Illustrated by Nidhi Joshi @thatnoviceartist
(Winner of Bound’s Food Essay Contest)
Sometimes when my mind and I decide to cheat on our diet, I allow the colours to leak into the saved memory of that kitchen: painted green, grey marble floors seasoned with green and red triangles, innate features of a really old house (my nani’s house had the same exact floors); instead of cupboards, like now, rows, three usually, that jut out of the wall — habiliments of homes built in 90’s; rabble of spices at the front: haldi, namak, dalchini, lal-mirch, kesar, and the rest of them fuse into one black blob as it usually happens in an invoked memory; the walls turned black from the years of smoke and grease; a fridge that matched both the colour and the age of the walls; the window, just above the gas, that looked into another kitchen whose owner’s favourite show – was us. In the centre of the kitchen, he stood with his back to me, and the aroma of a dish which has just started being cooked fills the space around us.
A dish that is cooked precisely by a hand that holds talent, and has a signature smell that cannot be replicated. I don’t know if it’s a universal thing, or it’s an anomaly of my own brain, but because of it, since my childhood, I have been the taster for my family. People say, I have an uncanny ability to tell exactly what is missing from a dish nearing the finish line. To us food is the spinal cord of the connections we share: thus it adorns us with character– maa is famous as the cook who knows it all, people come to our city just to eat her paneer cooked in thande masale, one of my maasis is famous for her daal, dadi’s paniari (watery) aloo parval, which still cannot be replicated even by maa, one of my uncle’s chicken slowly cooked over a handi, vacations are planned just to eat it.
“That dinner was the beginning of the most precious relationship I will ever be a part of, in this life.”
Because of this rich, almost fused, connection with food, it is a deciding factor in relationships of my own making. I first met him when I was invited to dinner at my friend’s friend’s place. He had cooked the whole dinner, but the one dish that stood out to me was Tamatar. It touched a place in my heart that I didn’t even know existed; I was still eating it when I began thinking of the next time I will get to eat it. If somebody were given the task to describe heaven using a tomato, they would make Tamatar.
That dinner was the beginning of the most precious relationship I will ever be a part of, in this life. While all of us ate dinner, which included: the chicken, slowly cooked in dahi with the flamboyant tones of fennel and dry mint; it felt as if our tongues were cradled in the warm lap of our ancestral companion; dahi accompanied with the lullaby of spices; Tamatar, the deep overturning of flavours hidden in the tomatoes — sometimes sweet, sometimes savoury, floating in it, the chicken heavy with the aromatic juice, paired with the two pillars of south Asian cuisine – chawal and dahi. The people present regaled me with his quirky stories: how he does not believe in social media, how he has only recently started being open to meeting new people, how it is so surprising that he agreed to cook dinner for us. That night, our two different cultures collided together, we shared stories of superstitions, of different anecdotes of rendezvous with ghosts, or any other paranormal creatures, of local folklores from our native places, of weird strangers and people we have made acquaintances with, in life. In sewing a night together with the threads of words, we did not realize when morning came. In the company of the first sight of an orangish, yellow morning, the last thing I heard that day about him was, how he has never talked to someone for more than twenty-five minutes.
“That’s what time does to life, the clear lines fade away leaving behind just the colour of the kitchen, and the rich smell of tomatoes.”
We started meeting each other under the pretext of learning Urdu. I would go to his place for the lessons; I think we both just wanted to ease into being together using an established structure. He would teach me the alphabet, and I would wonder about writing his name using those. In these little moments of togetherness, we headed towards the mighty swell of the wave called love. The symptoms of Love come much later than when you were exposed; I realized this when I had reached out for his hand unknowingly one day, like the seasons that roll in because they simply were designed to, though I stopped myself mid-way since it was still early days. You can’t rush the tomatoes; you only get the tangy sweetness if they’re allowed to melt slowly.
