01 January 1970

Home Sweet Home: A Tale Of Two Puddings

Weekend Reads

Home Sweet Home: A Tale Of Two Puddings

Kanishk Devgan writes about once being an NRI, visits to India during holidays, and Indian food.

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

Our increasingly globalised world is hell-bent on universalising local foods. There is not a single metropolitan city in India where you cannot find at least one restaurant solely centred around each and every major cuisine. This, in and of itself, is not necessarily villainous. The romanticisation of the lesser availability of any good is a privilege of the rich. But so is the bulldozing of the local in favour of the convenient. 

With the advent of apps that can deliver you food from different cities, it seems that we are slowly reaching an age where you can order authenticity to your doorstep. The price of the slight premium you pay is just fair, contractual wages. But I digress. 

There is still, undoubtably, an invisible ring of magic around food. You cannot actually pluck out the roots of a dish from time and space. Food will always emote. It remembers, as you chew, where you chewed it before. Your age intertwines with its aroma. The love with which it was made, served, and consumed together is baked in. Food makes us understand each other. It made me –a solemn faced, little 10-year-old NRI– understand a new country, my own country. 

As an Indian, it is hard to miss the general animosity in the air towards the Indian diaspora. Even though a lot of it is light-hearted, the underlying critiques are not. We judge these Indians for callously handing out their opinions on our homeland, treating their thoughts like some cheap prasad that you can hand out to everyone but still be assured is a blessing they should be grateful to receive. They seem too far away to truly understand us, and we are sure that many do not even remember what India feels like. Our sights, sounds, and scents are distilled and diluted to make themselves fascinating but palatable to the West.

We watch their tone-deaf slogans at rallies for the wrong people to disfigured Indian dances on Tik-Tok with bindis in all the wrong places. It all feels perverse. More than anything, we hate that they get to hold on to a rosy heritage without having to endure the thorns that come with it. 

Amidst all that noise, however, we forget that we are getting into the same bed as the native residents of the many countries that Indians migrate to, who resent them for wielding dual identities. For me, spending my early childhood in Belgium and England was a constant reminder of my otherness. It did not particularly bother me because it was just a fact of life. Indianness meant occasional Indian food, a modest amount of diyas being lit around Diwali, and all your family friends being Indian. 

India, itself, was just a pitstop. Every year, since I was about four till I was 10, my parents would take us back home for about a month. Since the summer break was the only span of days I did not have to go to school, it was then, rather unfortunately, that we would land in the dusty and hot Delhi. It was a place with deceptive familiarity. Everybody looked the same as me but everybody looked different too. There were all these minute aspects of culture that you cannot know until you have lived in a place, strange little details that you don’t know how to appreciate. That’s probably why I didn’t have much to do but play video games and read books. 

My parents, however, had lived here all their lives, and had more than enough things to do: meeting relatives over tandoori chicken lunches, eating golgappas whilst shopping at Sarojni Nagar, waxing poetic about chola-bhature to friends at Haldiram, making special trips to Nathu’s to buy half a suitcase full of sweets, and stopping to eat silver paan on street corners. 

Food, clearly, was the golden thread woven through the tapestry of their time in India. In retrospect, I realised that I, too, shared my parents’ love for eating. In fact, it probably took up as much time as video games and books. Food was everywhere we went, and it was just as much of a gateway into a new world for me as it was an entry point of reconnection for them. 

When in India, we split our time between staying at my maternal and paternal grandparents’ homes. Luckily for me, both my Dadi and my Nani were excellent cooks. They knew how to temper down the spices for my White palate whilst retaining flavour, coax me into trying strange-looking vegetables by serving them alongside ghee-full paranthas and 
revive my forgotten Punjabi identity through a variety of preparations of chicken. But more than anything, it was their desserts that I craved. It was the only thing I would ask them to make for me. You could have given me anything in the world for lunch or dinner, as long as I got to taste my Nani’s Kheer or my Dadi’s Sooji ka Halwa afterwards. 

