Mustard zing and noodle soup slurp: Loving through food in a foreign land
By Debolina Dey
“On a sticky august evening two weeks before her due date, Ashima Ganguli stands in the kitchen of a Central Square apartment, combining Rice Krispies and Planters peanuts and chopped red onion in a bowl. She adds salt, lemon juice, thin slices of green chili pepper, wishing there were mustard oil to pour into the mix. Ashima has been consuming this concoction throughout her pregnancy, a humble approximation of the snack sold for pennies on Calcutta sidewalks and on railway platforms throughout India, spilling from newspaper cones. Even now that there is barely space inside her, it is the one thing she craves. Tasting from a cupped palm, she frowns; as usual, there’s something missing.” – Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake.
My first year of living outside home coincided with the publication of Lahiri’s novel. In 2003 when I picked up The Namesake, its opening words immediately struck a chord. The move from Bengal to Delhi, across states that are a few longitudes apart and within the same country could hardly be called a “diasporic” move, but in many ways it was— every meal I ate thrice a day reminded me that I had moved.
My move to Berlin compared to Delhi was then “twice removed” from “home”— the town I had been born in and grew up for seventeen long years. While the spatial markers of home did change over the years—many spaces acquired home-like qualities as did people. For a long time the dining table back home was a fixed marker of something more invariable, something that hadn’t changed— a point of reference. So even after a decade when I moved to Berlin from Delhi, despite being used to handling the pangs of homesick hunger— it was always the jhal muri among all other things that I tried to approximate, that I ended up longing.
I had grown up hearing stories about muri (puffed rice) while gorging on muri— my father’s family had migrated from Mymensingh (now in Bangladesh) and were supposedly famous (and proud) muri eaters. I saw them at addas with cha and spiced up muri with various interesting and unlikely ingredients. My father’s version, which I loved the most, often consisted of nigella seeds, papad, potato and cauliflower carefully cut to size and fried, some oil from preserves, and a few bites of chopped onion. Green chili was indispensable to our muri, no matter who was making the mixture— it was the untold testimony of the fact that we were from the eastern part of undivided Bengal. Sometimes muri was served as homely prescription for stomach aches, bland and spice-less, in a bowl of water, soaked and lifeless, without taste or texture. And, of course, for special occasions and religious offerings, muri was rolled in hot liquid jaggery and left to cool— chewy, sweet big round balls of muri too big for our palms back then— always leaving a trail of sticky crumbs. That was the other thing about these bits of billowed crispy munchies— you always left evidence of a having eaten muri—it was almost impossible to contain those straying flakes in one cupped palm without spilling.
The beautiful thing about the muri concoction was how, despite there being a popular consensus about its stable structure of ingredients, it was the varieties, the add-ons that were more telling about where it came from and the expertise of the mixer. In essence the concoction was always an “ad hoc assemblage” of ingredients. Sometimes just salt, chili, bits of raw onion and a hint of mustard oil—that’s all you needed. You couldn’t be denied a dish of muri based on the absence of ingredients; it could be adapted and appropriated in whatever way, according to ingredients at hand, according “to taste”— something of the concocter’s ability to make use of available ingredients, always marking the good from the extraordinary!
So why am I talking of the muri when I talk of diaspora and food? Probably because for me the diasporic foodie always has to make do with an “ad hoc assemblage” of ingredients—miserly teaspoons of homemade preserves that must last for a year or six months before supply is restored. Spices that always taste a tad different on olive oil…The diasporic foodie, straddling the worlds between nostalgia and a newfound adventure for taste, a newer palette, and newer flavours— does just that. Every dish stands in between a memory of tastes filtered through longing, and ingredients at hand— curcumin instead of turmeric, some mild version of paprika or cayenne instead of the real deal, the Rajasthani red chili powder, kurbis that doesn’t look like kaddoo (pumpkin) and nobody ever peels these strange looking cucumbers!
So part of the popular representation of food in diasporic literature is that “there’s something missing” bit as Lahiri points out, that goes hand in hand with the make-do-ness of the experience. But at a time where Bolognese and basil are well known ingredients to a fairly large number of urban city dwellers across the world on one hand, and the usurpation of mom’s kitchen remains universally unquestionable no matter how close or far one moves, what can the diasporic food experience bring to the table?
