The most popular work of literature connecting food to incidents long forgotten would surely be Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, a French classic written in seven volumes between the late 19th and early 20th century. On one occasion, Charles Swann, the protagonist, takes a bite off a delicate oblong tea cake called a madeleine dipped in lemon flower tea, the flavours of which suddenly open up a treasure chest of memories of his childhood. What follows is a deeply philosophical examination of how long-stored memories are released. Less ambitiously, while never having considered myself a foodie, memories of travels taken to craft outposts everywhere oddly bring back memories of the food that became an intrinsic part of the trip. Food was never uppermost in our minds, but looking back, it seems the experience is never complete without recalling the food, the people and uniqueness of the experience that went with it.
In Gujarat, where my craft travels started in 1978, unpretentious dhabas on highways were always clean, safe and inexpensive. A simple meal of large-sized rotis, a bowl of dal, an inevitable generous blob of white butter, fried and salted green chillies and chhaas was never stale or re-heated. Kutch was a huge arid tract full of very dusty soil and thorny bushes. We visited many villages over the years but one was our base camp – Hodka, in the heart of the Banni tract. After reaching the village, we would settle down on the floor to examine finely embroidered quilts, torans, chaklas, kanjris and ghagras. They were all made by women and young girls as part of their trousseaus. We examined colours, layouts, and the traditional motifs of their particular community before giving them ideas to diversify their work to suit urban markets without compromising their unique identity as reflected in their stitches and colours. Time would pass unnoticed till suddenly the mound of embroideries would be tossed to one side and the steel plates would come out. Three thick bajra rotlas, green chillies and onions cooked together as the only available vegetable dish, the inevitable blob of butter, and endless vaadkis of chhaas. To fend off sunstroke there would also be a pile of roughly chopped raw onions.
The generosity with milk-related products was because they were families of herders. The barefooted women would scuttle silently across the hard sun-baked mud floors piling on more rotlas than we could even bear to look at. Today, Hodka village has become a sprawling tourist resort with traditional music, guest huts, evening entertainment by local folk singers and a dressed-up version of the same wonderful rotlas, dal, blobs of butter and chhaas we ate forty years ago.
Another stop in Kutch would be at Dhamadka, and later Ajrakpur near Bhuj, to work with the famed Khatri family that began with Mohammad Bhai Siddiqbhai, the father, and his three sons, Razak Bhai, Ismailbhai and Jabbarbhai. From the early 90s, till today, when all three sons have a countless number of children and grandchildren, I can expect the same stuffed red chilli pickles, delicious mutton curries and a special dal with so much garlic and other spices that its wondrous aroma would reach the gate.
Saurashtra in the early days was also extremely drought-prone, with monsoons failing year after year. Travelling with my young children in 48-50 degree temperatures in a non-AC van was an adventure. I wanted to show them what I do when I am away from home. Looking for a bottle of some cola to cool us we once found an extremely unpleasant bottled drink weirdly named Sosyo. Finally, my kids notched up a count of 17 glasses of chhaas to beat the heat that day.
I was sent to Bhadohi, a spread of villages in the carpet and durry weaving district of Mirzapur in Uttar Pradesh, by the National Commission of Women to check on the conditions of women employed in the carpet industry. Women were recruited for their fine finger work but the conditions of work and wages were miserable. A gathering of 700 women from adjoining villages related their problems all day and handed petitions to the officials accompanying us. I visited their tiny cramped working spaces and pitiful conditions in their homes. As I was leaving for the station, many of them came and gave me some beautiful baskets they had woven for their own ceremonial occasions, thanking me for being the first to ask about their problems. I wondered why I could not help them augment their income or work at something easier.
