Eating Me Alive

Monday, 11 December 2017

Ive spent a shy two-month sabbatical out of London, aiming at writing fantastic stories, but then time warped into something enigmatic. Consequentially, I find myself propped on a boomerang. If my existence is charted on a time frame, Im caught in a limbo that wavers between my lost realities here and then it returns to my hilarious exit from Heathrow terminal.  Although, I am currently grounded at Kochi, my mind is constantly moving back and forth. With this anomaly, quite often my brain goes into the sleep mode, especially when I wash the dishes. I think its quite allegorical, you know, wash away whats in the past. But instead, my thoughts panders to the intricate sensitive web of decisions I made within the confinement of a cramped plane seat. The gravity of those decisions certainly wasnt overpowering to make a plane plummet; gratefully it still flew. Embrace whatever comes your way, and move forward.  Only until my optimistic musings during the twenty-hour journey were quelled by something utterly irrelevant. 

Fourteen months away from home, my toes curled up, enjoying the last moisture- sucking drill by Londons infamous winter chills. My tummy caved in by the fastened seat belt. I imagined the whoosh of hot air against my face. Kochi, Kochi, I muttered under my abated breath. When I arrived at Qatar, I knew I was not lost, I just had to follow those long braided plaits- it was so oiled that it kept their Malayalee identity engines running. Kochi was just a hair braid away. I kept a distance but there was a familiar haunting smell of virgin coconut oil. I immediately thought of the gurgling cauldrons of hot oil, yanking arms and sliced bananas flying like psychotic saucers into the cholesterol haven. That first smell of banana chips is just like a realization. Homecoming is not like adulterated rum; its a concentrated poison. But you still take a major gulp and dive into the intoxication of denial.

The Homesick Trick

Many would say the first few days are paradise; theyre personally the toughest for me. Getting used to the grainy rice taste in dosas*, the overpowering chili peppers in a breakfast sambar*, but gradually you are lured by the ground coconut in stews and the smashed garlic and ginger paste in spiced sour pork vindaloo*. In many ways I settled in Kochi a little too quickly, falling for the charms of the hardworking sun that does not retire by 4 pm. I admired the buoyant rains; the sway of banana leaves and possessed roosters', whose cry was the first to take flight in Kochis tenacious sunny mornings. All until, I was sorting through some of my old purses and I spotted one of my bills from Sainsbury*. And just like the recent lighting strikes that attacked the poor televisions of my relatives homes, my short-circuited brain fused. Erratic impulses, it all came in a jiffy.

My sprint to the grocery store around Surbiton station, the aisles I picked my favourite cheddar cheese and blueberry yoghurt, Tom who smiled the most at the tills, and finally how I always hope to hit on a budget below twenty quids. The walk back juggling the grocery bags, the relief when it rests on the kitchen counters, and finally, a hot dinner paired with some fresh comedy on Netflix. London came back and it just started eating me alive.

Rhye bread, with breaded ham, peppered avocados, guacamole and spiced mayonnaise 

Growing up in a culture of hostels, cheap canteens, mother and maid dominant kitchens, I can shamefully boast of my non-existent culinary skills. And no I wasnt one of those I watched my Nana cook in the kitchen girl. When I first moved to London, my Turkish hallmate Can, was always breaking into soft laughs with my skittish treatment of a skillet pot.  Our kitchen aced with Annie and Ushin who had an effortless flair of cooking with chopsticks and Maria who could make the most delicious banana loafs and coconut shaving macaroons and finally Can who could make a stew in a kettle if he had to, which left me with Jad and I.  Jad has a good taste palette, and he always made the healthiest tabolehs*, whilst I made quite a staid sandwich on a regular basis. The Kingston Nosh cookery book, sat on the counter and slowly mocked my commendable skills of cooking. 26 and culinary handicapped, I clearly could strangle myself with an apron in the company of the womens judgmental eyes back home. After all by now, I would have been married making puttu and kadala* for the husband.
Buttered croissant with gracious dollop of hazelnut spread with a bananas, raspberry and blue berry yoghurt

I could be embarrassed that being this grown up, my kitchen withdrawal symptoms had no justifiable reason. In fact, Ive never enjoyed cooking; I always felt its an imposition. I don't think it should be so taxing, where you start six in the morning and you laboriously cook far too many dishes to satiate every taste bud. Ive always wanted to be the cereal, basic sandwich and salad girl. But Indian meals calls out for being extensive ( I mean look at the noon saadhyas). Being a candidate for marriage, I was always asked, Mole* do you cook. Semiotic of Kitchen played in the reels of my brain. I was obstinate not to master the art, just to encourage the talk of how non- Stepford I am. I loved food and it was in total luck I took up food styling whilst working for a magazine. Enjoying my company with jovial chefs, I never cooked food. Thats right I was paid to play with food. My mother still says, What an irony.

When I moved to London, there was no comfort eating out all the time. The rumble of the tummy let to the bare necessities of cooking. My quest began with a map; literally, Joe the amicable halls coordinator gave one to our nearest grocery store, Sainsbury and Waitrose. In the advent of an early winter, I cruised through the Laithwarthes winery, took a swift left from KFC, I made it to Sainsbury. Overwhelmed by the choices, I carried a grocery basket and started with the basics – a loaf of bread, cheese and the humble ham.

