Tuesday, January 25, 2022

A Spoonful of Nostalgia

The “comfort” in comfort food is provided as much by the familiarity of an oft-had meal as memories.

Written by Amrita Roy |
August 28, 2016 12:00:36 am
Fried Swiss Chard with garlic and nuts. (Source: Amrita Roy) Fried Swiss Chard with garlic and nuts. (Source: Amrita Roy)

How mixed up can a bowl of mixed veg get? Seriously mixed up, if you ask me. If you were to probe further, I’d probably admit that some of the mixed veg served at my table, perhaps, needed shrinks to sort out their identity issues. For, in my moments of inspiration (or over-ambition), I’ve shamelessly let plump crispy boris add a wanton bite to shy, delicate courgettes and tempered a mirpoix — the French holy trinity of onion-celery-carrots — with methi with great aplomb (but please don’t tell Raymond Blanc).

Before you start accusing me of being a Masterchef wannabe and a snob who casually peppers conversations with French, allow me to tell you my sob story. I’m a shudh desi and a reluctant, lonesome expatriate currently living too far away from the motherland for my liking. As a pakka Bengali, I’m also genetically predisposed to gluttony and laziness. Not a happy combination. No, sir. So I only start to plan the meal when the hunger pangs get unbearable or a particular craving strikes. That may limit the time or ingredients available to rustle up true versions of family classics, but nothing gets the creativity going like a near-empty fridge and a very hungry stomach. So you stick to the principles learnt watching granny in her kitchen about the tempering or the spice combination and boldly sally forth down avenues she’d never dare. Like a chochchori of celery and kopir danta (the green stalks at the base of a gobi) with aubergine and paanch phoron. Or a maacher jhol with trout and cauliflower. Marrow, a summer produce that is almost a cottage industry here in the UK (it did have a very famous grower in Hercule Poirot) and which looks and tastes like a blander version of an obese lauki, can be redeemed by teaming it up with chingri a la the classic Bengali lau chingri.

One particularly successful experiment which has now become a family favourite is the colourful Swiss chard fried with garlic and red chillies and nuts. Inspired by every Bengali kid’s favourite green, the laal shaak (which is technically not green but red and tinges the rice it’s had with bright purple; hence its popularity), the Swiss chard never fails to take me back to joyful childhood meals on summer holidays sitting on the wooden stool in the cool darkness of my grandmother’s kitchen with throngs of cousins. Though the deep purple stain is missing, the jewel tones of the rainbow chards stalks more than makes up for it.

Ever since Marcel Proust famously bit into a madeleine and sipped on some tea, the evocative power of food has been widely celebrated in literature. In recent years, scientific and anthropological studies have backed up Proust’s claims that involuntary memories can be triggered by a familiar taste. Mark Swislocki, an associate professor at NYU, called it “culinary nostalgia”. In the introduction to his book, Culinary Nostalgia, Regional Food Culture and the Urban Experience in Shanghai, he describes it as “the recollection or purposive evocation of another time and place through food”. Significantly, perhaps, the term “nostalgia” first appeared in 1688, Swislocki explains, to describe a new medical condition prevalent among the displaced people of 17th century Europe, especially soldiers.

In an article published last year, the Time magazine reported that a study by Jordan Troisi, an assistant professor of psychology at Sewanee, The University of The South, US, and his colleagues had found that people preferred the taste of comfort food when they experienced feelings of social isolation. It was even more noticeable among people with strong relationships. “Comfort food seems to be something people associate very significantly with close relationships,” it quoted Troisi. “This probably comes about by individuals coming to associate a particular food item with members of their family, social gatherings, and people taking care of them, which is why we see a lot of comfort foods [that are] traditional meals or things had at a party.”

The “comfort” in comfort food is provided as much by the familiarity of an oft-had meal as memories. If you are a working mother cooking a weekday dinner — or, perhaps, like me, simply a lazy and disorganised cook — you don’t have the luxury of contemplation. What you do have, however, is a repertoire of ready recipes that you’ve grown up on and are a living testament to their nourishing qualities, and a world of ingredients to choose from. The rest is up to your imagination and how inventive/adventurous you’re feeling that day.

Sometimes, these substitutions bear sublime results. I’d go so far as to say that in some cases, the abundance and easy availability of quality ingredients and labour-saving gadgets makes it possible to recreate even better versions of what the best shops back home sell. Like mishti doi — the classic Bengali end note to any feast. To my great joy and surprise, I recently discovered that I can produce a healthier, creamier version of Kolkata’s finest in exactly 45 mins in three steps — one, open three cans (evaporated milk, condensed milk and Greek yogurt); two, blend their contents in equal parts; three, steam the mix in an oven for about half an hour. Et voila, sublimity on a plate! A Marathi friend uses Greek yogurt to replicate chakkha in her shrikhand recipe. And the internet abounds in recipes of sandesh and rosogolla made with ricotta.

Then again, at times, the experimentation gets so wondrous it slips into the bizarre territory. A recent photo shared on a desi group on Facebook that generated much commentary was of an inviting looking plate of karela pasta. Yes, you read that right, karela pasta. Busy working mum Rimli Bhattacharya had been given this bizarre recipe by an Indian friend who now lives in Japan. Not a karela enthusiast herself, Bhattacharya had ignored it for a while till the sheer weirdness of the idea became too irresistible. So one brave weekend (or bizarre), she shallow fried some diced karela over a low heat till they were tender (the slow cooking got rid of much of the bitterness, she said), and dressed it up with some garlic, olives, tomato puree and parmesan and tossed it with some spaghetti. The result, to her delight met with the approval of not only her karela-loving husband but even her three-year-old daughter. The kid, of course, picked the karela out in the time-honoured childhood tradition and heaped them on the side of her plate untouched, but happily polished off the rest of the meal.

A Fried Swiss Chard with garlic and nuts by Amrita Roy:

1 bunch rainbow chard, 3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped, 1 tsp chilli flakes (or 1 whole red chilli), 1 tsp smoked paprika/pimento (or chilli powder), 1-2 tbsp balsamic vinegar (optional), handful of raisins, handful of pine nuts (or peanuts or cashew), 2 tbsp olive oil (or any vegetable oil), salt to taste.

1. Cut the stalks from the leaves and dice them. Chop the leaves as you would any saag.
2. Toast the nuts (pine nuts or cashew. I prefer peanuts untoasted in sabzis).
3. Heat the oil in a pan and add the chilli flakes. Add the diced stalks, cover and cook on low heat for a couple of minutes till softened.
4. Add the chopped leaves, sprinkle salt and cook covered on medium heat till the greens have completely wilted.
5. Uncover, add the garlic and turn the heat up. When all of the water has evaporated add the paprika/pimento/chilli powder, raisins and the balsamic vinegar. Turn the heat down and cook till the vinegary smell is gone.
6. Switch off the heat and garnish with
the nuts.

Amrita Roy is a reluctant homemaker and a lazy cook based in Cambridge, UK.

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