Eating my heart out, liberally

My mother is ceaselessly horrified every time a food delivery agent drops off an envelope with a single slice of banana bread or a paper cup containing Vietnamese coffee. It’s always the same routine — while I struggle to open the packaging, she’ll want to know why I can’t just bake my own cake or at least make my own cuppa from the various bottles of flavoured brew adorning the kitchen counter. And then she’ll segue right into how we’re a spendthrift, hedonistic generation; we don’t think twice about forking out the kind of dough our parents would never have dreamt of spending on coffee — whether it’s for motley essences of instant mixes, specially-sourced beans or an order from a favourite coffee shop. Eating out used to be a treat reserved for special occasions and ordering in was the last resort when the home kitchen failed under drastic circumstances.

Born on the threshold of the 90s, I remember these days rather well in fact, even though it feels like another lifetime in which I had to wait till Sunday in order to have sausages for breakfast. I don’t remember having food cravings as an adolescent, even though I conjured up visions of potted meat and clotted cream — my imagination deciding that potted meat must be dotted with pepper while cream had plotted with sugar to clot. Other than indulging in these culinary fantasies, the triumvirate of my soul — brain, heart and belly — clearly agreed that craving a dish would only result in disappointment; my mother would likely scowl if I told her I was hankering for a chicken cutlet in the middle of the week instead of regular ol’ chicken curry, and my dad would be perplexed if I suggested switching Sunday Fish Meunière with Wednesday Fish Meunière. But now that the triumvirate knows that a craving is easily fulfilled by boundless choices and a swipe of the phone, they plague me endlessly with thoughts of sushi or the phantom flavour of lemongrass ice cream. It’s a classic chicken-and-egg situation, where one might ask, what came first, the craving or the dish?

I blame liberalisation.

Fifteen years ago, special occasions constituted birthdays, festivals and perhaps anniversaries, although my parents usually discreetly jaunted off to a dinner for two (what we’d now call Date Night) leaving roses on the sideboard as the only clue to the reason for their absence from dinner at home. Birthdays were glorious though, with my grandmother slow-cooking biryani all day until it was ready for dinner. For birthday parties for us kids, all sorts of usually forbidden goodies — chicken envelopes and mutton patties — were sourced from a couple of posh-therefore-rarely-visited patisseries around town. On my birthday, I was allowed to visit a cake shop to choose a flavour and shape from a catalogue of cakes which was not very different from a glossy catalogue of dresses from the 60s. It seems I was particularly fond of chocolatey bears, but once even chose a chocolatey spider’s web. A friend set the ganache high with her 12-shaped birthday cake in butterscotch, but I discovered it was off-the-catalogue and considered another unnecessary extravagance by my parents, who waited till I was 21 to get me a 21-shaped chocolate cake; I was as overjoyed as a 12-year-old.

As a family, we did eat out rather often — at least twice a week, which wasn’t very common back in the day. This is because my mother preferred to plate functional food even as my father enjoyed richer, more flavourful dishes. While American fast-food chains didn’t open their doors in Calcutta for the better part of the 90s, the city still boasted a prolific Continental (read: colonial) repertoire which ranged from a light Consommé to a still much-loved butter-spurting Chicken à la Kiev. One of our neighbours opened a home kitchen down the road, which they tautologically named Western Continental to make doubly certain that no one came knocking for biryani or chowmein. Baked jacket potato, and chicken dumplings bursting at the seams with shredded, buttery grilled chicken were the best things on offer. The lady who operated out of this garage space, slaving over all the orders herself, was eventually unable to keep up with the regular trickle of customers she had drawn. Now, as home chefs abound in every street, establishing their range and boundaries over Instagram, it’s possible that Western Continental might have been too early for its time.

