I gingerly lift the cover of the bowl that the neighbour has sent. Last week, I had filled it with homemade dahi wadas and she’s returned it with biscuits again!
This has become a routine now but I always hope that one day the bowl will miraculously reveal, not goodies bought from a store, but something, which she has prepared at home.
It could be an unusual subzi or tangy chutney, something which is part of her traditional food. This expectation has been inculcated in me even as a child when bowls of home-cooked from the neighbours played a big role in my life.
I grew up in a housing colony where 50 families from different communities lived together. It was a close-knit community with its own rules and customs, the best of which was, to exchange homemade food with one another.
Whenever anyone prepared a signature dish, a little extra was cooked and generous portions were spooned into attractive bowls, garnished, covered with pretty napkins and sent across to the neighbours’.
Then one looked forward to its return, because it was always filled with home-cooked food. Besides the signature dish, everyone had her special brand of container.
One look at it, and we knew who had decided to make our day yummier: Aunty Padmanabhan‘s appams always appeared in a steel tiffin, Aunty Neela sent dhokla and handvo in an enamel-coated bowl, Aunty Mukherjee sent sandesh and cham-cham in a ceramic dish.
Then, there were treats that I had to grudgingly share with my sister. Looking back, I regard them as bowls filled with affection. All those loving women occupy a special place in my heart for all.
I can never eat a dosa without reminiscing about Aunty Rao’s adais.. egg curry brings back memories of Aunty Pammi. I would gorge on her spicy egg curries although my tongue would be on fire.
Christmas was for drooling over visions of Aunty Paes’ culinary delights and Aunty Kuruvilla’s homemade wine. This is the best way to foster love for other religions and customs. I would love to encourage this in my children.
The bowls of snacks from my neighbours also educated my taste buds. They developed in us, a broad and adaptive palate. I often see people turn up their noses at other culinary traditions.
How often have we heard derogatory comments about the predominance of idli-dosa and rice in the diet of South Indians! How often is Gujarati food dismissed as being too sweet or Maharashtrian food as bland and boring?
All I can say is — “Lord, forgive them, for they had no aunties to teach them any better.” I fear that my children will grow up to become gastronomic boors. I live in an apartment where relationships with my neighbours rarely go beyond friendly politeness.
There’s hardly any desire to share the joy of a well-made dish with the family-next-door. I sense my neighbours’ discomfort when I send them anything and I cringe every time the bowl is returned, filled with biscuits, wafers or mithai from the neighborhood store. At such times, the aromas of the past waft into my mind.