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Finding joy in food memories during the pandemic

During the pandemic, memories of simple meals had during travels, whipped up by kind and hospitable locals, have been a source of comfort and succour

Some of my most memorable meals have been centred around unpretentious local cuisines (Ashwini Chaudhary, Unsplash)

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In these precarious times, we have all come up with unique coping mechanisms. One of the biggest comforts for most has been embarking on trips of nostalgia—of recollecting memories of the good old days. At a time when travel has only just opened up, people are browsing through old photos and reliving the happy moments. Whenever I look back at my travel memories, interestingly, most are inextricably linked with food.

Food is not just a means of sustenance but a source of immense happiness as well. Some of my most memorable meals have been centred around unpretentious local cuisines, which spoke about the destinations’ ecology, culture and, most importantly, people. The humble hospitality of the locals and the pride associated with their food has remained with me all these years.

The food I have truly relished has not not been part of some fancy restaurant or an Instagrammable-spread, but simple everyday cuisine that has nourished my soul. I vividly remember the trip from August 2014, when my friends and I decided to explore the heritage sites of Badami, Aihole, and Pattadakal in Karnataka. We had been soaking in the beauty of the old temple architecture of Aihole and Pattadakal and the mesmerising caves of Badami. This whole trip was like a time machine as it took us to old times when stories were written in stones. The rustic ambience, with mud houses and millet fields, added to the atmosphere.

On one such afternoon, when we were busy studying the temple architecture at Pattadakal, we came across a couple of village ladies with a cane basket on their heads. At the entrance of these monuments, they were selling homemade millet flatbreads with some chutney and vegetables.

Though we had a packed itinerary, their enthusiasm impressed us and we decided to give their fare a try. And thank god, we did! It was one of the most delicious meals I have ever had. Millets might have become a buzzword in the cities now, however ladies in these parts have been cooking with the grains for centuries now.

It was heartening to get the taste of local flavour as we would not have got that at any local restaurant. And what has remained with me is the gratification on the ladies’ faces as they shared their culinary heritage with us.

I had a similar encounter while travelling to Patan in Gujarat to visit the UNESCO World Heritage site of Rani ki Vav. The stepwells, built in the 11th century but discovered only in the 1950s, is filled with sculptures from Hindu mythology, different geometrical patterns which also adorn the Patan Patola sarees.

To know more about this weave we were heading towards the museum Patola House. But, before that, our driver stopped for lunch at a junction just before the Patola House Museum. This was near Fatehsinh Pustakalay, in an area called Bhadra– a small town with no restaurant or eatery in sight. However, we saw one small room where a local lady, probably in her 60s, was making fresh rotis on a chullah. She was dressed in a traditional saree and seated on the floor at the entrance of the room, rolling out dough.

The lady making fresh rotis in Bhadra. 
The lady making fresh rotis in Bhadra. 

We were a little hesitant at first as it was not a typical restaurant. However, on seeing us, the lady invited us into the room and happily served us warm rotis with vegetables and dal. Another local lady, of a similar age, quickly tidied up the place, made arrangements to sit, and helped her serve a wholesome meal. They even made an additional dish of brinjal and potatoes just for us. This place was mainly meant for locals to have a quick meal before moving ahead. Apart from us, there were hardly any tourists there. What really moved me was the simplicity of the meal and the way two local ladies of Bhadra went out of their way to serve us. It provided us comfort and happiness at the same time.

During another trip, one was exploring the wonders of Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu. I had wanted to explore the World Heritage Site in the morning to get the best light for the images, and also to see the place before it got crowded. That meant there was no time for breakfast. After a couple of hours of walking around the site, I got really tired and hungry. Luckily, at a roadside stall, I found a lady serving fresh idlis and vada. They were the softest idlis ever, served with spicy coconut chutney. That made me wish for a hot cup of tea. However, the stall was not serving any tea. But to cater to my request, the lady immediately went to another stall, some distance away, and bought me a cuppa on her own. That was such a moving gesture. And I can never forget her smile when she offered me the tea.

All of these experiences highlight the kindness of people, who do not shy away from taking that extra step for the comfort of others. It inspires a feeling of happiness and hope, which we all need at this time in particular.

Arti Das is a Goa-based freelance journalist who mainly writes about art, culture and ecology.

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