Quirky facts become anecdote and eventually settle into legend. Among Indians of a certain age-group, such is the status of tour groups of middle-aged Indian couples, and families, that go on European holidays with the express comfort of knowing their tour-provider will arrange for familiar Indian food, and in some cases strictly prepared Indian food to very exacting religious norms, all this while marvelling at the old cultures of the West and their well preserved buildings. Some people go looking for the unfamiliar as achievement but never want to have to live with it, and why not, when they have the means of dipping into a foreign culture while remaining safely wrapped in the habits and conventions of their own? I think most human beings would make a similar choice if it was easy enough to insist on without embarrassment.
It’s not just middle-aged Indians who do such things; You will find plenty of Americans who will travel across the globe only to desperately seek out the local McDonald’s for sustenance. The excuse there is that McDonald’s food is safe compared to the unknown food monstrosities out there, which is no different than disapproving Indian Uncles and Aunties tut-tutting about not knowing what these foreigners put in their food and not wanting to find out. That is the more common form of seeking the familiar in the unfamiliar, a sort of culinary and psychological life-saver to be held on to desperately, so as not to drown in alien seas and swallow the unknown waters. There is another, however, and that becomes possible when you travel to unfamiliar places which are deceptively like the familiar. Those fringe cases of culture and experience twist your mind a bit, and give you ample opportunity to rediscover the familiar through new and sharpened senses. Finding familiar treats in unfamiliar lands is as much a comfort as it is an adventure down memory lane.
While my family hails from the South of India, my experience of the region has been fairly limited thus far. I’ve made flying visits to Mangalore and Bangalore, and around Karnataka, dipping into the connections of various branches of my extended family, but I’ve never ventured into the other states that make up the vast South Indian peninsula. In Karnataka, there was always the comfort of being able to communicate in one of the local languages, in however stilted a manner, but I recently found myself in Chennai, and suddenly I was in an India I knew and was familiar with, but in an alien world where the language was unknown and the place was just that little bit on the side of the unknown.
I was walking down a tree-lined street late one evening in the genteel by-lanes of Besant Nagar with a friend, and in one of those impulse decisions we stepped into a random grocery store along the way to stock up on a few food essentials before we headed home. It was an interesting little shop because in it you could see the evolution of small-scale Indian retail, if you were paying attention.
As a kid in Bombay, I grew up with two kinds of stores serving the day-to-day needs of a home. There were the small corner shops, or kirana wallahs, little puzzle-pieces of shopping, stacked with things on every available surface, with the entire death-trap of a cul-de-sac layout wrapped around one glass counter. The proprietor sat behind the counter, and most of the items on sale stayed there too. You didn’t pick up items yourself unless they happened to be located in some corner of the shop or some cleverly constructed shelf along the wall which was out of reach from behind the counter. If anything was well out of reach, some young chap would often take out a ladder and fetch it from the heavens, the high shelves along the wall. That was one very distinct sort of retail experience. The other was the one more familiar in the modern urbanised world, one of aisles and shelves and picking out your purchases to place in baskets, and check-out counters. While this was not a popular model when I was a kid, it was well and handsomely represented by the Apna Bazaar phenomenon. Apna Bazaar was, and is, a semi-governmental co-operative run, department store chain, primarily made for the then burgeoning middle-class and lower middle-class. They had a stamp scheme for subsidised payments, had low prices, and were the go-to place for picking up all those things which you wouldn’t get in your corner store. While the kirana wallah was a few metres across, the large Apna Bazaars of the time were set off in their own little structures, some with several, albeit modest by current standards, storeys of retail space. It was a laid-back enterprise, being run as service rather than strictly profit-making business, but going around those aisles with your quaint faux-basket-weave plastic shopping basket was a unique experience for the time.
The grocery store I stepped into in Chennai was a mix of those two models, a combination of closed off counter space and browsable aisles, which we are all now comfortable with as the standard structure of most small and mid-sized stores. This one, however, had more that was hybrid about it than just that. Like the corner stores of old, some of which survive and thrive even in large cities like Bombay, the pair behind the counter were clearly father and son. The older gentleman was carefully noting down accounts in a small lined school notebook when we walked in, and the son was talking on a mobile phone, taking orders for delivery. Our shopping spree was neither extensive nor too unusual, a mix of snacks, essential emergency food supplies (read: cup noodles), and plenty of impulse buys of things you only get a craving for when they’re in front of you in the super-market shelf. Some of these well-considered purchases included a packet of arrowroot biscuits from Britannia, a packet of sugared jujubes, and a small transparent bag of murruku. Of these, one was standard fare for such casual shopping, one was a rare treat since I don’t live in India through most of the year, and one was an almost forgotten staple of childhood. All of them, however, were comfortingly familiar.
