I am a die-hard fan of rajma chawal (kidney beans and rice). It’s a deadly combination. Especially if you savour it with some spicy green chilli pickle – it’s my ultimate comfort food.
In 2001, I had joined a college in Mumbai. Moving to a new city was both fascinating and challenging. Food was one of the biggest challenges.
I wasn’t too happy with the hostel mess food. I frequently spotted curry leaves in the rajma and paneer bhurji. That didn’t go well with my Punjabi palate. The first time I spotted curry leaves in my rajma, I freaked out. I phoned my mom home: “Mummy, how can they add curry leaves in rajma?”
My mom simply empathised with me. This saga continued for some time.
I missed home-cooked food all the time. Sometimes, to satiate my gastronomic cravings, I visited a restaurant that served Punjabi cuisine. The aroma of familiarity with that small restaurant comforted me. It evoked a sense of love and belongingness. Now, I can understand why many immigrants desperately look for local markets and produce when they venture into new territory.
I was not open to experimenting with food. Since I hailed from a small town in Punjab and hadn’t tried too many new things, my food choices were mostly confined to Punjabi cuisine like stuffed paranthas, butter chicken, dal makhani, aloo gobhi, aloo tikki and so on.
I remember, occasionally, as children, we visited a small south Indian restaurant with my family to enjoy hot dosas that simply melted in the mouth. I have some beautiful recollections of those visits, where we would go on my father’s scooter. Other than that, my exposure to regional food was quite limited.
In college, one day, a friend suggested, “I will make you try something new.”
We trooped down to a small thela that served yummy anda bhurji (scrambled egg) with pav near my college. Pav is proper Mumbai fast and convenient food. I can recall the aroma and taste of that hot, mouth-watering anda bhurji with the fluffy pav. It takes me back to memory lane. I still can’t accomplish making something even close to it.
It was the beginning of my journey of food exploration. I discovered many new dishes as I went along. Previously, my familiarity with pav was limited to the famous Mumbai pav bhaji. Later, I experimented with many unique combinations. Speaking of it, Irani restaurants in Mumbai serve numerous dishes like keema pav, maska pav. Now, no trip to Mumbai is complete without sampling these dishes.
As I broadened my horizons when it came to what I put in my mouth, and consequently my stomach, I simultaneously befriended people hailing from different parts of the country. There is one thing that binds all of us – the love for food.
As I travelled, my familiarity with Indian food grew. I began to appreciate different regional and local cuisines. I gradually familiarised myself with Gujarati dabeli, Maharashtrian puran-poli, Pahari madra, and Rajasthani lal maas.
My curiosity about people and their cultures also grew side by side. I started exploring the intersections between culture and food. I became curious about other aspects of culture, like language and festivals. In India, many festivals like Pongal, Lohri and Bihu are celebrated around harvesting season. Even many food recipes are passed-on intergenerationally.
Had I not ventured out of my comfort zone, my curiosity towards varied cultures and cuisines would have perhaps remained unexplored. Now, whenever we travel, I make sure that we try diverse local and regional cuisines. Slowly, I have become open to exploring many international cuisines as well.
As I travel, I carry a beautiful treasure of memories that I associate with various foods. The aroma stays with me. It reminds me of people and places, laughter, and some lovely conversations.
Perhaps this is the reason that I turned to comfort food during the pandemic. Food grounded me when everything around me was unstable. I cooked and served many dishes that I associated with my childhood, like chole, poori aloo, halwa, and rajma chawal.
In many ways, food gives me something concrete to hold on to, something to cherish.
Minakshi Dewan is a freelance researcher, storyteller, and a children’s writer. She works in the area of traditional medicine, child protection, and public health.
Featured image credit: Ankur Gulati/Flickr