By Neeraja Srinivasan
“But will you find good rasam rice there? You can’t survive without rasam rice, you know that right?” My mother says to me after I tell her that I want to leave Chennai, where I’ve lived my whole life, to study English and Creative Writing up north, in Delhi. Rasam is a South Indian delicacy; its consistency is soup-like and it’s made by blending tomatoes, tamarind and lots of other spices and herbs native to the South. In our house, rasam rice is usually served with hot paruppu (a dal prepared using boiled lentils, topped with fried onions and chili) and seppankizhangu varuval (taro root fried with mustard, cumin, and copious amounts of masala). Back in 6th grade, every time rasam rice was packed for lunch, I would take enough to fill two glasses; one for me and one for my North Indian friends. After giving my friends their share of rasam, they’d offer me a portion from their lunch box— usually ghee-soaked rotis and ladies finger fry. I remember constantly cribbing that the chapatis made at home were too thick and dry, I never liked them as much as I liked the rotis I’d get from friends in exchange for my rasam.
Now that I think of it, lunch breaks at school, for me, were a strategy to people-watch. There was always food being traded and through that, traditions and customs as well. Rasam is said to have healing properties, often offered to people with colds to warm their throat—I don’t think I needed to be sick for it to give me warmth. Even now, when I hold a cup of hot rasam in a glass, I can’t help but feel more connected to my inner child. I would give anything to be 12 and go back to my school’s lunch break for a day—just to observe food being enjoyed freely and carelessly, given that the primary purpose of it is to keep us happy. Adulthood often steals the joy of eating leisurely, subsequent to diet culture raiding our brains.
My childhood was also filled with trips to my parents’ childhood haven, Madurai. To me, going to Madurai was accompanied with a tinge of annoyance—it wasn’t as modern as Chennai in terms of the way people dressed, spoke and behaved. My “obsessed with western media and culture” self didn’t think it was “cool enough”. I do remember loving one aspect of these trips, though; the food. We’d routinely visit a restaurant called ‘Konar Kadai’, famous for its flavourful kari dosai, which is essentially a dosa stuffed with spicy mutton keema. I didn’t care about the aesthetics of the restaurant, all that mattered was the dosa in front of me. Amma would order a side of half-boiled egg for us to eat along with the dosa. I recollect how comfortable it felt to have a loving relationship with food; unrealistic portrayals of eating habits in popular media have shattered the way I think about and consume food. It almost feels like skipping meals and surviving on caffeine is quirky—because eating well is now, more often than not, associated with sharp pangs of guilt.
One of my earliest memories back in Madurai consists of ‘Nila choru’ which literally translates to ‘rice eaten under the moonlight’. It is a Tamil tradition that involves eating a meal, usually dinner, under a full moon. The meal takes place on a terrace, with family and friends seated in a circle, bathed in mellow moon glow. Amma would sit in the center, holding a mud pot filled with rice and chicken curry, dip her hand into the pot, take out a handful of the mixture and roll it into balls, which she would pass to each one of us in turn. A constant stream of anecdotes and jokes filled the air as we ate, stories that would inevitably stick to corners of my memory for the rest of my life. Food and laughter, both so critical to sustenance. Both so deeply interrelated.
Sundays in our home, like many other Tamilian homes, translated to only one thing—biriyani for lunch. Classmates from school and neighbors would promptly assemble at our door on hot, humid Chennai afternoons. The aroma of chopped onions sizzling in bay leaf, cardamom, cumin powder and clove would spread all across the house and, by extension, the rest of the apartment as well. There is a specific delight in living in a flat and wondering what’s being cooked up in everyone’s houses—we’d try to make guesses based on smells that made their way to us from kitchens all around. According to my mother, however, biriyani always tastes better the day after it is made. She’d routinely leave a box in the fridge for me to gobble up after school; many days were spent reading (or people-watching, or just generally loitering around) instead of eating during lunch breaks, to save up all my hunger for leftovers.
Subconsciously, although I didn’t realise it back then, I became more accustomed to eating in solitude at home, as opposed to inside a classroom filled with kids my age. I liked being able to assemble my meal at my own pace; warmed up biriyani with a side of curd and a chili to crunch on between bites. I still struggle with eating around other people, especially with my hands. My biggest fear as a child was being perceived as messy, and eating with my hands meant a certain level of chaos that I could not let myself take part in front of others. While alone, I would allow myself to appreciate food the way I’ve been taught my whole life: by eating with my hands.
I’ve made mental notes associating the food I grew up eating with certain emotions and feelings. Curd rice and mango pickle for when I’m sad, oily medhu vadais (doughnut shaped crispy fritters) for drowsy, post-food coma festival evenings, nine different types of sundal (various types of chickpea seasoned with coconut shavings, ginger and mustard) for each exciting day of Navratri and mini ghee idlis soaked in sambhar and peanut chutney for breakfast on exam days. These associations are simple reminders that food doesn’t necessarily have to be categorized as healthy and unhealthy, good and bad. If it makes me happy, I’ll allow myself that freedom.
Distance wise, I’m pretty far away from South Indian food. The good kind, at least; which is to say that I’m far away from home and all the food it continues to offer. As I write this, I’m trying to find recipes on YouTube for ‘thakkali sadham’ or tomato rice, a simple dish that I can manage to put together in a communal college kitchen. I’m listening to a Tamil woman giving detailed cooking directions; remember to add salt, let the rice steam well, add puréed ginger and garlic. Something about it feels right.