Pan view of the pandemic

Note: An edited version of this article originally appeared in Deccan Herald on July 26, 2020.

Food is beautiful. It not only sustains us but is also central to our social evolution. Being born in a traditional South Indian family means that you are introduced to the richness and diversity of food right from your birth. In fact, one of the most significant food experiences in an infant begins with the sacred Vedic rite of ‘Annaprashana’, which means food feeding in Sanskrit. It is the first time ever that a child consumes food in solid form and is celebrated by families with pomp and fanfare. Despite the vastness of India, a common thread connecting people is the love for food, resplendent with ghee and spices. We use food to celebrate a win, mourn a loss, seek comfort, and shape our family identities. Popular cultural icons and Hindi cinema are replete with the messages: “a family that eats together, stays together…”

So, when in March this year, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, a billion Indians suddenly went under an indefinite lockdown. With access to the outside world and routine family gatherings put on hold, and house help becoming inaccessible, people were cooped up within the walls of their homes. They therefore took comfort in the closest thing they could think of – food!

Suddenly, everyone I knew was talking about cooking, growing fresh vegetables and herb gardens. My social media feeds were full of loaves of focaccia bread, breezy mango salads, elaborate traditional meals and spicy simmering stews, while food writers and bloggers rose to the occasion with mouth-watering vanilla cream-topped scones. My WhatsApp groups buzzed non-stop as cousins, distant relatives and friends sourced recipe ideas, taking inspiration from one another, and shared photographs of hilarious kitchen fails. Even at work, colleagues and co-workers started offering treasured family recipes, answering questions of novice cooks, and generally creating more opportunities for people to make use of available ingredients at home and bond over cooking.

In the background, the virus continued to rage.

It was in the middle of one such reckless day that I was forced to a moment of reckoning.  As someone with a diagnosed emotional eating condition, I have always had a complicated love-hate relationship with food. For most part of my life, I have hated eating. I have taken my meals as a chore, with rules about either binge-eating or completely skipping meals because “it makes me fat!” But now, with restaurants, eateries and delivery services closed, I faced a peculiar challenge. For the first time in years, I was forced to introspect on my relationship with food, and what it meant to me personally, beyond all cultural conditioning. Also, I was forced to cook!

To initiate me into this new relationship, a friend suggested a marathon run of food dramas of on Netflix. Of all the ones I watched, one series captured my imagination and fascinated me endlessly. Called the ‘Immortal Classic’,the story revolved around a family heirloom, in the form of a ‘khimchi’ cookbook, being passed down from a matriarch of the family to the youngest granddaughter. Perhaps it was the memories of the time when I shared meals with my grandmother, but something changed inside me as I watched this show. Soon enough, I found myself at the beginning of a spiritual culinary journey. Over the past two months, I have spent time poring over online recipes and cooking techniques, listening to cooking podcasts on Spotify, learning to use a mortar and pestle to crack peppercorns, and burying my head in a book highlighting the properties of cornstarch as a thickening agent. Talking about cooking, and swapping tips for the efficient management of meal waste with my mother and sister has become a daily pastime. I have joined online cooking support groups, collecting long-lasting non-perishable items, and asking popular chefs about cooking creatively with whatever ingredients are at home.  

Prepping for all the three meals in a day on my own, I discovered the joys and the comforts of cooking – the unmistakable aroma of chilies and making the soft roti dough,  just like my grandmother used to make. Visiting her during summer breaks or family functions, I would hover around my ajji (as I called my grandmother) frolicking, while she stood supervising  my mother and aunts through every stage of preparing food, and proudly stuffing me with ‘puranpoli’ a traditional Indian sweet flatbread. Years later, as I chased my dreams and career, I distanced myself from regular visits to her and eventually, from her cooking. And then, when she was gone, I took to binging on junk food and developed a passionate dislike for cooking – for myself or for others. As if I had lost an inseparable part of my life.

But during this lockdown, as I braced myself every day to prepare three meals – sifting through my kitchen cabinets, watching the stove heat, grinding my coffee beans, experimenting with online cooking classes and frantically sharing my food feats on Facebook – I began a renewal of my relationship with food. It has reconnected me with my senses and emotions, helping me access my relinquished feelings for my grandmother and allowing me the freedom to look beyond the pause of this pandemic. As I delight in my childhood memories, I have begun to pick up the broken pieces of my relationship with food. I have realized that life is too short to dwell on the bygones. Instead, I should use my memories to move forward in life with hope. Sipping on hand-made jasmine herbal tea, I have come to acknowledge the efforts of many people – from the farmer who sows the crop, to the distributor who brings me the finished product, to the chef responsible for putting food on my plater, day after day. The pandemic has brought in many lessons for humanity. But perhaps, the most important lesson for me is the daily fortune, nourishment, and solace I have found in activities such as grocery shopping, chopping, cutting, frying, kneading, and boiling. As life rebounds and we return to a semblance of our earlier life, I am grateful for having reset my life, revisiting memories of my loving ajji and acquiring an essential life- skill.

I now realize the beauty behind cooking and plating. Also, the opportunity to reconnect with and bond over food has made me view our traditions and beliefs, and the wisdom passed on by our ancestors in a different light. After all, they knew that food is central to life and death. This knowledge is what made them celebrate the birth of a child with food and honor departed souls with a 16-day period filled with rituals and elaborate food offerings.

This pandemic has reminded me that a recipe, by itself, has no meaning. It is the people involved in cooking food with love, our bonds with our families, friends and humanity, and our shared memories of food that give the recipe a soul. It’s a beautiful reminder of all those things that really matter in life.

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