The next dinner I had at his home was a date; he had invited me to eat “the dish that you keep talking about”, in his words. That day I had asked him the name of the dish, and he told me it does not really have a fixed name and is something locals back home make using their own interpretations of the dish. He did tell me what it is called at his house, but I can’t remember. That’s what time does to life, the clear lines fade away leaving behind just the colour of the kitchen, and the rich smell of tomatoes. That day he had made it a little sweeter and tangy, he said if you increase the number of tomatoes while keeping the rest of the condiments at standard quantity, you get a richer, more raw taste from the tomatoes. He added that he made it a little watery too, since I had trouble eating it with rice last time. As we dipped our hands in the rice mottled with red gravy, it seemed our hearts too were dipping in the pools of our eyes; eyes that kept shying away, hiding in the humorous recounting of who we are, where we come from. Within the pauses, I complimented him on his cooking, and shyly expressed my gratitude for the thoughtful gesture. Towards the end, the only witnesses left were the red stained fingers, and as I was putting the plates in the sink he pulled me in for a hug. As I watched the red stained fingers holding him, I wondered how far we have come from the time I first ate Tamatar. I believe the first conversation that you have with a person who, the macrocosm of your existence knows, you are going to fall in love with is a moment of resonance with creation itself, just like the leaves of the fall that come swinging down: green rushed out, yellow filled in, from slippery softness to crunch as it returns to where it was born.
“We grow up amidst the litany of traditions invented to celebrate life, ensconced in stories of hope and survival. Amongst these traditions, food is the greatest one because no matter how weary life becomes, you know that gujia in holi, khichdi in khichdi, daal puri in Navratri is always going to taste the same.”
The first time I saw it in the process of being prepared was three months later, it was exam season. When I entered the house, it was brim-full of smoke and vapour — a by-product of cooking that has been going on for hours. I headed towards the kitchen, and there he was, with his back to me, hands on his waist watching the tomatoes slowly dissolve under heat. He told me once that he loved to watch the tomatoes disappear, and the red burn into a golden hue. If I were to describe him, I would say — water: holding itself under the tension, easily agitated yet calm, keeping in bounds of talent, honest, transparent, waves of emotion, and generous. “It’s the only dish I like making, how fortunate that you like it so much”, these words bubble up in my head every time I see a tomato. That day he was making batches of Tamatar that will be stored for the exam days. This was a novel idea for me, I had never seen any of my friends prepare food beforehand. The only place I had seen this was back home, where adults prepare the base of different dishes and store it only to compile it and serve it later. For example, dahi vada: the vada is fried in batches, soaked in water, and then stored away to be assembled in two minutes when guests arrive; fara: the filling, made and stored, to be assembled and pressed in a thick film of rice flour, and steamed later. These large preparations of dishes are only done when festivals arrive of different seasons, a chunk of time where everything is fixed: elders of the house gather at the centre of the house, huge utensils come out in which heaps and heaps of food is made, and this goes on from morning till night until the festival has come and gone.
We grow up amidst the litany of traditions invented to celebrate life, ensconced in stories of hope and survival. Amongst these traditions, food is the greatest one because no matter how weary life becomes, you know that gujia in holi, khichdi in khichdi, daal puri in Navratri is always going to taste the same. And when I saw him admiringly looking at all the stuffed containers, I knew no matter how much harder being alive gets, I can count on those hands to hold me. We most definitely had more special moments to anchor these declarations on, but people have their own unique filter for memories, and through the sieve of time only the one that affected them the most remains.
In time I found out, Tamatar does not have a fixed form or purpose. It can serve as the main dish, a chutney, or as a side dry dish with a cooked egg on top. Each one had a different texture and taste and was whipped out depending upon how much time we had. As a side dish, we had it almost every day which also led to arguments since his roommate and I liked it spicy, and he preferred it more sober. It was in one of these arguments that we came up with the name Tamatar, a debate had ensued after my harmless question of why the dish doesn’t have a name yet. His roommate claimed that it has a name, and he claimed that proper nomenclature has never been done. In the end of that lively clash between social and scientific approach to food, he suggested that since every time I talk about the dish, I say, “wo tamatar wali sabzi..”, we should just call it Tamatar. After that every time we were back home at semester end, he would tell me that Tamatar would be waiting for me as soon as I came back.
