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A savour of comfort

Last Sunday, I went to a memorial brunch for my friend, the adman Frank Simoes.

india Updated: Oct 02, 2002 16:41 IST

Last Sunday, I went to a memorial brunch for my friend, the adman Frank Simoes. It was a full-scale Goan repast, fit for a man who used his wizardry with words to create a Goa where the feni always flowed, the tables always groaned, and a Fado always strummed, oozing heartbreak through every bar. The rest of us couldn't wring out the pathos the way Remo did on that surreal afternoon in an expansive Altamount Road flat appointed with altars and icons, and over which a peepul rained like a benediction. But we could remember, and we could most certainly eat.

Both these activities were integral to that memorial, and both were encapsulated in a line that Raj Salgaocar quoted from Goa's great poet, Bakibab Borkar. It was about Yama calling, and the marked man pleading, `Please Sir, Mr God of Death,/ Don't make it my turn today./ There's fish curry for dinner tonight.' Frank might have cited the same reason, said the younger Salgaocar. And everyone in that room knew exactly how legitimate a reason that was for a deferment of destiny.

I thought all week about his line, and the part that comfort food, like a simple fish curry, plays in our life. All week , death has terrorised us, and comfort is hard currency. Comfort, and its surrogate, food.

You turn to the dal-chaval of the soul in moments of stress and sadness, or when you are as soggy with nostalgia as your grandmother's gajar halwa was with asli ghee. Or, you yearn for it when you choke on the stuffed artichokes, or any of that pretentious, newfangled fare with which we declare our social arrival.

Comfort food works on the mind like sorbitrate on angina, diluting the pressure and ending the memories coursing down the arteries of the mind. It stirs the gastric juices into a slow, massaging swirl that traps in its languorous eddy all the early experiences and emotions with which you associate these foods. Psychosomatically, they achieve their winding-down magic.

Comfort food varies from state to state and person to person. But there is one non-negotiable commonality : it doesn't make the grade unless it had been fed to you lovingly as a child. It may well have been forced down your throat , but that's not what you will remember now. The soft-focus maya of nostalgia masks the warts and wrinkles with as effective deception as a celebrity photographer.

Because comfort food is childhood food, it is also simple, as soothing to the digestive tract as talcum to a baby's bottom.

The iconic status of rice in our culture, even among the chapati-chompers, gets it genuflection here too. Most of our comfort food involves the glutinous grain, usually in a form as squelchy as sentiment.

This could be challenged in a court of lore, but I'd say that khichdi and kheer are the ruling deities of this peptic passage to the past. K&K come in a gut-long variety of combinations and consistencies specific to different regions, zillas and families. All of us guard as zealously as a magic potion their ingredients and the degree of mushiness to which they should be cooked. And well we might, for we know the power locked into the humble grain of rice when, over a slow fire, its passions stirred, it consummates its marriage with dal or doodh.

There are other contenders almost as rich in association as K&K. If you had even the most tenuous connections with Anglo-India, then caramel custard would certainly have coddled your childhood, providing a sensation equal to infantile thumb-sucking as soon as you penetrated its glistening brown top, and pierced its creamy heart with your adult spoon.

Apart from the generic comfort foods, there are intensely individual ones. For me, it is aloo pur anda, that Parsi standard of sliced onions and potatoes, spiced with just an insinuation of ginger, and crowned with an egg set by the steam. I call it by this Hindi name because mine was cooked by Saifuddin in Calcutta, not my Manuel Gama in Mumbai, where it would go by its authentic label of papeta pur eeda.

In times of turmoil, I turn to this associative ambrosia, finding instant peace as I savour the softness of aloo and embryo. At once, I am stroked by the remembrance of evenings in an old, empty house with only my imagination for company. It was a favourite scratch meal made when my parents were out for the evening, and the usual elaborate dinner wasn't deemed necessary.

Comfort food. It is cooked with care, and fed to children with a subconscious reverence. It will fill their bodies today, and still their minds tomorrow. But I worry. What culinary security blanket will be available to a generation raised on assembly-line hamburgers?

* * *
Alec Smart said, “Change the name of the butchering militants to ‘Tehrik-e-Kasai’.”

First Published: Sep 29, 2002 00:32 IST