My Nani’s kheer was rich and sweet, and, at my request, without any added dry fruits or nuts. This perplexed the adults around me, who seemed to hold dry fruits and nuts in high regard. I came to understand that they were more expensive than milk, rice, or sugar, and therefore more sought after. For me, kheer was about something else entirely. Back home, in England, I would really enjoy rice pudding, which we sometimes got for dessert after our school lunches. And kheer was just rice pudding made with love —and better judgement. The grains of rice were finer, the texture creamier, and the sweetness more natural. In the Delhi heat, a chilled bowl of kheer would do what no cold drink or ice cream ever could. 

On the other hand, my Dadi’s sooji ka halwa was best eaten hot and gooey. I always specify ‘sooji’ because I learnt, much later, that there were other types of halwa too. Apparently, ‘gajar ka halwa’ was a known favourite. Unfortunately, I was never inclined to eating anything even remotely healthy, so carrots were out of the question. Dadi’s halwa was just as sweet, but made with jaggery, and would seamlessly melt in your mouth. I would sneakily serve myself bowl after bowl after bowl. 

Although this may sound a bit much, these two desserts became the thing I looked forward to the most on our trips to India. You could not get anything close to them in England. You probably could not get anything specifically like them in India either. These became my anchors, the sources through which I began to learn about and appreciate my surroundings. When you have never lived even near your grandparents, it can be hard to find things to talk about. My interest in Indian sweets gave them something that they could teach me about. It also motivated me to actually explore outside, to try different foods, in the hope that something would strike me with the same passion. If not for this initiation, I don’t think I would have ever agreed to let my parents take me shopping on the streets or to their lunches. I was a shy, quiet child, and quite content on my own. In the days before 20-minute deliveries, food had the power to pull you out of your slumber. 

I am not an NRI anymore but I know that when I was, I found India —and I say this as sincerely as I can— wonderfully exotic. I was a child, unaware of the socio-political constraints of the country, just happy to find things that I couldn’t find anywhere else, and think of them as India. Now that I’m surrounded by Indian cuisine, I find myself less and less taken by it. 

When I go out to eat or order in food, I rarely, if ever, choose to eat chicken lababdar or sarson ka saag with chunks of paneer. There are certainly enough reasons to be suspicious of outsiders who pretend to be insiders. I am suspicious of people in the Indian diaspora who cling onto their cultural heritage, romanticising their suffering hometowns and cities, just as much as anyone else. I get annoyed when I think they pretend to know or like things they would get over in a week if they were here. We all make fun of people glibly ‘trying to get to know their roots’. But all that being said, I did cling on to my cultural heritage in the form of the foods I would eat here, and then go on to boast about it. I did think that if I ever lived in India, I would alternate between halwa and Kheer every day. I was, and always have been, desperately, unknowingly seeking out my roots. Everything else said and done, what’s become of that desire is mostly just love and nostalgia for my grandmothers’ desserts. Can a pudding be your roots? 

The true key to preserving this authenticity —this sense of time and place that comes with the food we eat— is not to stop ourselves from indulging in the great Globalised Food Court (the exploitative convenience industry aside). There’s no rule that says that you can’t make memories over a local Gurugram chain’s post-midnight, home-delivered pizzas or buying Ramen from a small Korean cafe in Kolkata. Our capacity to love only grows the more we open up to it. Much like Ratatouille’s famous adage, “Anyone can cook”, it seems fair to say that anything can be authentic, if intended to be. That’s why when we let that extra, secret quarter-teaspoon of saffron slip away, the Kheer loses a little bit of itself,  but, if we choose to replace it with a mixture of ground turmeric and paprika, we add to the Kheer’s identity.

The difference is the act of remembering. If you choose to keep the foods of your family, however long or wide you wish to define yours, alive, then you’ve done enough. Being able to spend time thinking, talking, and learning about food should be a rare privilege. 

But it’s not. Everyone does it —has to do it— all the time. And, so, we take it for granted. We often forget that a lack of intentions can be an intention in and of itself. Maybe that’s why I like to think of authenticity as neither a brand to try out, nor a custom to preserve, but a practice of sincerity. 

So, now, even when I’m scrummaging with the contents of my fridge and cupboards, fighting to whip up a half-decent dessert that will, naturally, act as my dinner too, I think of both my grandmothers. They probably wouldn’t approve of whatever I end up making, but I know they’d love seeing me make it.