Losing Our Comfort Food
As the yummy chingri’r malai curry melted in my mouth, I felt like the happiest woman on earth. The savoury prawns, fresh and deliciously cooked by my aunt, were heaped on my plate generously, and my whole life seemed sorted in that one bowl.
I was visiting home for the summer and that meant only one thing: all of the beloved goodies from my childhood, made by the generation before me. My mother, who hasn’t enjoyed good health lately, stayed in front of the oven for the better part of the month, whipping up exotic dishes of katla and rui, her ailments forgotten; there was a child to feed.
Before getting married, I would return from work to a delicious kadai fish curry or chicken stew every day. Now that I stay far away, my trips back are made even more special by the very best in Bengali home cuisine at every meal. And the good-byes, less heart-breaking, with goodies like naaru and pithe, all delicate sweets handmade by my mum and aunt, stashed in my bags.
Despite this, I know nothing about cooking; when I am on my own, I am definitely not enthused enough look beyond a regular fare of convenience. I can cook up a meal to eat, but not to savour. Some dishes turn out really good, but not because I pore over recipes to make them that way. It truly hit me the day my niece asked me to make her something yummy. I fried her some chicken nuggets and whipped a two-minute muffin in a mug. With each stir, a feeling grew. It dawned on me that we were slowly losing something.
“That’s my legacy?” I wondered aloud.
My niece, satiated by my quick bake job, knows nothing about true Bengali comfort food. Nor does she, in her branded clothes, know of hand-knitted sweaters, crocheted pencil stands or handkerchiefs with embroidered flowers. But her mother and I do. We grew up in an era in which ready-made food and clothes either didn’t exist or weren’t affordable enough for our parents to have reason to buy them. And with my aunt’s chingri’r malai curry on the table – who wanted them?
Yet for neither of us is being a domestic goddess a priority. The previous generation provided us with a solid education and made us confident enough to take on 10 things outside of the house. We have worked to become good at our jobs, to become economically strong, and in doing so, have built careers that consume us so totally that we don’t bat an eyelid before outsourcing most jobs at home to maids, cooks and nannies – the roles perhaps most important for continuing family traditions.
When we do find time away from the rigmarole, we choose to socialize over drinks or take the kids to the latest Italian joint. Barring those who really have a passion for these things, few of us would think to actually lay out an elaborate dinner for the family or painstakingly crochet a gift – and even fewer would know how to go about it.
And so, these skills and memories slip down the abyss of lost legacies, a chasm that widens, as men seldom pick up from where we leave off. When I rue my inability to scoop up a fish curry as yummy as my mom’s, it never occurs to me that my child may also lose out on delicacies that his father could have made. It has been seen that a man may come home, one day, slowly cook that mutton and win hearts all around – and then never do it again for a year.
But the onus of establishing childhood’s homemade snugness and comfort food, made valuable by familiarity, is hardly ever on them. As mothers, aunts and sisters, we have picked up the spoon, the needle, of family legacies decade after decade, finding it futile to question. But much to our surprise, our own convictions have started to falter.
While we still love to gorge on ”maa and nani ke haath ka khana” and take a trip down the lanes of childhood every time we go to that place we call home, we seldom have the time or inclination to learn the intricacies of lip smacking family recipes or sew a beautifully personal design for our own families. It is a pity that many of our kids will only know “mom’s special cooking” as the occasional grills and bakes.
Yes, there is a deep sense of personal loss. But there is a stronger sense of detachment to be able to do anything about it. I may rue the fading away of my own childhood comforts, but I don’t rue my career, the example I set for my son through it, or the convenience of ready-to-cook meals.
The balancing act takes a toll somewhere. We dodge it as best we can, two-minute muffin mug in hand.