But it’s true that ordering in was limited to one’s neighbourhood or thereabouts, since it often involved having to walk down to pick up an order. Apart from mithai shops which also offered samosas and kachori, most neighbourhoods were likely to have their own Chinese eatery, where chilli chicken and fried rice were always the highlights and where we eventually expanded our palates to embrace spicy Szechuan and a sweet-ish Garlic sauce. We quickly became divided over Chinese Chopsuey or American Chopsuey, and steamed momos or deep-fried momos, but my dad had the deciding vote since he was driving down to pick up the order. The first delivery agents who arrived at our doorstep were pizza boys from Domino’s who came bearing the first thick-crust, pepperoni pizzas, with bottles of Coke on the side. My mother was not impressed by the “American junk food” which she began to frown upon far more than the boulangeries which had catered the birthday parties of our childhood. At least those had melting-in-the-mouth layers of phyllo pastry and cake fresh out of that morning’s oven. Perhaps my mother portended the beginning of cravings, hedonism and obesity in that first blue box of Domino’s pizza where the cheese was a puffy layer on the bread and the pepperoni was better than our usual breakfast salami. But when my father fractured his ankle and was laid up at home for eight weeks, we spent much of that time conspiring behind my mother to sneak in pizza or chicken dumplings and orange-flavoured fizzy drinks which he had taken a shameful shine to.

Towards the end of my schooldays, more of the aforementioned American junk food joints began to spring up in Calcutta. My friends and I began to scramble to save pocket money for Maharaja Mac from McDonald’s and fried chicken wings from KFC, while fibbing to parents about extra classes so we could hang out just a little longer at these eateries we’d only read about. We began to sneak off to swanky multiplexes for ridiculously affordable morning shows, where the extravagant paper cans of caramel popcorn felt much like a mysterious treat from the Magic Faraway Tree. Since my parents frowned upon the idea of pocket money, my friends decided to foot my entertainment bills when we were convening on plush couches in cafes with plastic glasses frothing over with a creamy concoction called a frappe. Sometimes I arranged clandestine meetings with boys my father would have disapproved of, over overpriced sandwiches and fries which my mother would have disapproved of even more. Giddy at the idea of living the Betty-and-Veronica life in what could be Pop Tate’s shop, we didn’t notice that the sandwiches had too much mayo, the fries were too salty and the pastries were too sweet. Over the next decade, while I unearthed the pleasures of hitherto unknown culinary phenomenon such as blue cheese, wasabi and hummus, the patisserie of my childhood would wrap up, glossy catalogues and all, its offerings no longer original or trendy.

I spent my emerging adulthood in the pursuit of gourmet thrills. While battling rent and bills away from home, the only thing I was saving up for were meals in cafes I could barely afford, chasing that coffee-liqueur-soaked tiramisu cake or a dense-with-pork-and-cheese lasagna. My mother was afraid I would never have any savings, even though I didn’t tell her that if vanilla-flavoured soy milk had been waiting for me every morning, I wouldn’t have poured it down the kitchen sink. My dad, who understood the desire to spend the lion’s share of one’s salary on food for the soul, began to send me birthday money to cover a round or two of salmon uramaki at the sushi belt — the new-age patties-and-pastries of my birthday parties.

One of the many advantages of being able to find employment in your hometown is to be able to save on rent and put it into a PPF — pait pujo fund as the Bengalis might call it (a fund for ‘stomach worship’). It’s the opposite of a savings account and all you’ll reap is high cholesterol and a weak heart if you keep it up for fifteen years. Inching closer to poverty and obesity with every lemon meringue tart that we order, this cafe-hopping is the real-world version of Instagram reels, drawing us into an endless loop of too many choices which result in a stupor of dissatisfaction to be better quenched with the next round of petit four.

Neighbourhoods, as we know, tend to change drastically every decade, and the one I grew up in is almost unrecognisable now. The oldest eatery for momos and pan-fried noodles is still there but its popularity has been hijacked by a Chinese restaurant belonging to a chain which has established itself despite being neither authentic nor inexpensive. Western Continental of course is long gone but every lane is dotted with glass facades or bright awnings of cafes which invite us in for a cosy chat over passable fare. It’s more convenient than noteworthy, and we might find ourselves back there because we no longer have the patience to pre-order meals hours in advance when we can just grab a cruffin on the go. The modern home chefs are careful to not make the mistake the earnest proprietor of Western Continental made; they know to dictate the number of dishes they’re going to prepare on a given day, and the service comes at a premium because we’re already aware that home-cooked food with its limited use of reheated oil and likely use of fresh ingredients will assure a certain quality which the average restaurant does not. And just like that we’re back to childhood, except this time we’re paying to avail of what our grandmothers might have been able to whip up in their kitchens, if they’d simply been handed the recipe for a chicken ramen bowl.