In my experience, the culinary journey in a “foreign” land has been a beautiful joyride for a number of reasons. Foreign because I didn’t know the language of the land— three days into Berlin and ignorant as hell, I walk up to a man at the grocery trying to tell him I want chicken stock. I knew chicken was “hahn” and water was “wasser” but when I put those two words together as “chicken water” and uttered them, the man really thought the ignorant Indian had lost it. Then I remembered “bouillon,” the French word for stock and although I finally got what I was looking for, I realized one needs to grasp at words, making do with language, using signs— not only bridging the linguistic gap but the cultural and the geographical ones that are always implied in food. The visual sign at the grocery store in many ways became a primer for the verbal— apfel for apple. Despite the local variations in pronunciation and types, food does have a universal language of the senses— you know the pumpkin through sight and smell, you realize the unmistakability of turmeric in curcumin, and you immediately know zimt as cinnamon from the smell of it over a coffee table.
Staying away from home for so many years, and finally in a different continent teaches you to appreciate another non-verbal aspect of food— the love implicit in unhomely servings of food. Despite the fact that I grew up in an environment where eating at restaurants was a frequent thing, my Bengali mother always upheld the homely kitchen, the love and care inherent in its chemistry, one that can never be replicated. It is the stuff of comfortable memories, of sweet nostalgia on a harsh winter night when one is far away from home. As opposed to this image was the transitory kitchen of the eat-out-of-home place, and no matter how good the food might be, there is always a bit of suspicion—either the oil isn’t fresh, or its lovability was questionable because it was mediated through ‘commerce’ and profit.
Whatever truth there might be in some of these stereotypes, my experience in a winter far away from home was not just about dreaming of homely comfort food. In a winter as harsh as Berlin’s, that nostalgia was sustainable because of the comfort food provided by a small Vietnamese take out joint close to where I live. The food at the Vietnamese was as far removed from that nostalgia as could possibly be— my parents did not eat beef, and my favourite dish at the Vietnamese was a beef and peanut flat rice noodle!
Vietnamese was the cuisine I had discovered in Dahlem, but I also discovered that the Vietnamese woman and I had developed a quiet friendship, despite the fact that she didn’t know English, and my German skills were non existent. I had only learnt to say “scharf” for spicy/hot/sharp, and in those winter days, I craved for the unmistakable heat of Indian chilies in my beef and peanut noodles. Although she used her potent Sriracha a couple of times, I realized the slight tanginess of the sauce upset the delicate umaminess of the beef dish. On my next visit, she took the bottle of Sriracha, paused and looked at me questioningly. I shook my head and said “Nein” (no), and both of us burst out laughing. One food-lover to another, we shared a joke without having spoken a single word—my nostalgia for Indian chilies that evening was kept aside in deference to her beautifully balanced recipe.
Over these years of diasporic living, far and near, local and foreign, sometimes the deepest friendships have been forged over food, or at least over a table/counter of food. But it was only in that Berlin winter, when I visited the Vietnamese after rush hours—bothering to walk inside because of cold winds instead of ordering and collecting the food—that I realized that the discernible taste of comfort in food went not just beyond linguistic expressions of praise or gratitude, that this discernible taste exclusive to a memorable dish made itself felt above and beyond the receipt of consideration or commerce.
Food’s relationship to diasporic living need not always be mediated through nostalgia, although that is a part of what makes this divergence doubly delicious—that one also forges friendship in unusual ways outside the usual circle of affection. For me, it is this expanding circle of the unusual, as it slowly adapts and intersperses with the everyday—the coexistence of slow-cooked nostalgia and a stir fry of unlikely things from foreign lands—that make it impossible to have a stable point of reference regarding the hierarchy of taste. I have, at best, learnt to make do— to tweak, appropriate, and approximate the recipe and in the process come up with newer ones. What begins with an ad hoc assemblage of things, slowly give way, where that that ad-hocness becomes a way of mixing, a dish in itself, the unusual slowly becoming a usual part of the everyday.
Like the muri concoction, between a tamer homely version and the one that comes out of spontaneous sounds of roadside tin cans—it is the basic instability of a recipe, the perpetual make-do-ness of ingredients that makes the adaptable muri so indispensable, divergent and delicious— the homely and the unhomely remain non comparable, contiguous but probably, just two necessary versions of a dish.
Debolina Dey is a student. She has lived in Berlin for a year and a half and is interested in the many forms of the culinary experience—as cook, foodie, reader, and student who likes to try new ways.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.