Starting Over

Discovering myself, my family and friends in a foreign land, second time around

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What will my daughter eat today?

IMG-20140405-WA0002My mother would ask me this question on Sundays. I must have been thirteen then; still a child who loved to be treated as special, almost an adult who wanted to make big decisions. The line was plagiarized from a TV ad for a popular brand of oil but I loved repeating the routine with her, one that ended with both of us smiling. She would then proceed to prepare my favorite food. The heat of a kitchen in Mumbai in the month of May dissolved against the sweet juice of the alphonso mangoes that were in season. I would peel off my wet school uniform on rainy monsoon afternoons and bite into fried onion pakodas. I learnt to make dosas and fry pooris in my mother’s kitchen. I would munch on nuts from the countertop as I told her stories of my day. Sometimes I would chop tomatoes or roll out the rotis for her. She would wipe the sweat from her brow with the edge of her sari. I would hug her regardless of the humidity that discouraged human contact.

What is it about food that stirs up so many feelings? Not just memories.

Is it the fact that eating is one activity in which we use all our senses? As I pick up each morsel, it carries with it not just the flavor which the tongue seeks but the sight that makes it irresistible, the sounds in the kitchen when its prepared, the aroma of spices that hover in the air and the texture of the food as it moves in my mouth. Each of these sensory experiences contributes to the overall joy of eating. Later, each sense brings forth its recollection, hidden deep in its archives as individual entries. Each sense holds a piece of the puzzle that when recalled together creates an entire memory, like a rerun from an old TV show that takes you back in time many years later.

I was a troublesome little kid when it came to food. Not eating much, always in search of the perfect bite. My dad used to say I ate air, referring to my tiny appetite. I liked to eat, but I wanted every bite to be perfect. No half-cooked, unevenly salted, unappetizing looking food for me, thank you very much. Almost as snooty as a food critic, I would take second helpings only if there was perfection (perfect for my palate of course). I ate my vegetables but I craved sweets. I was game to try new stuff but took refuge in comfort foods. I showed no interest in learning how to cook although I was a competent sous chef. “She will learn cooking when she needs to. She will learn quickly like she learns other things. Its not rocket science” said Mom, when others asked her if I had been trained in the kitchen arts.

I didn’t really like to cook, even when I had to. I chose to make simple stuff that was quick to whip up. I prided myself on my ability to put together a balanced Indian dinner made from scratch in 45 minutes. Until DQ came along.

She didn’t like milk (to this day), ate only fruit and lingered for hours (at least seemed like it) over every meal till she turned eight. Friends suggested I feed her food that kids liked, pizza and fries, pasta and burgers. But even that was not enough incentive for her to eat at a reasonable pace. I chose to stick to offering her healthy vegetarian food but in my quest to make it more attractive, I started doing the unthinkable. Looking up recipes!

I learnt to make quesadillas with broccoli, bruschetta and veggie wraps. In an effort to expand her palate, I broadened my culinary abilities. And over a period of time, DQ became more open to eating regular food and has turned into what I call a “food purist”. She enjoys every bite, appreciates what is cooked and occasionally shows an interest in how it is made. She continues to be the one to finish last at any meal earning her the nickname “Tuas” – short for two hours, the average time spent on a meal.

I think I breathed a sigh of relief too soon because now I have Princess, who thinks vegetables are an unnecessary evil and has vowed to stay way from them unless it is a matter of life and death. So my quest has started anew. This time armed with the limitless wisdom of Google, I am once again on a search for new and exciting ways to camouflage essential food groups into interesting creations. We make bean burritos, corn and cheese sandwiches, paneer parathas, and creamy mushroom pasta. I ensure there is an endless supply of fresh lemonade and banana nut muffins. Every meal has to sound exciting and please the picky eater as well. Progress is slow and changing eating patterns takes time. I know. It has taken me four decades to be classified as “not fussy” when it comes to food.

