Around the world in 80 (or so) recipes

Anita Nair | Updated on July 17, 2020 Published on July 17, 2020


An itinerant soul looks into the larder during lockdown and puts the world on her plate

I have never been able to stay put in one place. Much as I need the stability that familiar things and faces bring, after a point I feel the walls closing in and the urge to escape becomes imperative. All my life I have been running away. It began from the moment I could walk, which was precociously early. First day of kindergarten — I ran away after a couple of hours of being ensconced with bawling children. I decided I had had enough, ate my two triangles of bread smeared with ghee and drizzled with sugar, and trotted home oblivious to the pandemonium I caused. That was a life lesson I picked up early. Never leave without a full stomach. Never look back.

All through my school years, I would wander this way and that through the extensive school grounds to get rid of that feeling of breathlessness being in a classroom afflicted me with. I walked, I cycled and eventually, when even my wanderings acquired a sense of routine, I started boarding buses just to be on the move and feel the wind on my face. My parents didn’t approve so I walked the tightrope of half-truths. What you don’t know won’t hurt you.

Adult life gave me enough reasons to hoof it. And once my books began to be published in various parts of the world, I didn’t need an excuse to get away or explain to anyone why I needed the comfort of knowing that a suitcase packed with essentials was waiting under my bed.

Malayalam has an almost poetic expression for this state of mine: Kaatathil itadhu pole (adrift in the wind) and yet in that state of being flotsam, I found permanence. So much so that it is when I am rooted in one place, I feel the desolation of transience. The mind begins to shrivel and the words when they emerge are sickly hollow creatures.

When the lockdown began, getting used to the new normal was what occupied me initially as it probably did everyone else all over the world. Every aspect of staying alive acquired a new dimension. Do we have enough food? Do we have cleaning materials? Do we have medicines to see us through minor infections and existing health conditions? Do we have toothpaste? Do we have wine? Do we hoard? Or do we go with the flow? Do we have enough money to see us through?

The thing about human nature is that we have the ability to get used to just about anything. And so I got used to being home. Every day, day after day. The household chores dampened the corporeal restlessness but within was an inordinate urge to flee. I had never spent as much time in one place in the last 30 years. And as I went about my day or walked the roads of the gated community I live in, I felt like a goldfish going round and round in circles within the confines of its bowl. For the first time I understood why goldfish have the memory span they do. Anything else would have turned it into a piranha.

And then, as I thought I was reaching the end of my tether, I had an epiphany. In a household consisting of two adult men and two adult dogs, prodigious amounts of food are consumed. My day began and ended with what am I going to cook for the next meal? If food and its making was going to be the leitmotif of this quarantine, then I would turn it to be my passport to the world.

I began to dredge the taste of food I had savoured during my travels and set about recreating them. As anyone who has cooked for a long time will tell you, breaking down the taste of a dish in your mouth into a list of ingredients is a compulsive practice. And if a dish eluded me by not revealing itself to my taste buds, I went online looking for its recipe. Depending on what was available in my larder, I began a journey of seeking the world on my plate.

I would begin by choosing a place I wished I could travel to. I would then scour for a recipe keeping in mind what was available at home. Some of the dishes were based on traditional tested recipes and some others I concocted based on the ingredients from the region and how many of those I could procure from the nearest grocery store. One day if it was the Burmese khow suey (coconut milk-based broth with side dishes), another day it was a Moroccan tagine (slow-cooked stew). There was the Iranian khoresht fesenjan (a Persian stew with pomegranate and walnuts) and an Austrian coffee cake. A Palestinian meal of hummus, batata harra (spicy potatoes), a watermelon, grape and mint salad dressed in pomegranate molasses, or a traditional Kerala spread of manga kaalan (a curry made with tart green or semi-ripe mangoes), puli inji (a spicy condiment made with ginger, tamarind and jaggery) and a green banana mezhukkupuratti (stir fry). The familiar fish curry from Kerala vied with the unfamiliar Pakistani nihari (meat stew).

I was plagued by guilt. Despite all its inconveniences, my reality was that of privilege. In contrast were the thousands of migrant workers on the road fuelled by fear and rage; children eating grass; the homeless foraging for food; the starving daily wage earner...

Nevertheless I continued to cook. For it alone offered me a semblance of control and the solace that things would fall into place. Eventually.

Anita Nair is a poet, playwright and novelist

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Published on July 17, 2020
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