Time elapsed and a bank that approached our Dastkari Haat Samiti as an organisation that could implement some rural development work offered a small sum to conduct a project of our choice. With Rs. 2 lakhs and some beautiful Sri Lankan grass baskets in hand, I sent word that I would go to the villages where women could come with their baskets to show me the best of their skills. We sat in their homes, in open spaces and in the meagre shade of mango groves in the heat of summer. They plucked some raw mangoes and someone found four rupees to buy a cheap knife from the market to chop them into tiny pieces. One of them brought some salt and red chili powder wrapped in a newspaper. All these mixed together became our sour but invigorating refreshment break for the day. The spade work done at these meetings consisted of explaining how they could bring value to their lives by making baskets to sell in markets everywhere. They had never thought that it was possible to convert their weaving skills into monetary returns. The bank sponsorship allowed us to hold workshops under designers and later produce enough to hold an exhibition in Delhi. Their menfolk brought them to attend the workshops on their cycles and slept under the trees while the women learned to apply new designs and colours to their already skilled work. The men were supportive only because the women were getting a stipend. And the women loved the ice cream breaks!
Madhya Pradesh offered memorable experiences related to food. Every time a trip to Ujjain to work on a batik design development project with the renowned Ena Da Silva of Sri Lanka is mentioned at the office, a photograph taken of me at an open-air eating joint on the outskirts of the town by my young colleague Charu Verma is displayed for laughs yet another time. The local group of artisans recommended celebrating the end of our successful workshop by treating me to a meal with some special cuisine at a simple open air restaurant beside a small river. Apparently, this joint is famous for its daal baati churma, an extremely hard object, the size of a cricket ball, consisting of a deep fried mixture of aata, suji, spices and besan. It has to be crumbled into powder over which daal is poured and mixed. I stared helplessly at this rock-like gigantic blob that refused to break down into edible bits while the artisans smilingly observed my plight. Suddenly, the owner-manager-cook swooped down. He grabbed the hard ball in his huge greasy hands, poured daal over it, crushing and mashing the mixture till it all squelched to his satisfaction as I stared in horror while trying to keep smiling. Charu caught this on camera as everyone cheered.
Another tour to the state was unforgettable for other reasons. We were visiting Chanderi, a small town with wonderful monuments and many handloom weavers who make fine saris in a range of brilliant colours. Zahir Tuntuni, a weaver, was our host. As we visited many establishments and met their families, it was a matter of duty and pride for them to serve us something to eat. We fended off meals of rice and mutton curries, asking only for fruit.
When we sat at Zahir’s home and later at Muddassir’s home, their families had laid out groups of bowls for each of us and themselves. In the heat of summer, mangoes, watermelon, bananas and grapes were the best soothers, but the collection of everyone’s empty bowls at the end was so great that I couldn’t resist entertaining everyone by posing for a picture pretending I had eaten all that myself.
On our last day, Zahir suggested we visit the old fort near the Ram Nagar lake. They had decided to cook daal and rotis for a grand lunch for all of us. Everyone vouched for the fact that he was as good a cook as he was a weaver. Sure enough, when we got to the edge of the beautiful ruins and tranquil lake, Zahir and his team were busy kneading the dough and stirring a huge pot of daal as if they were professional cooks at a wedding. We laid out a length of newspapers and paper plates and had a jolly meal together. Simple rich-tasting daal-roti cooked with pleasure and enthusiasm is worth more than a five-star meal any day.
I have found Odisha’s artisans to be generally soft-spoken. Apindra Swain of Raghurajpur, the UNESCO-designated artists’ village is particular about not eating garlic or onion. When we sent him to Singapore for one of our exhibitions for two weeks, he carried a stock of homemade chivda to keep him going. We asked our hosts to provide a small pressure cooker, rice cooker and stove in his room. Ever-grateful, he never visits our office in Delhi without two large containers of the tastiest homemade chivda you would ever find. We are not sharing the recipe because he never tells us; he shyly makes excuses, assuring us he will keep us well-supplied. Rabindra Behr, on the other hand is bold, talented and ambitious. He visits the Puri Temple every day and never comes to Delhi without a palm leaf box of prashad from the temple, hailing us with a loud ‘Jai Jagannath!’. When I visited his home with my family, he made us eat a whole bunch of bananas and watch the video of his wedding on a huge screen in his tiny room. Hospitality takes many forms indeed.