Nowadays, some of us might eat out about as much as we eat in, which means we have a chosen spot for everything we need — coffee from a shop they roast the beans just right, sandwiches from a cafe which makes its own bread and knows its ham, pastries from a confectionery which specialises in tarts but not tortes, so a larger cake will naturally have to be sourced from a bakery which can execute an entremet cake, but if we want a cheesecake, well there’s a special home baker for that. Gone are the days of meticulously planned parties; having guests over isn’t a problem if we know of a couple of reliable bistros available for delivery. In fact, that Betty-and-Vernoica-at-Pop-Tate’s feeling has been entirely replaced by the eat-and-go efficiency of Midge Maisel breezing in and out of diners; with all the humdrum choices available to us, eating out and ordering in aren’t reserved for special occasions and emergencies anymore. The sheen of novelty has dulled with overuse, although the gleam of greed never quite fades.

Here we are too full, too fat and a lot more disconsolate than our fit-as-fiddlehead-fern grandparents who ate sparsely unless they were participating in an annual mithai-eating competition at a wedding — a sport which might have put Man v. Food to shame. It’s only logical then, that at least some of those glass facades in erstwhile quiet neighbourhoods will begin to throw around the words “organic”, “healthy”, or of course “farm-to-table”. We’ll buy into it too, before we buy that marked-up ragi wrap, in a valiant effort to go “back to our roots”. The latest anti-gourmet trends encourage people to embrace the benefits of unrefined rice or even fermented rice, sago pearls, sesame seeds, jaggery — the food of the land which the liberalised generation had begun to widely associate with working class meals. Ironically, these very meals are now popular amongst those of us who can ditch coarse rice for artisanal ice cream on any “cheat day” and replace gramflour milkshake with an acai bowl made with imported berries to cope with Monday blues. Our weeks are a blend of fast-food, superfood and fine-dining with a side of what our mothers said we should eat.

Interestingly, the older eateries of my childhood which catered exclusively to a handful of curious folk and then managed to ride out the wave of “European” cafes and “authentic” Asian restaurants, have been able to widen their clientele even further to hoards of people who appreciate the affordable price point. A large segment of the populace, exhausted from trying to stay relevant in the log-in-but-never-log-out groundhog day, prefer to eat out at these average eateries to avoid having to labour in the kitchen. Even as my fickle loyalties keep changing with the chef of the year who promises a Michelin-starred feast, I see how the opposing offering of a large meal made affordable with compromised ingredients might hold an appeal for many of us still basking in once-glossy Betty-Veronica lives, unwilling to tap into our inner Julie-Julia.

The really special meals of my gluttonous adulthood are now painstaking home-cooked dishes à la granny. In the haze of truffle butter ravioli and chocolate chia pudding, what really stands out are the memories of my friend’s mother plating an uncommon family speciality with fresh hilsa, my friends coming together on my birthday with homemade fish fry and Mutton Rezala or taking to the kitchen on other occasions to recreate their mother’s Suji Halwa and Basanti Pulao. But the food delivery app promises a discount on Bhutanese Gravy Noodles which I’ve been, yes, craving. And so, the vicious cycle continues.

Photo by Delightin Dee on Unsplash

Ramona Sen

Ramona Sen is one of the co-founders of content and communications company, Allcap Communications, based in Calcutta. Her first novel, Crème Brûlée, was published by Rupa Publications in 2016 and her novella, Pot Luck, was published by Juggernaut Books in 2018. Calcutta is the city of her soul, the backdrop of all that she writes.