Covid-19 has heralded an era of eating on the couch.
The world has changed and so has the thinking about culinary gatherings. We baulk at the idea of conviviality. Life is all about masks and social distancing, contactless encounters and online ordering.
At a time of public health and financial challenges, the mere mention of hedonic pleasures raises eyebrows. How dare one be so shallow when so many around us are struggling with adversity?
And yet the desire to bond over a meal with friends and loved ones is a universal need that transcends geography or material fortune. Food is not merely about taste or obsessing about micronutrient intake. Food is culture, love and joy. It is intrinsically related to social interactions and community.
At a trying time like this, one cannot help feeling a gnawing sense of dissatisfaction – the sense that nothing has full flavour. The heart wants more.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m acutely aware of my privilege. I’m grateful to be safe, when many others are not. And thankful that I have a full larder, when so many are starving.
But one misses the sense of companionship and community, the tableside banter, the animated arguments over permissible ingredients and techniques in dishes.
French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin dwelled on the difference between the pleasures of eating and the pleasures of the table in his Physiology of Taste. Unlike the former, which is “the actual and direct sensation of satisfying a need”, he argued, the latter is “a reflective sensation born from the various circumstances of place, time, things, and people who make the surroundings of the meals”.
The 17th-century writer François de La Rochefoucauld expressed a similar view when he said, “To eat is a necessity, but to eat intelligently is an art.” By the latter, he was referring to the mindful savouring of food, the enjoying of moments together in a way that delights the senses and stimulates the mind.
So how does one “eat intelligently” during a raging pandemic? Does being in a lockdown mean that all pleasures must be lost to us?
As per an article I read in The New York Times, Michael Norton, a professor at Harvard Business School, says that “repeating things can really be seen as another opportunity to actually experience something fully”, and that “repeat options might have high hedonic value”. It’s why we listen to our favourite song on repeat, or watch our favourite television show or movie again.
In these days of curtailed freedoms, the simple act of revisiting memories of fabulous meals can feel like the most soothing of comforts and help buffer against the isolating effects of the pandemic.
Taking a cue from Norton, I decide to do some mental meandering of my own. With the soundtrack of The Piano providing the background music, my mind transports me to three superlative meals I ate last year.
I’m in Mahmudabad near Lucknow. Raja Amir Mohammad Amir Khan, who traces his ancestry to Arab nobility that ruled the erstwhile princely estate from the 16th century till 1947, is hosting me and a few other guests at his decrepit yet grand fort. Joining us are Rajasaheb’s sons Ali and Amir, and a couple of visiting students from Amity University. We are perched around a table surrounded by portraits of forgotten royalty.
A simple yet exquisite meal is laid out on the table comprising murg mosallam, alu gosht salan, masoor ki daal (known in these parts as malka masoor), kaddu ki sabzi, gosht pulao and burani raita. Lalloo Miyan, the nonagenarian naanpaaz, or breadmaker, has poured all his artistry into making giant khamiri rotis that come to us hot off the tandoor.
Rajasaheb is delighting us with bursts of poetry from Asrar ul Haq Majaz and Mir Taqi Mir. In between mouthfuls of the slow-roasted bird, he explains his hostility to society’s decadent obsession with cooking and eating. “Jo maza pyaas mein hai woh pani mein nahi. The martyrdom of Hussein teaches us this,” he says, referring to the ancient Battle of Karbala, when Imam Hussein ibn Ali, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, was killed by the forces of the second Umayyad caliph.
The notion of sacrifice imbues every aspect of Mahmudabad’s Ganga-Jamuni culture. Even the appreciation of the food is marked by understatement. When I praise the perfectly melded flavours of the salan, Ali gently interjects, “Here we say ‘aab-o-namak munasib hai,’ which simply means that the balance of salt and water in the dish is right.”
Glut of Riches
I pause to ponder the paradox of this austere take on life expressed amidst such an inherently sensuous meal. But my mind floats along to the Indo-Saracenic palace hotel of Laxmi Niwas in Bikaner, where the Museum Lunch featuring French and Indian dishes is being hosted for food writers by Siddharth Yadav, Vice President MRS Hotels. A tribute to the eclectic tastes of Maharaja Ganga Singh Ji, the menu is a modern-day interpretation of the royal dinner the late monarch had hosted for his royal guests in 1927.