“I don’t know where time went in between dates and dinners, but one day, in his signature honesty, he told me that we won’t be able to stay together forever, and to lessen the pain it is better if we separate now, I couldn’t process what had happened.”
Six months into the relationship, that old flat had started feeling like home. I was an alien that had been welcomed with open hearts, in the traditions of a different culture until it had left a handprint on my very being. In my eyes, he shined as much as a fully ripe tomato does, and alongside him I fell in love with the place that he belonged to. One day we were out buying groceries and he had asked me to pick the tomatoes I, in my—oh so very—expert knowledge of vegetables, picked tomatoes that were just not-rotten. Later as we were taking the haul to the billing, he noticed my selection and started laughing, and went back to do it himself. Back at home he proceeded to tell his roommate all about it, and only after he had his fill of fun at my expense, he told me that the dish wouldn’t taste good if the tomatoes were not fully ripe, they have to be blood red and almost mushy to touch. He promised to teach me how to make the dish, sensing that he might have hurt my feelings.
He was like that, all things were out in the open, honest to a fault, sharing every thought he had out loud, and sensitive to any change in my mood. Some days we would spend together just lying around in bed only to get up for the three meals, and on other days we would go out on book-shop dates. We always went to one particular second-hand bookstore and spent hours there; he would silently watch me go through books and point out any he thought I might like, later he would graciously offer to carry the books, his face scrunching up in stress because of the weight; I would come to his rescue only after we have walked a little. Next, we would go to our usual rolls stand for double shami kabab rolls, and, every time, he would congratulate me on my street-food detective genius. I don’t know where time went in between dates and dinners, but one day, in his signature honesty, he told me that we won’t be able to stay together forever, and to lessen the pain it is better if we separate now, I couldn’t process what had happened. After months of agony, I asked him if we can continue this relationship for as long as possible—we sometimes engage in absolute madness when in love—he didn’t want to, but as fate would have it, we did stay together for the rest of our college years. It was still the most beautiful relationship, we had our fights, but we also helped each other become better people. He helped me realise my passion and supported me in every way he could.
“That was the last time we had a conversation, we both knew it was a slippery slope, and also, once life decides that you have to move out, you cannot really squat at your will.”
It is expected that when we separated finally it must have been a dramatic affair, but it was not. It was a random weekday, I messaged him, the text signalled that it was time and he didn’t reply, to the very end he could predict what I needed from him. The next time that we were in contact was a year later, out of life’s bittersweet coincidences we had started texting and one day, I asked him for the recipe of Tamatar:
Take the onions diced in long cuts, heat the oil, it should be in a generous quantity (I know your mother says it’s bad for health but if you want it to taste good…)
Don’t forget to keep some of the diced onion aside.
Put ginger, garlic, and onion together, roast it until the onions become golden (I know you have trouble following vague directions but send me a photo, I will tell you if it’s golden, or not yet.)
Now add the tomatoes, cut in big chunks (you know how you cut the vegetables is as important as following the recipe), also add the leftover onions (this is my trick to get rid of that weird ginger smell.)
Add salt just after, and keep frying it, keep the lid on until the tomatoes turn soft (again, keep sending me updates, I will tell you when it’s time.)
Add the condiments: mirchi, haldi, sauf, and keep it on medium flame until the gravy gets an oily shine (At this point you will be able to tell if the experiment has been successful by the smell, I know you are good at it.)
Cook a sunny side up if you want (I know you liked how the colours came together.)
Don’t forget to send me a photo of the final dish.
While I was cooking it felt like we had forgotten who we were to each other, and just enjoyed the time. I panic-messaged him when I thought I had burnt the onions, and sent him the final photo. That was the last time we had a conversation, we both knew it was a slippery slope, and also, once life decides that you have to move out, you cannot really squat at your will. Even if the days of dinners, dates and laughter won’t ever come back, every time I cook Tamatar, I revisit those days in my memories.
Ayushi is a reader, a writer and an observer trying to locate her narrative in this kaleidoscopically scattered world. She enjoys world literature, films (partial to Asian media), and locked-room mysteries. Her work has been previously published in Hashtag Kalakar. Currently working on a detective fiction embedded in the skeleton of a romance.
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