The heartwarming TV advertisement, showing a Hindu couple warming up to their Muslim neighbour over tea, goes to remind us that traditionally people have bonded over food.
My father was a senior scientist with the ICAR (Indian Council of Agricultural Research), which took our family to almost all corners of India as he'd be transferred every three years. Before marriage, I had already stayed in five highly diverse states. My mother would curse this practice as it meant starting life afresh with new neighbours, new friends, new schools for children and above all the pain of buying many household items that would get damaged during transit or had to be abandoned under compulsion, but today I realise how much this benefits a young mind.
I learnt about diverse cultures and food habits which even the best of schooling at a single place cannot do, only by having my schooling in different parts of India. As students, we'd share our tiffin and this gave us the chance to eat mouth-watering delicacies of other regions; on occasions, we would go to the extent of exchanging our tiffin boxes. It so happened that once when my mother sighted a different tiffin box in the kitchen sink, she was confused. When asked, glib-tongued I had to fabricate a story. It was just not possible for me to tell her that I liked my friend's food more than hers. Not only this, I'd put my mom's cooking capabilities to the test by asking her to cook the dishes to which I'd take a fancy during such sittings with classmates. And to come up to the expectations of her darling daughter, mom would be seen frantically moving to learn tips from neighbours.
Birthdays were most eagerly awaited occasions and we would speculate on the dishes to be served and then gorged on unabashedly, the dishes which we liked but were not cooked in our own home. That was a time when most of the delicacies would be home-cooked, except the birthday cake from the market.
Once, when father was posted in Bellary (Karnataka), he invited his colleagues to dinner. Since most of the invitees were from Karnataka, my mother cooked south Indian dishes after taking tips from our south Indian neighbour. Lo, as the food was being placed on the table, huge disappointment was visible on the faces of the guests. One who was very pally with my father said laughingly, "Mrs Verma, we were waiting for black dal sautéed in desi ghee, shahi paneer, fried gobi and thick rotis. This we eat every day."
My mother soon made amends by arranging another dinner party on my brother's birthday. This time, they were seen gobbling north Indian dishes as if there won't be another occasion. Likewise, we would wait with bated breath for the lip-smacking dishes of that region when others would invite us. Believe me, this helped me develop food fantasies and have made me respect the inherent goodness of cultures other than what I was born into. The present generation may not accept it, but in the good old days, a woman's creativity in the kitchen would act as a strong bond with the partner. I won't shrug to say: "A woman with culinary skills can give a run for her money to the woman with a beautiful face."
The writer is a Chandigarh-based freelance contributor