Is it taste that’s important each time we savor our favorite dishes? What do we look for in every bite? Is it the right concoction of spices and meat or vegetables? Should it be cooked and served in traditional vessels? Is it the texture and the color? Or is there something more?
I have come to realize over the last few years that there is something more than just taste. We crave the strong wave of nostalgia that brushes our mind, body, and soul like the evening breeze. If made right, that first bite brings back fondest memories of the dish. And these memories, they come with such force. Hitting you gently at first, then rushing through you, making you feel warm all over. You close your eyes and begin to travel back to that time. Disconnected from reality, you float away into your past. You chew carefully so that all senses and taste buds in your mouth are awake and active. You savor every flavor, every element in that bite as you relive a distinct memory. You take slow deep breaths while you let the taste linger in your mouth. Your eyes still closed, you spend a few seconds meditating on the taste in your mouth before you take the next bite.
Taste is not what makes it perfect. You remember a certain smell, a certain color, a certain ingredient. There is also the location, the people and the setting you ate it in. Like the red-orange of Panna Upkari made in an earthen pot. The smell of Sukkal Sungat (dried prawns) wafting through the house. The hing (asafoetida) in the Dalitoy. Kori Rotti eaten on those white Corelle plates. Most of the dishes I prefer to make it my mom’s way but there are exceptions. Again, it is not their recipe that makes it perfect. It is the people themselves and the memories that I want to relive. Like Mamama’s (maternal grandma) Vison (seer fish) fry, my aunt’s prawns hing curry with white rice, Amma’s prawn pulao, buns from Mohini Vilas, Devastana (temple) Saaru, etc. There is a picture connected with each meal in my brain. A vivid image of the scene in which I enjoyed the meal. The round steel plate, the afternoon sunlight, the wooden dining table. There are a few traditions associated with others. Like the morning after an overnight bus journey from Bangalore, breakfast always meant food from Mohini Vilas. Idli/Dosa and buns all wrapped in banana leaves and newspapers, and then tied with a string.
One can recreate every item from Thera Jevan (Annual Car Festival celebrated in Mangalore), use the same recipe even but it won’t taste the same. Because it is not just the taste that makes it right. It is the atmosphere, the mahol (ambiance in Hindi). Women in saris and jewelry, the conversations, the sticky floors, sitting cross-legged, volunteers running around with hot, heavy vessels, screaming/asking to make way.
When I was younger, I wondered why older people always reminisced about the past. “Oh, the fun we had in our days. Things have changed. Those were the good old days”, they would say. I never understood it then. I decided that these people are just stuck in the past and don’t want to accept change. Because the new days, the present seemed fun to me. I was younger, naive. Now here I am, cooking my favorite dishes just so I can taste the 90s again. Simpler times, when electronic gadgets had not yet taken over our lives and time. When I try to recreate these dishes in my little kitchen, I try to add the right spices and ingredients. I look through recipe books, ask my mom for tips. I taste test as I cook. I try to make it just right, just the way I remember it. Even after all that if I feel it is lacking a little something, I add a sprinkling of fond memories.
And that seems to make all the difference.