If there is something Bombay has taught me the last 5 years, it is the art of coexistence. When I take a step back and see this city for what it is, I am truly amazed at the different religions, backgrounds and traditions the people around me have grown up with and it has led to a newfound appreciation for the languages they speak, the festivals they celebrate and yes, the food they eat.
It has also helped me introspect and really think about the cultural influences I have been ingrained with. I have been more monotheistic in my religious views the last 9-10 years but all the Hindu customs I have grown up watching feel like a part of my identity and I know simple things like celebrating these festivals or making a big meal are things I will want to continue doing and pass on to my children later on.
I hail from Kerala, a South Indian state on the west coast. While we share many functions with the rest of the Hindu community, the ones most important to us and exclusive to “our land” are Vishu and Onam.
Vishu comes by in April signalling the start of our year, and Onam takes place in August commemorating the annual harvest. Both are celebrated in pomp and splendour, with relatives and friends dropping in for the festivities and obviously, the food.
Food to me has the ability to truly arrest the five senses and festivals are the best time to really give in to that experience. As a child and to this day, I would spend most of my Vishu/Onam in the kitchen, watching mom push out one mouthwatering dish after the other with maddening speed. And the smell of the coconut and clarified butter, the sound of sputtering mustard seeds and chillies, feel of the gritty jaggery coated banana chips and the sight of the pinkish-white payasam bubbling on the stove top amidst the chaos only added to the event of settling down for lunch to actually taste it all.
Since we celebrated Vishu a few days back, mom and I decided to invite some of her Non Keralite colleagues over for what we hoped would be an interesting meal for them. And true to her nature, mom woke up at the crack of dawn this Vishu and whipped up a staggering 17 dishes to serve on banana leaves for the sadya meal.
When people tell me I’m a good cook, I am always so tempted to laugh out loud and shake my head vigorously in denial because I don’t consider my experiments in the kitchen “good cooking”. Good Cooking is what my mom (and grandmom) seem to have mastered- in my eyes, they encapsulate what it means to be passionate about an activity most people consider a necessary chore. And as the saying goes, the proof is generally in the pudding.
Coming back to the meal itself, all Vishu and Onam meals are traditionally had on the banana leaf, using your dominant hand while sitting on the floor.
(For a more detailed description on the dishes themselves, do check out this review)
But all “traditions” aside, these rituals do serve a purpose. Sitting down and bending to take each bite eases the flow of the food down the natural path of the digestive tract and as backward as using one’s hands may seem, recent studies indicate that using your hand to eat helps the body subconsciously realise when it is full, hence preventing overeating as well as eliminating the need for portion control in many cases.
The banana leaf itself is freshly picked everyday and disposed after the meal- thus providing hygiene and a biodegradable means to achieve it. As for the food, the spread is completely vegetarian and uses a number of nutrient rich ingredients like yams, plantains, bottle gourds, raw pumpkin, drumsticks and beets with the staples of coconut and rice. And with the exception of 3 yogurt based dishes and one milk based dessert, the rest of it happens to be vegan and has a low gluten index.
Interesting how our food which found its origins centuries back actually promote the plant based diet that is all the rage today.
Needless to say, mom’s colleagues were completely stuffed and extremely happy at the end of it.
And that lunch only strengthened my belief in the sheer power of a meal to bring together people from a bunch of different backgrounds.
At the end of the day, we may not be able to explain our old scriptures or outdated superstitions to someone who hasn’t grown up with them. But I find that the simple gesture of sharing a meal does so much to help us move closer to coexisting- not just within our neighbourhoods but on a more global level too.
Perhaps the way to everyone’s heart is invariably through their stomachs. 🙂