and once, visiting a friend in South Bombay, she suggested we get frankies for dinner, and I shrugged, wanting to be easy and amiable about what I ate, even though I knew in my heart that it would be another disappointment. But these rolls weren’t even pretending to be like the seekh kebab roll I knew and loved! They had chopped up chicken pieces in them, cooked on a pan with onions and vinegar, making a dense bed for the chicken and making them so slippery that you had to hold on to the paper wrapping as you ate because half your stuffing would wind up in them. I loved them so much that when I moved back to Delhi and discovered the same brand existed here, I bought myself frankies over and over again, much like I bought rolls in Bombay and once again, was disappointed because it wasn’t that evening, by the beach, eating a new thing and being surprised by how it tasted. (Bombay also introduced me to the butter chicken roll—a combination I would never have approved of, because I am conservative about my eating—except when I ate it at two am, which is the right time to eat a butter chicken roll, you’ve been drinking, you had dinner at 8 pm, you need something to soak up the booze, it turned out to be exactly the food I had been wanting all along, without knowing it.)
Jonna Rotte for breakfast: I have only eaten this a few times in my life, and that was when I was a very small child, staying with my cousins and grandparents in Hyderabad. Back then, there was a dairy next door so we had fresh milk and sometimes the fresh milk came with fresh cream, and when we had fresh cream, they’d suddenly have a breakfast consisting of rice flour rotis, white and crisp paired with this same fresh cream, sprinkled liberally with as much fresh ground chilli powder as we could stand. The chilli powder was made at home too, so was coarse and flavourful, the cream was thick, the rotis flew off the stove and on to our plates as fast as we could eat them. In retrospect, I really don’t like cream so I don’t know how I was persuaded to eat this meal, but it combined everything I loved: crisp textures melding into soft, heat and mild. We were introduced to chillis very early on as children, I asked my mum the other day if there was ever any separate food prepared for kids with less spice, as we do these days and she said no, all we did was build up our tolerance, so you’d start off eating adult food with a lot of rice and daal and very little meat (the spice carrier) and you made your way up to it as you went along. I’m thankful for this now, because I can eat anything, no matter how spicy, in fact, the spicier the better, but also it means that food that isn’t spicy tastes bland to me. Indian food, that is, I’m fine when I’m traveling but I do miss heat in my food to make my mouth wake up a little bit. I don’t know how Indians got on before the Portuguese came and gave us all the gift of the chilli pepper.
Steak: I have not eaten that much steak in my life, beef being hard to get in India, but two times stand out. Once was in Bombay (Bombay! So much name checking of you today!) where there was this small Italian restaurant in Bandra called Mia Cucina. Mia Cucina had two stand-out dishes on their menu: a sausage and bell pepper risotto which I have never been able to find anywhere else, not exactly the same anyway, and the steak, which, being Bombay, might’ve actually been beef not buff. It was the first time I learned to eat and love steak, just a hunk of meat, cooked sparingly, with a little gravy on the side. I remember the crisp top of that meat and the soft inside, and because I always ordered it medium rare, it was juicy in the middle, and funnily, even if it was slightly bloody, it never put me off, I liked it even more for all that, mopping up whatever was left on my plate with potato. The other great steak of my life was in Paris (obviously, darling) and we were so broke that holiday because we had miscalculated the bicycle rental we did the day before. (The company keeps 300 euro deposit and DOES NOT REFUND IT for six weeks, meaning our holiday was spent waaay under budget since that 300 euro was something we were counting on to, you know, live.) Anyway, we had taken to checking Tripadvisor near us for nice, highly rated places that were also reasonably priced and there was this one tiiiiiny bistro a few lanes away, which we almost got lost getting to and when we got there they were almost closed but agreed to stay open for us and we ordered one steak to share and ate it, lovingly, not talking at all, because it was so good and we were so hungry and all the waiters and the bartender and everyone watched us splitting this steak with amusement but really, that was the best steak I’ve ever had.
Vietnamese barbecue: I know when you think of Vietnam, you do not think of barbecue, but really, it was entirely by chance (and hunger) that we wound up at this semi-famous place in Nha Trang, which was only meant to be a pit stop between Saigon and Hoi An, but we were so tired we stayed two nights instead. I still dream about that meal though: you’re given a small personal grill filled with coals for your table, you point at the meat you want, which comes to you raw and marinated, and then you cook it yourself. I don’t know what they put in that marinade, but it was perfect: salt and tangy and yet subtle enough for the meat to shine through. I didn’t find it in any other city after we left Nha Trang, so it was obviously a specialty.
Cutlet paos: House-sitting for friends in Goa, we go for a scooter drive and come across a van at a crossing out of which people are buying food. This van, I’ve learned subsequently, is extremely famous and well-known, and has been there for ages, but it was the first time we had ever even heard of them. I follow quite a simple motto when I travel: when you see people waiting in line outside a restaurant or a food truck, join them. It hasn’t steered me wrong once. Noronhas was great, and I’ve been thinking about their beef cutlet paos a lot lately, because I haven’t been to Goa in so long. Beaten slices of meat fried in a sooji batter sandwiched in a fresh poi served with french fries and this green chilli sauce that is so good that whenever I asked K to go get takeaway from them, I’d tell him to remember the sauce like fifty times. Apparently they make it themselves which is why it’s so nice. Oh Noronhas. Writing about you makes me miss you. As soon as I am vaccinated (and can organise cat care), I am on the first plane out of here to Goa.
This is what I’ve got. Tell yours also.
And share with your friends!
Links I Loved:
We are all trapped in America’s internet.
Speaking of America’s internet, this is a great Twitter thread
Beautiful sad story. (Trigger warning: dead pets.)
The Western influencer and Pakistan’s politics.
Confessions of an Indian jewel thief. (Also, not to victim blame, but people have GOT TO BE less trusting in this country.)
My three visa rejections: excellent essay about trying (and failing) to get an American visa.
Can we ever really know a cat?
And let’s retire the What We Talk About When We Talk About blah di blah title format.
Finally: an interview with the creator of Spotify’s coolest playlist.
Have a great week!
Where am I? The Internet Personified! A mostly weekly collection of things I did/thought/read/saw that week.
Who are you?Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, writer of internet words (and other things) author of seven books (support me by buying a book!) and general city-potter-er.
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