By Meghna Mathew
Artwork by Toshi Singh
I play a guessing game every morning - or at least, I’d like to believe it is a fun activity for me, and amusement for others is an added bonus. As I walk out of my room each morning, the first words I utter are not pleasantries, but a guess as to what’s cooking in the kitchen. Something frying? Fresh pooris with potato. Something buttery? Probably paranthas. A strong whiff of curry leaves? Definitely, sambar accompanied by dosas. When I smell nothing, I expect to hear a “Make yourself an omelette” from my mother.
The kitchen is forever bustling. As I pick up the final morsel of breakfast, I’m already wondering which joy lunch will bring me - will it be the excited kind where my favourite dishes fill me up, or will it be the kind that arouses the curiosity of a new dish? My never-ending hunt to know which meal is up next leads to the question, “What are we having next?”. My mother, who does love to cook, too, shares a near-defeated expression, knowing she has a food-curious daughter on her hands, and yet, the question (even over two decades later) takes her aback.
Apart from my mother and me, our home (the Mathew household, as I like to call it) is also populated by my father, my sister, and my grandmother. As all of us are equally as obsessed with food, we leave no opportunity to bring the topic up. While some of us may be better at actually whipping up some delicious meals, and significantly so, the others are quick to devour it. A characteristic I recognised early on in life, our live-to-eat-and-not-eat-to-live attitude was questionable prior to my passionate foray into the activities of the kitchen. But for the former half of my life food was simply food.
Years later, it stands as a reminder of cultures and traditions, and how we have moulded them into something we can call our own.
The Tales Of Kitchens
In his book Choice Cuts (2002), author Mark Kurlansky said, “Food is a central activity of mankind and one of the single most significant trademarks of a culture.” He is right in both senses that, without food, mankind does not exist - of course, right? But a deeper look into the context of food gives me an insight into what it has to do with culture - the geography, ecosystem, food chains, and so on have as much to do with our food as our traditions, values, history, and tastes. Much of this realisation comes from the kitchen of my home. It does not take much more than the act of my mother preparing the lip-smacking combination of butter chicken and jeera rice, as the South Indian protagonist, the homemade mango pickle, simmers away to perfection in the span of two feet.
The India-Pakistan partition left a long-lasting impact on food - as the tandoor and its all-around likeability seeped into Northern India, particularly Punjab. Rich tomato-based gravies became a norm, and the use of masalas began competing with that of aromatics. The resultant dishes account for the mainstream Punjabi food we see today. My mother and her family - all as Punjabi as they come - swear by the tips, tricks, and tastes of this mini-cuisine. Ghee-forward paranthas and rich gravies would grace our dining table often as I grew up.
This was not all, however. My father comes from God’s own country, Kerala, in the south of India. The climate, cuisine, produce, and culture, remains as far from that of Punjabis as the distance between the two states. Owing to its coastal nature, we always had an abundance of seafood, coconuts, curry leaves, and rice on offer. With less in-your-face flavours and perhaps more complex ones, our Kerala-inspired meals featured as frequently as the rest. Often, the two would take on roles - South Indian for breakfast, and North Indian for the meals to follow. Fluffy steamed idlis or crispy thin dosas accompanied by sambar and coconut chutney to start the day, and the staple dal-chawal and sabzi or a meat preparation to end it - not much ever went awry.
The magic responsible for this cultural blend, a beautiful confusion, of sorts, begins in the Mathew Household’s kitchen. The source of all the pressure cooker whistles and the banging of the mortar and pestle has always doubled as a space that has given us some of our most special memories - as I returned from school each day, my mother would be putting final touches to my lunch, and I would sit on the counter-top and bite her ear off with the details of my day.
Of course, my tales would always be interrupted by “Taste the rajma and tell me if it has enough salt” or something along those lines - the kind of interruptions I didn’t really mind. Cut to 2020, where the lockdown, on one hand, was driving us all insane, but on the other, our collective curiosity of ‘Who’s trying a new recipe today?’ would often take over. Every Friday came to be dedicated to my father and his cooking endeavours (read: shenanigans) which would result in a highly modified version of recipes he found online. The kitchen never witnesses ill-meaning words - the only argument that exists is when too many people wish to opine on the dish being cooked.
South Asian households, and Indian ones particularly, have always had spaces that catered to families or even communities. Our dining tables are thoroughly used for the frequent get-together of relatives, our living room is often populated with friends from the past, and the one thing that remains constant even with all the permutations of guests is the food that leaves the kitchen. A testament to our cross-cultural cuisines and our undying love for food, the kitchen trumps its own purpose - we don’t just cook here, we converse, we laugh, we cry, and we celebrate.
The ‘Punjab’ and the ‘Kerala’ take a backseat even though the food stems from these regions as this little space makes way for more meaningful and genuine acts. Almost like a home within a home, our kitchen is made so by the people that occupy it.
Of course, the food is an integral part, but when you have spent as much time as us and created moments as remarkable as ours, the dishes begin to seem like an appreciated bonus. For even if the food was bad - bland, burnt, saltless - we would still eat it, and the humorous remarks would begin later.
The Identities We Often Miss
There is no doubt that the Mathew Household loves food. But oftentimes, we miss its interwoven nature with our identities - I say ‘identities’ in plural because as much as the umbrella of two-states culture we all come under, we have all also each come into our own by way of accepting and portraying it. Indian food has always been meant to be shared and enjoyed, and while we do that, we take away a lot from the process of getting there. Over time, memories and dishes begin to entangle - the dal my mother made when I returned crying from school, the aloo buns my sister tried when we were all bored in peak lockdown, the chicken bukhara my father whipped up when we realised Kashmiri food has a lot to offer, or the cakes I bake when the Mathews need a good sit-down.
All of this - our journeys with food and culture - has not come about without a realisation that food is more of a vehicle of history, people, and traditions, than it is given credit for. Our lives remain intertwined with aspects of food and rarely do these ever show themselves. Through my younger years, the quest for ‘new food’ was always limited to Western cuisines and what was available in all its glory, right here at home, took a backseat.
Perceptions of the richness of Indian cuisine, and especially food prepared at home, came in the form of love from some special friends I made in Turkey in 2018. An exchange programme allowed me to prepare an Indian staple - the humble chicken curry - for a few Turkish friends, and the delight on their faces as they took their first bites ushered in a realisation of what my food can do. I cook, and perhaps not always well, to be able to create memories over shared plates, and often, if the dishes are impressive, I welcome that bonus with open arms. Yes, the kitchen in our homes may be where the food finds inception, but what it represents is so much larger.
A country and a region’s collective history lies on a plate, and rarely do we remember that. These are stories - ones waiting to be written, read, and heard - and only we can make that happen. Much of my North-South Indian identity can be found in the nuances of what graces my plate each day, and all I have to do is find the tales and narrate them.
About the author :
Meghna Mathew is a writer and editor, one obsessed with stories and even more so with storytelling. Based in Bangalore, she enjoys pondering over (and writing on) all things culture and identity. When not typing her musings away, she spends her time whipping up some baked goods, tucked into novels, or bingeing TV shows. Find her on Instagram @meg.mathew