The way to a human’s heart is through the stomach. It is a line that made me cringe irrespective of the context I used to hear it in. It is a statement I had always scoffed at based on what I felt it insinuated, having considered myself to be someone who believes in eating to live rather than living to eat. And I extended the same thought-process to cooking…limiting all culinary activities reluctantly undertaken by me to life sustaining dishes. Not to leave out the fact that the creative rush within me runs in directions that completely excludes cooking. And hanging around the kitchen, where I am supposed to prepare anything other than the basic dishes leaves me stressed out and annoyed and my focus jittery, leaving me exposed to various little mishaps from charred food to burnt fingers.
So that particular statement linking the heart to stomach, took on a diabolical multidimensional negative connotation.
But my interpretation of the statement and how I perceived food, transformed when I left home and homeland for the first time to pursue life and career on foreign shores.
While the move was filled with anticipation and the rising thrill of new beginnings, barely a few months down the road, I found myself consumed by a severe longing for all things related to home.
And surprisingly nostalgia manifested itself not just in the form of sentimental audio-visual images but in the form of vivid memories replete with yearnings for certain smells and taste and texture. Yearnings that ranged from the smells of the market place infused with sugar and spices, the cool earth so fragrant and welcoming to finally home-made dishes…from elaborate concoctions to simple heart-warming ones. Dishes made by my mother or my grandmother.
When I scuttled around the sterile kitchen in my current plane of existence, managing with some sparse cooking during the week, followed by marathon cooking over the weekend when I was not embracing the fast-food culture to avoid cooking, it would bring to my mind tantalizing flashbacks of my mom’s and grandmother’s kitchens back home.
Kitchens overflowing with the fresh produce of the day, smiles and warmth. A place for conversations arcing from light-hearted to deep, so exquisitely intertwined with various aromas wafting from the various pots cooking, bubbling on the stove adding in to the tone of the chatter.
Life went on as I settled into a comfortable cycle of career focused weekdays and adventurous weekends filled with road-trips and explorations and discovery of a new country, letting the new culture seep slowly into my veins even as my existing one made way for the new to co-exist in a sense of camaraderie.
One Sunday afternoon, on a particularly freezing day with the wind chill relentlessly plunging the temperature into sub zeros, I was unexpectedly hit with an intense longing for a particular traditional dish from home. Something that neither an apple pie, nor a steaming hot pizza or freshly popped popcorn or hot chocolate or for that matter any other dish I could easily order in, subdue or satisfy. Not even the swanky restaurants that boasted of authentic dishes from my home country could diminish, this craving of mine for a food so wholesome and rustic, yet so uncomplicated and heartful in its culinary rendering.
A dish that took firmly root in my mind and momentarily came to signify and represent and encompass my wistful longing for a taste of my childhood and feel of my homeland.
A dish simple in its making and composition of ingredients, but something so unique and flavoursome that the very thought of it, wilfully tugged at my heartstrings, while making my mouth water and stomach growl with wistful need.
Finally I decided I give in and try it out, flinging aside the briefest of hesitation warning me about my pitiful dearth of culinary skills. As I began to plan on gathering the necessary ingredients, a flicker of excitement spiralled through me.
Quickly slipping into several cosy layers of winter care, I drove to the closest supermarket, the leaping flames of craving lending a strange warmth to ward off the biting cold.
I sprinted down the aisle of the supermarket till I spotted the main ingredient…the coconut. I went over the racks inspecting the coconuts, inspecting the colour, feeling the texture, weighing them in my hands, gleefully shaking them to hear the joyous splash of the water within. I selected and picked up one, with the greatest of care, putting to practice all those wise words of advice about selecting the right coconut, casually spoken by my grandmother during my market visits with her as a child. Words I realized had been imprinted yet dormant in my mind till now.
Though I already had the other ingredients at the apartment, I could not stop myself from continuing the shopping spree and I felt I was in a trance. My mind space hosted my grandma’s presence and it seemed to guide me forward gently.
I glided to the aisle that had the next ingredient…rice. I again went through the motions of keenly observing the grains through the transparent plastic covers, before choosing the right one I deemed worthy of going into the the dish that gnawed on my mind.
Next stop took me to the condiments section with a spring in my step and I picked up a bag of sugar, sharply missing the smell of sugar that pervaded the air back home in the market places.
I headed back holding the precious few set of ingredients.
The next few hours passed in a daze of actions spurred by emotions, as I broke open the coconut and drank the water till the last drop, then grated the sweet white coconut meat, before getting the rice flour ready. A crucial step that required par boiling, then grinding the still warm rice in a food processor, before straining it with a colander and lightly kneading it into rice dough with a pinch of salt.
Soon it was time for the final step. The making and shaping of the rice dough into flattened balls. Then mixing the freshly grated coconut and sugar, placing the mixture in the flattened rice dough circles and gently wrapping them around the fragrant sweet and nourishing mixture. Finally steaming all the dumplings, while my stomach rumbled eagerly for the delicacy.
As I bit into the first oddly shaped dumpling I went into a pleasurable trance. One of sheer fulfilment and bliss. I could sense my grandma smiling and for a moment I was back in my childhood home, sitting on the stool next to the hearth, swinging my legs and munching on the dumplings…discovering and savouring the crunchy syrupy interior with growing delight, feeling embraced in love and light, all caution of carbohydrates and fat intake thrown to the summer breeze. Just listening and letting my inner voice drive the decision on when to stop.
As my eyes closed and the delicious morsel travelled down, I felt my thoughts stir and waver before traveling in space and time.
I was in the rice fields watching the farmers and their staff harvest the rice under a golden sun that illuminated the entire landscape.
Being on this side of the fence, I realized, grass might not be greener on the other side but it surely is of a different shade, so inviting to the heart yet so elusive with oceans and vast stretches of land separating us.
The second bite rushed me to the sugar cane fields and the tall slender stalks swayed and danced with merry abandon, generously nourished by the rich soil.
With the third bite I was promptly transported to a coconut grove. The long green leaves rustled in the backdrop of pale blue skies dotted with cotton candy clouds.
As I continued to devour and relish the imperfectly shaped dumplings, licking the delectable syrup off my fingers, minutes or maybe an eternity passed before the inner voice finally chimed, signalling a stomach, heart and soul in complete sync, appeased to the core. Showering loving care I packed away the leftover dumplings with a contented sigh.
This brings my recollection to a conclusion while prodding me to begin my quest for the ingredients to prepare the dish from the scratch, now that penning this has re-awakened a soulful hunger.
RajaRajeshwari Nagasigamani is a writer, independent publishing consultant, and a coffee entrepreneur. She writes under the pen name of A.R.Sara and is Chairperson, ALL Ladies League (ALL) Karnataka Readers & Writers. She also runs a local reading group in Whitefield to spread the joy of reading. She is the author of the Pachaihara Forest series, Lorkum’s Quest, and has co-authored ‘Thus She Spake’: Creative Telling of Mythology’.