When I was little and we stayed with at my grand parents’ place in Bombay, in a corner kitchen cupboard filled with random cooking ingredients, small electrical torches for when there was a power cut, and miscellaneous kitchen bric-a-brac, there used to be a small metal tin of white powder that was fished out on occasions when sweets were being prepared. This well-preserved powder was arrowroot, a starchy thickening agent which I heard about more often than I saw used, except that I ate a good deal of it in the form of a biscuit. These days the Indian retail landscape of mildly sweet biscuits as accompaniment to chai has been taken over completely by the ubiquitous Marie biscuit, but I remember a time when equally available were the similar looking and tasting arrowroot biscuits.
Arrowroot is a plant and the starch extracted from its root, which came primarily out of the West Indies and was all the rage during the height of the British Empire. People were obsessed with the stuff and like many new food fads of current times, it was considered to be a cure for all ills and assigned all sorts of magical health enhancing and food preparation qualities. So ubiquitous was the presence of Arrowroot in the affairs of the Empire that Napoleon is said to have commented that the English only promoted the use of the powder because they had a colony that produced it. The man was probably right, because like coffee beans, the idea of a heavy breakfast, and many such mass eating habits of modern times, it’s quite likely this too was a result of commercial interests more than any inherent redeeming qualities of the food in question. Having said that, while arrowroot has sunk into relative obscurity due to a lack of marketing since, it was and is a fairly unique ingredient with several unique properties. In this age of gels and foams and such gourmet fancies, I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before the ability of arrowroot to thicken and form more stable and long-lasting gels, even with acidic fruit content, is one that you’ll see and are already seeing on plates near you.
When I was familiar with the mysterious white powder in the box that was never used, however, it still came with throwbacks from the heady days of the Raj, with talk of health benefits and strength giving abilities and such. But for me above all else, Arrowroot was the name of a biscuit. A simple and fine biscuit it was too. Like the plain Marie, but always slightly crisper and with a pretty flowery dimpled edge, which differentiated it from the plain circle of the Marie. When I brought home the packet of Britannia Arrowroot biscuits in Chennai, I opened it to find they had maintained that old shape. The packaging was more fancy and computer graphics heavy but the taste was the same unassuming one I remembered, indiscernible to any normal taste buds from any other plain tea biscuit, but just that little more special for being a piece of childhood returned.
Speaking of gelling agents and food preparation wonders, you can’t go wrong with the most ubiquitous one around, gelatin, which for those who don’t know are what jujubes are all about. Jujubes are little cubes of semi-dry coloured and flavoured sweet gelatin coated in granular sugar. As sweet things go, they are blunt, direct, simple, and one of the most beautiful textures to bite into. Oddly enough, the rise of gelatin is also related to the history of marketing endeavours. Gelatin as a by product of the treatment of animal produce and bones was long known and used, but no one had found a way to make the gelatinous colourless blob that resulted into a palatable product. In the late 19th century this challenge was taken up, and with the addition of fruit flavours, colouring and sugar, and the granulation of the result into a less creepy looking powder, Jell-o was born and the world of desserts never looked back.
As a kid I loved jelly(the more common general name for it in India to this day, rather than the Jell-o brand name) in all its forms. Visits to restaurants would often end in a serving of jelly with ice-cream, a cascade of wobbly icebergs of the red strawberry or raspberry flavoured jelly, served in a fancy steel cup with a dollop of white vanilla ice cream. Even back then my Mother, being the scientifically prone woman she was, would explain to me how jelly was extracted from bones and so is quite likely good for your bones and your nails and I’m fairly certain keratin was mentioned. I’m sure there is some nutritional truth to that, and yes I had an awesome childhood. I gladly used this excuse to eat as much jelly as I could.
