Whenever I fly back to India after a long trip abroad, the first thing I do after I have checked in is call home and order dinner. It's always the same menu: khichdi and aloo chokha with a side of onion raita. That, to me, is the authentic taste of home. And that's what I long for after a week or so of eating Thai, Italian, Chinese, or generic Continental food.
I guess it is true what they say: your taste buds are set by the food you grew up on. And in my case, it was bog-standard, fairly bland, vegetarian fare, the kind that ayurvedic buffs would classify as satvik food. And that is the food that I always long for, after my palate has been over-stimulated by spicy, exotic, even esoteric fare.
I assume it's the same for all of you reading this. It is the tastes of your childhood that you miss most as you grow up and travel far from home. For some it may be simple dal-chawal and subzi; for some it may be an aromatic biryani; for others it may be a masala omelette wedged between buttered toast; or some curd-rice with pickle and fried papad. But while the choices may vary, the idea remains the same. We long for the food we cut our milk teeth on.
Speaking for myself, I still fantasise about the singada (samosa to all those who grew up in north India) I ate at my Calcutta home. The highly spiced potato mix, encased in the most delicate pastry, and dunked in an unctuous sweet-sour sauce. Bliss! Over the years, I have eaten samosas all over the length and breadth of India but nothing ever comes close. And each time I experience a little pang of disappointment as I take my first bite.
The jhaal-moori sold outside the school gates, all the more special for being contraband; the orange-stick ice-cream lollies which left our tongues a lurid colour; the kanji my grandmother would make each season; the sambar that was the Sunday special at home; all these tastes still linger in my mouth, all the more flavourful for being infused with nostalgia.
No matter how much we grow up or how far we travel, the taste of home is always comforting. Brits who are exiled across the pond, whether in New York or Los Angeles, long for a jar of Marmite (no, I don't get the appeal either).
Australians are a bit mental about Vegemite, which tastes pretty ghastly to the rest of us. Italians hunt out the local pizzeria the moment they hit a new city.
The Japanese think nothing of spending a minor fortune on eating sushi and sashimi on their travels. And we all know of those Gujarati or Marwari groups who go everywhere with their own maharaj (that's cook, not king) so that they can get their fill of theplas, undhiyu, gatte ki subzi, raj kachoris and other deep-fried delights no matter where in the world they are.
Even hardened soldiers who go out to war do so while kitted out with their home staples because - as Napoleon Bonaparte so famously said - an army marches on its stomach. We recently got a good look at the pre-packed meals of the soldiers of different countries serving in Afghanistan when they were served at a charity dinner organised by The Guardian newspaper.
Here are just some of the items in the kitty. The Brits get Typhoo tea and Tabasco; the Italians get minestrone and a tiny measure of alcohol (coyly called cordiale); the French get (no surprises here) cassoulet with duck confit and venison paté; the Americans get peanut butter and spiced apple cider; the Germans get liver-sausage spread for their rye bread; the Singaporeans get a pack of Sichuan noodles and soya milk; and the Australians get steak and (you guessed it!) Vegemite.
Because at the end of the day - whether you spend it on the warfront or in a boring conference room - everyone longs for a taste of the home they grew up in. And that's why even Michelin star-quality Chinese food doesn't hit the spot quite like your mom's Maggi noodles.
From HT Brunch, March 9
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