Mashed potato pie with garlic roast mushrooms, celery, rosemary and thyme 
Quail scotch eggs coated with spiced minced pork and a rocket salad 

The Stirring Feeling

The winters taught me well, the warmth of a stove, and how each flavor brought about a taste that makes you forgot about the daunting weather. And when all of us stirred up mysteries in our woks, we loved how the kitchen warmed up to our joy. Our Friday evenings had an abundantly decked table, and for the first time, I cooked some spicy prawn fry with buttered rice. My first dinner where I joined in eating my hallmates tofu, steamed cabbages and egg wraps with pork. While packing up, I looked at my simple spice rack and wondered what will the year ahead welcome. Surprisingly, I grew fond of our Nosh* book at the kitchen and slowly started experimenting in the kitchen. Some days were cooking was just lazy sautés to piss-pot days of forcefully rolling dough with wine bottles. In time, I learned to make a perfect basil pesto, stuffing for my childhood cravings- meat pies and enjoying smoked basil aubergines. There were days my breaded chicken honestly looked like a chicken with scanty plumage, but some days it turned out being perfect. Honestly, sometimes my food was utterly disastrous, but the attempt was always worth it, and in a while making a simple guacamole was an achievement. I found cooking for myself was just a reward for my obliviousness. And every time someone called me from home, hopefully wishing I was pining for Kerala food, I smirked and always said, Food is so good in London.

 In many ways having a kitchen and pantry to myself, was the most liberating. It was free from all the cooking norms, cook for your kids, for your husband, first learn to cook upama- scenarios.  There wasnt a harsh roster to feed people, cooking staple 101's, rather just a conversation with oneself. A loving one where you eat and cook things that you remembered when you read books or spotted in magazines. Something mom did not have time to cook or even something a cafe back home never had on the menu. Days where a meal wasnt to be enjoyed on a dining table, sometimes it was on top of a foppish duvet whilst drawing some illustrations by your favourite nightside lamp. I wasnt angry like Martha Rosler. Cooking turned out being therapeutic and also a clumsy affair to have a laugh at. Whether it was seeing how my hall mates shirk at the sound of the shrill pressure cooker, keeping track of the burn scars when refusing to buy mitts, but more importantly burning pans and doing the tango with the smoke detector (literally used a broom and gave it occasional whacks). And the days your pantry is bare, no one cares, you could survive on whipped cream, kiwis and cereal.

Breaded chicken fillets, served with spiced mushrooms and baked basil aubergine 
Stuffed portabello mushroom with bacon and smoked mature cheddar 

Amidst the tough hours, the dissertation deadlines, I found joy being in the kitchen for the shortest time. Listening to the radio, spreading out ingredients and seeing the colours and textures of food wonderfully blend to comfort my taste. The sight of simmering butter and the golden roast of cheese while baking some Bobotie* was always a treat to the weary academic slaved eyes. Some days, marinated food wrapped in the oven with a game of quick Chinese checkers by the side was perfect. And when the light sifted graciously through the window, I would bring out my best crockery and plate my food just like how they did in Masterchef. When the foods steam slowly dissipates, I photographed my trivial accomplishment. It was a souvenir of my independent life. It rather sounds corny, but London did really serve the taste of freedom.

With my mind being tossed around like a boomerang, the past and present can be so bi-polar. You savour every bit of the self-reliance that your were blessed with the independence. Questions of incompetence is drained out , and I figured out my taste in food, and how I enjoy cooking them. I dont have to be the one who needs to make avial* for the sake of lunch when I can have grilled fish and pomegranate salad. Till now, I cant make myself a cup of Indian chai- I don't enjoy it, so I dont make it.  Before the year winds up, I could only look back at some of my first attempts at cooking and have a good laugh at how I grew beyond the obstinate kitchen hater. When people ask me what I miss about London the most, perhaps that kitchen of mine, the minuscule cabinet, and my barely stocked pantry that took care of my existence. London taught me one thing: you cant always be spoon-fed. 

Tossed salad with some Scottish mussels doused in white wine and cream 

Pasta stuffed with some genovese basil pesto, ricotto and pine nuts. Served with some buttery garlic prawns and steamed brocolli 

I wont deny I loved the fact of being fed sumptuous food at home, but when I wash the dishes, I constantly think, is eating for yourself and to your comfort a major luxury for a singleton? How the past is just an album of picture perfect moments of my moussaka, wine and good old British comedy. Perhaps the memory counts, how I was first drawn to a world of food. Past or present, my first meal I cooked was always a reminder there's a time for everything, and soon enough I may crave to make avial.  Im surprised it wasn't a fancy Polaroid, a postcard but a trivial Sainsbury bill that triggered my London hunger pangs.

I told you time never moves ahead, it recoils.
Many a time, it eats you alive as well

Savoury waffles, minced pork and aubergine with the sweet wafffle topped with praline ice cream, cherry and bananas

mole* - colloquial term for daughter 
Bobotie*- South African dish consisting of spiced minced meat baked with an egg-based topping 
Avial* - Avial is a dish which is believed to have been originated from South India and is common in Kerala and Udupi cuisine. It is a thick mixture of vegetables and coconut, seasoned with coconut oil and curry leaves.

No Comments Yet, Leave Yours!