Jujubes were also a part of my childhood. They had remained as a echo of India’s time as the jewel of the Empire, as have many typically British boiled sweets and biscuits which we have made our own since. I was not a giant sweet fan, not as much as most children perhaps, and certainly not to the level I see in kids today. Besides my Father regularly bringing back fruits from his travels, which I loved, I have two repeated memories of adults bringing me sweet things. One was my Grandfather, my Father’s Dad, who would always show up for a visit with a single slim bar of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk in his possession, a chocolate I enjoyed both in the eating and in preserving its distinctly purple foil wrapping between the pages of books. The second was my Uncle, my Mother’s brother, who often brought home a packet of jujubes. They would arrive in a small plastic packet, holding a dozen or so of the sweet colourful cubes, wrapped in a bit of newspaper or a paper bag fashioned from a newspaper, as is still common today in smaller Indian stores. I think the jujubes were chosen as much for my benefit as for my Uncle’s, who enjoyed them himself and still does, and they were enjoyed by all, each crunchy, squishy cube savoured, and some even preserved for later. I felt the same biting into them now as I did then, and they were just as addictive in any city.
The muruku, or chakli, or any number of variations on the theme of spirals of savoury and spicy dough, deep-fried to crispness, most definitely preceded the British Raj and will continue to out-live it for a long time to come. It’s been a staple South Indian snack and one whose popularity has grown and spread to be pan-Indian over time. In an increasingly health conscious world, and an urban one plagued with incidences of diabetes, the chakli in spite of its deep-fried nature has become an alternative treat during many festivals, most commonly Diwali, when large stalls draped in colourful fabric appear on the sides of busy streets in Bombay, selling the common delicacy by the kilo. It’s quite an interesting time, with people picking up packets for home and friends as they pass by and even getting very staunch about which stall run by which organisation makes the most divine chakli, or the most healthy one, or the most crisply fried.
My memories of the chakli are homely and common and also festive. While they were and still are something we will often pick up to keep at home as a general snack to munch on, as a kid, they were a part of a yearly Diwali ritual. Back then, once a year during the week preceding Diwali, my Grandmother would convert most of our tiny house into an industrial kitchen, with my Mother assisting. Large plates and utensils would litter the floor, newspapers would be spread out as vast staging areas, and long preserved pastry shaping tools and cutting tools and all sorts of kitchen magic would be unleashed to prepare the traditional Diwali spread of treats, not just for the home but also to distribute amongst neighbours and friends. For this occasion, the kerosene stove would be unwrapped, it being the one with the largest burner to work with. Vast vats of oil would be heated and sorcery would be worked with doughs of various kinds as they were mixed and kneaded, cut and prepared to be spread on the newspapers, and fried or otherwise cooked as required, in vast quantities. One of the staples was obviously the humble chakli, the spicy chickpea flour stuffed carefully into an ancient-looking brass device, which was basically a solid pastry cone with a screw and lever on top that pushed the dough down and out the bottom through a replaceable plate, which had a hole or several holes of various shapes. The single star-shaped stencil was used to create the moist spirals that would eventually become the chaklis.
The kids would help, of course, or we tried to distract ourselves with doing stuff and tasting the results anyway, and in time all the treats would be gathered and packaged into two paper plates stapled into little individual parcels. Then we’d have the privilege of hopping over to various neighbours and presenting them with the produce of the season, as it were. Not a social duty I’d look forward to, but after all that kitchen magic, perhaps it didn’t matter as much at the time, and as children we were less obligated to stick around after the parcels had been delivered. It was a responsibility, but chaklis and murukus are never a responsibility, only a pleasure, as they are to this day.
These were the memories I brought back with me from the grocery shop in Chennai that evening, and while my plastic carry bag would have seemed modest, or even frugal, to the innocent observer, I was carrying home treasures. The foods we eat, enjoy, abhor and crave are all so much a part of us. They build our tastes when we are young and they indicate and encourage our changing tastes as we grow older. Foods have so many histories tied with them, personal histories, political histories, cultural histories and stories that some of us share and many forget, but coming across familiar foods from your past in an unfamiliar place makes you see them anew and remember some of what you’d forgotten. They make the unfamiliar seem less daunting, they make the familiar more like home, and they make your observations more human, your ponderings more pleasurable, and your memories tastier.