The Gold Room, formerly a smoking room, features a spectacular painted frieze of monsoon clouds with angels, raginis and deities. I take in the inlaid usta work on the walls, the red and gold-painted ceiling of teak (45 kilos of gold are used in the room) and the marble fireplace with gold enamel.
A far cry from the notion of food as frugal, every aspect of this sumptuous table – the aesthetics, menu, decor, rituals – is designed to engage and enchant.
The delicacies arrive in slow succession – asparagus mousse, cauliflower soup, filet mignon of pomfret, and duck cutlets. The plat de Bikaner or Bikaneri thali with regional dishes like chana kadhi, lal maas and ker sangri tastes every bit as good as it smells and looks – perfectly cooked, spiced and awash with ghee.
The conversation ranges from the humorous to the heartfelt. Yet what intrigues me is the interaction between aromas, textures and flavours. The rousing symphonies of Tchaikovsky and Mozart, the heavy, expensive knives and forks, the umami smells arising from the fish, the swirling of wine glasses half filled with Pouilly-Fuisse.
The meal is proof that eating is a far more multisensory experience than we usually recognise. And that “off-plate elements” often play a key role in our enjoyment of food. I can’t help wondering how the same dishes would taste in a different, less opulent setting.
My third flashback is to a dinner in Calicut. Ummi Abdulla, the doyenne of Mappila cooking has invited me to her home for a bite. The entire family is over for her son’s wedding anniversary – her two daughters, her granddaughter Nazaneen and her great granddaughter. Banter and noise fill her cozy dining room.
The famous fish biryani headlines the menu that has other typically Mappila dishes, including arikadukka (stuffed, steamed mussels), erachi aanam (slow-cooked mutton), kozi nerachada (whole baby chicken stuffed with onions), Bengal gram and boiled eggs, meen pathiri (steamed rice chapattis stuffed with fish masala), chatti pathiri (Malabari crepes with a sweet, custard-like filling).
The octogenarian is recounting the memories behind these beloved dishes. The mutton is special, she tells us, not only because it’s the first real dish she learned to cook, but also because her sister taught it to her. “Aasi was a great cook and learnt a lot of about cooking early in life. When I first roasted pappadams by placing them on live coal and burnt them up, she had a good laugh.”
Kaya ada, or parcels of ground rice, Mysore banana and jaggery steamed in banana leaves, reminds her of her grandmother preparing this dish in secrecy. “Ummamma would take an entire stalk of bananas and head to the storeroom where she would lock herself in. Her belief was that it would never turn out right if someone watched her prepare these snacks,” she says, amusement crinkling her animated eyes.
The deep connection between food and memory is evident. It’s obvious that the tastes of Ummi’s childhood have been a hugely important force guiding her in the kitchen. As we eat, more gems come tumbling out. “I warned you not to get her started with her stories. Now she won’t stop,” teases Nazaneen. But I have a more pressing worry. I fear I might die of scoffing too many mussels.
Three memories, each like a time capsule. Each of a meal spent not just savouring but pondering food. I prize these little interior journeys. They’re a testament to the fact that dining experiences are not merely made of dishes but also of the senses, of culture and traditions passed down from generation to generation.
As a food writer, I’m fortunate enough to scour the planet for the best places to eat and drink. But the things that make food memorable are seldom about exotic places or fancy accessories. They are much more subtle and emotional than that.
Conviviality is one of life’s great joys. The reality of what not sharing food can mean to communities and individuals is all the more palpable as the festive season kicks off. I hope that the tables will turn and we will see the last of this ghastly pandemic soon.
Till then I will raise a toast from my couch to a happier, less stressful time when we will gather to feast the way we used to. A time when we will laugh and bond and argue full-bloodedly over a delicious meal, and dining will be a font of endless pleasure once again.
Bon appétit to that.