It bothers me sometimes, this focus on food. We don’t live to eat. We eat so we can nourish our bodies. We need a healthy body to progress in life, literally and otherwise. Making it the highlight of my day feels like I am settling for less. I should be doing more, or at the very least, doing something else, growing my brain in so many directions. Planning and cooking a meal seems almost too trivial.

cupcake with candleWe have friends coming for dinner. Princess wants to know what I am planning to make. She enthusiastically beats the eggs, sugar and butter. DQ offers to help frost the carrot cupcakes. They linger in the hot kitchen, adding to the noise and mess. DQ wants to use the pretty tablemats. Princess takes the plates and glasses to set the table. They take pride in their creation, eat enthusiastically and share stories at the dinner table. I observe my family and have my epiphany.

I am not preparing a meal. I am creating memories.



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Blending in


HH brought some office colleagues over for lunch yesterday. Six people sat at my dining table enjoying the assorted items I had made – Chinese-style fried rice, sautéed baby potatoes, Indian chole served with middle eastern pita bread, a falafel-like starter with coriander-yoghurt sauce, mini idlis and banana nut muffins for dessert. Why not a purely Indian spread, colorful and spicy? The reason is that Singapore is amazing in the versatility of the people who live here. Whether it is the people who attended a writing class with me last week, or patients waiting at the doctors’ office, group of kids signing up for tennis coaching or just the people riding on the bus with you, they represent multiple countries and continents. My lunch guests included a tall, reclusive South African, a talkative Vietnamese Australian, a bubbly Singaporean Chinese lady, a bright-eyed, almost Indian looking gentleman from Egypt along with two garden variety Indians, including my husband. My challenge was to assemble a vegetarian meal that had adequate protein along with a balance of flavors that would appeal to an international audience.

Singapore is perhaps one of the few countries where the diversity of its population is not just visible but prominently highlighted. I take the bus everywhere and it helps me notice things that I wouldn’t if I was driving. Every Friday I observe large groups of men wearing the traditional white caps on their heads as they walk to the neighborhood mosque for the afternoon prayer. The churches dot the skyline as do the colorful facades of the Hindu temples, located not just in Little India but all over the island. The Buddhist temples with red pillars and fluttering prayer flags, the perfume of joss sticks burning, provide stark contrast to the monotony of the high-rise buildings next door.  In the few months that I have been here, the large banner at the nearby park has conveyed wishes from the town council members to the residents for Deepavali, Christmas and Chinese New Year.

The obituary section in the newspaper is always interesting at first glance – large color pictures of the recently deceased, faces of loved ones of all ages and many races. The announcements at the underground stations carry instructions in various languages in addition to English. Official forms are available in Malay, Tamil and Chinese where you are asked to identify your race as a matter of routine.

I smile at the cashier at my local grocery store who may be a dark haired woman with a bindi or a young woman wearing a pretty hijab. The hawker center food courts offer Indonesian, Thai, Korean, Muslim Indian and Chinese food choices at budget prices. Saris and cheongsams, noodles and rotis, Siam coconut and Singha beer – everything defines the unique confluence that is Singapore. Not yet 50 years old, Singapore is a work in progress, a flowing fusion of cultures as it updates its national identity.

When a new immigrant group enters a reasonably homogeneous society, they have to make changes in order to blend in. My father told me the story of the Parsi community in Bombay who originally came to India as immigrant centuries ago.

When the Parsis came from Persia, they landed on the shores of the western state of Gujarat. The priestly leaders were brought before the local ruler, Jadi or Jadhav Rana, who presented them with a vessel “brimful” of milk to signify that the surrounding lands could not possibly accommodate any more people. The Parsi head priest responded by slipping some sugar into the milk to signify how the strangers would enrich the local community without displacing them. They would dissolve into life like sugar dissolves in the milk, sweetening the society but not unsettling it.

What wonderful way to visualize the mixing of cultures which could add flavor to the existing mix? Living in Singapore serves a daily reminder of that sentiment. Not because it is written in the constitution but because it is on display everywhere; not just outside my home but also within where I join the laughter of the group that has been invited to lunch.