The Government of erstwhile Jammu & Kashmir actually has a department called Tawaza, meaning ‘hospitality’, that looks after important state guests and caters at ceremonial occasions. Soon after the first heavy spate of militancy had died down in early 2000, I was walking along some lanes heading for a particular craftsman’s home. This area had been full of militants and bloodshed, yet, when I asked at one doorway for the house we were looking for, the owner asked me in for a cup of tea and offered to call our friend to his home. When the group of craftspeople closely associated with us for years hear that we are visiting Srinagar, there are fights about who will host which meal, till we are booked for every meal, from lunches, heavy teas and dinners. Whether it is a meal or just a small snack you can be sure there will be salty and sweet biscuits, cake, roast chicken or ribs, walnuts and apples. An actual meal, seated on the floor with the whole family, meant a huge pile of rice, seekh kebabs, tabak maaz (those delicious lamb ribs), rogan josh, rista, gushtaba or yakhni, chicken curry, haaq saag and a bolster to lean against when it was all over.
Hakim Ghulam Mohamad, as a traditional hakim and a papier-mâché artist, would not only give us food at his home in Srinagar where he would pack crab apples from his tree, and bottled honey from his garden for us to take home, but while in Delhi for a long spell during the winter to work on a project in our office and stay with his son in Nizamuddin, he would cook delicious meat with saag or crab apples and bring them to my house despite my protests. He could pick out the special saags – perfect for winter – favoured by Kashmiris who lived in large numbers in the Bhogal area.
Trips to the North-East of India bring different palates and ways of living to life. I was travelling for a Google Arts & Culture-related research and documentation trip with Ankit, a young colleague, and Subinoy, a talented young photographer. We had been to multiple basket – weaving homes and villages, and were on our way to Tripura, but Radhabinod Koijam, a friend and former Chief Minister of Manipur, decided to host a family dinner for us. Anyone who has been to a ceremonial feast in Manipur will understand the utter grace and charm in the way traditional cooks dress, lay out and serve meals. They dress in white turbans tied with great flourish, along with spotlessly white kurtas and billowing dhotis in the manner of twirling Manipuri drummers. Katoris are fashioned out of banana leaves laid at the edge of a large banana leaf for each guest. Each dish that comes out is either a fascinating saag or a dish termed very good for your health. The daals are mild and the chillies fiery. It reaffirms one’s belief that the cooking and serving of specific foods in specific ways is so much a part of local cultures in India and is always an unconscious way of displaying the best of community behaviour.
And finally, there is the visit to the unforgettable Thembang, a tiny village in West Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh, at an altitude of 2169 metres, amidst verdant hills, with the Dirang River flowing through a gorge below. The centrepiece of Thembang is its Dzong, a majestic fort built in stone and wood in 1100 CE. Recognized by UNESCO as a heritage village, the inhabitants known as Monpas have traded yak wool, butter, cheese and ghee with the Tibetans for centuries. They treasure community life, cultivate many varieties of organic vegetables, grow orchids, run a homestay for tourists, and practice handloom weaving which I was keen to document for our Google Arts & Culture project (https://artsandculture.google.com/project/crafted-in-india). Matching the ancient charm of the place was the most unusual spread of food we were offered for lunch. Believe it or not, our lunch consisted of buckwheat leaves, chives, wild leeks and foraged greens with a red chilli and a green chilli chutney called Ema Datse, rice, including a local red rice, fish stew, steamed dumplings, dal, steamed cabbage, green beans, a local saag and chicken curry. They had some locally baked ragi bread as well.
Having concentrated on crafts in most of my work tours, it was hard to imagine one could store the memories of such diverse food experiences, but when one is involved in the lives of craft-producing families, rest assured it is impossible to leave without having a meal with them. Food, after all, is also friendship.