Having lived only intermittently in India and left permanently when I was eight, cooking and eating traditional Indian food as regularly as I do is a very conscious decision. It has become the way I connect to my past, it expresses who I am and it contributes enormously to my emotional as well as physical wellbeing.
It certainly wasn’t always the case. When we arrived in Australia more that 30 years ago, it was not remotely multicultural. We were amongst the first Indians in our suburb, a glaring minority at our school. While my poor, very homesick mother tried her best to retain the way she had cooked and eaten all her life, she struggled to find not only the ingredients but summon up our enthusiasm for her food.
As children we just wanted to become like everyone else as quickly as possible. We swapped roti and masala omelettes for breakfast cereals in cardboard boxes, and spicy tiffin lunches for cold meat sandwiches (yuck). We hated the smell of curry and we made mum cook roast chicken (she thought the recipe was a trick… not believing all you did was put it in the oven, without all the convoluted steps and spices of Indian cookery).
It’s taken me half a lifetime of cold supermarkets and disconnected food choices to realise that the cure for my chronic, nagging longing for home was in my kitchen. Returning to the recipes of my past allowed me entry to a world I thought was long gone: the hot, colourful, noisy, fragrant and overwhelmingly comfortable place of my Bombay childhood.
From the moment Proust ate the madeleine, there has been an increasing realisation of how important the food we consume is to our memories. Smell and taste are the senses that give us the shortcut to worlds left behind, instant transportation in time and place.
Cooking and eating one of my grandmother’s chicken curries is a near ceremonial activity in my house: the slow frying of the onions, ginger and garlic, the fragrance of spices, the taste of home. When you come from a place like Bombay, the need for multi-sensory connection to the world remains strong.
I have read that it is the same for many migrants who use food to maintain a connection to homeland. It may be, as Salman Rushdie writes in the context of the Indian experience, the need to build “imaginary homelands” of the mind, reconstruct the broken but sharp fragments of memory from land left behind. The homesick are said to be more likely to reconstruct a sense of home through food than those who are not.
I think it’s important to recognise how much food contributes to our emotional wellbeing. It is far from being merely a physical necessity; it shapes our sense of who we were, who we are, and who we want to be. It provides comfort, and physical expression for our memories.
In an age of mass migration, of the rapid movement of people from country to city, from city to city and country to country, I wonder how food is travelling. Are people taking the food of their homes with them, cooking and eating like their parent and grandparents, or are they seeking out new food choices and forming new food habits, like we did when we first moved to Australia.
With the ready availability of so much food, and so many choices in the modern urban environment, it would be easy for traditional food habits to be lost. I hope they’re not, that across the world, as in my household, small connections are being kept, memories stored, stories told, shared and preserved from generation to generation through the food we eat.