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Mama would fill my pockets with almonds and give me a block of thickened sugarcane gur, mixed with spices and dry fruit, when I left for school. I would walk all the way carrying my wooden slate and bag in one hand and the spicy gur in the other.” The moment I read this sentence, I could paint a picture in my head—the road, the trees dotting it, the little girl going to school, the blue skies she would have seen and the old-timey homes she would have crossed. It transported me to an era I’ve only seen depicted in films or read in books—simpler times when technology had yet to invade every moment of our being.
Jasleen Dhamija, the renowned Indian art textile historian, has painted vivid pictures with her writing in her latest book A Gourmet’s Journey: Discovering the Exotic and Erotic in Food. Growing up in Abbottabad, Dhamija’s work with the United Nations enabled her travels far and wide, and in the midst of it all, her relationship with exploring new foods, friendships and countries. Each page is dotted with food anecdotes and easy recipes curated from her travels.
Dhamija fondly recollects her tryst with Afghan neighbours who brought preserved fruits during her Abbottabad days, when Mahatma Gandhi stayed at her uncle’s place, or the the daily foods like daal and karhi the family consumed. Traversing the length of the country, her first exposure to different tastes came about in 1944, en route to a friend’s place, where each railway station highlighted a different delicacy.
However, it was travelling with her mentor, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, which opened her senses to a vast variety of cuisines. From a Vaishnav feast in Imphal to an Anglo-Bengali meal in Calcutta, wazwan and Kashmiri Pandit delicacies in the north to Chettinad food down south; every page is an explosion of flavours that one can taste while reading. Interestingly, it was in Iran and Africa she learnt of ‘seductive’ aphrodisiac foods. “My cuisine become not only multi cultural, but also more exotic”, she writes of her time in Iran. Probably the most outrageous meal she had was in Denmark, with a complete stranger at breakfast, feasting on caviar and champagne!
The pages tell tales of meetings with Roberto Rossellini and Federico Fellini among others, their friendships based on food. The former even introduced her to a dessert which she loved, despite not possessing a sweet tooth. Not to mention the many flirtations that came her way—an ambassador’s son, a sociologist, a director, and even a prince—all trying to woo her with different cuisines.
I smiled as I turned each page, vividly imagining the author’s life journey. I couldn’t wait to head to my kitchen and rustle up the flavours Dhamija has so delicately exposed readers to through her words.
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