I’ve been feasting up a storm ever since I got home last week. Waiting for me were three tins of Turkish delight, divinely soft nut-studded cubes dusted with powdered sugar and wrapped in gold-monogrammed tissue proclaiming legendary status; two boxes of exquisitely flaky baklava, packed in neat rows of pistachio, hazelnut and walnut; five kinds of fragrant Turkish tea; an assortment of ripe goat cheeses; and bags of salted pistachio, all saved for me from my brother’s trip to Istanbul last month. My own bags from the US were full of local Petaluma cheeses; Napa Valley herb and spice rubs; blood orange, tangerine and lime diffused olive oils and fig and pomegranate balsamic vinegars from a deliciously fragrant shop in Berkeley (where my son Raghav and I tried out every single one before selecting six bottles to carry home); dry-cured Italian salami; fat jars of organic raspberry preserves and onion jam; boxes of fig and date crackers; and a richly smooth duck mousse paté. And I found cheesy macadamia nuts, spiced pistachios and smoked almonds in Dubai duty free. Since my food shopping is never complete without chocolate, this time I chose my dad’s favourite Anton Berg dark chocolate disks filled with marzipan, liquor and fruit. If all that sounds like a lot, it isn’t; it’s always been this way for us. Bringing home food from our travels has been a joyous family tradition ever since I can remember. Food is truly the sixth love language in our lives.
Growing up, I remember my father bringing home all kinds of treats, from wherever he happened to travel: bright green and gold boxes of champagne truffles that melted while our eyes closed in rapture at the taste; enormously juicy golden yellow peaches; thick slabs of sirloin steaks that he grilled to perfection (read, rare); delicious Chappan Bhog mithai; fresh prawns that he liked to drown in wine and cream; Sachertorte and pecan pies; Italian and German salami and sausages; grainy French mustard and Thomy mayonnaise; pickled olives and always so much chocolate that in Class 9, I was inspired to dedicate my economics project to the Swiss chocolate industry. Every time he returned, our rituals of unpacking, tasting, eating and cooking (and entertaining) were always memorable family events. As they remain to this day.
At home, meals were always a fiercely educational experience. We were taught how to eat with chopsticks, how to identify salad forks, marrow spoons, steak knives and wine glasses; and how to eat rice and spicy saar off banana leaves so that our palms were dry and only the tips of our fingers touched the food. My brothers and I weren’t always willing to try out more exotic foods (in those days) like sushi, octopus and escargot dripping in garlic butter when we were 10 years old but there was never an option – we had to try them at least once (and then loved the taste forever more). These deeply endearing food memories shaped the way we learned about food and about giving, sharing and caring; no wonder it became the way we learned to shower love on each other. As much and as often as possible.
I’ve only now realized how much paying attention to each other through food has become such a heartwarming practice for all of us. When I asked my mother this morning what she remembered dad bringing home, her eyes lit up at the question and the answer came easily, inviting in its wake much sweetness and nostalgia. As I’ve been writing this post I haven’t stopped smiling. I know when my children read it they will remember walking in home from school to the warm fragrance of vanilla and cinnamon and gooey chocolate brownies. Just as we walked into our grandmother’s in Bangalore all those years ago to fresh peanut chikki, coconut halbai, masala dosas and her richly fragrant saar. When we got tired of eating vegetarian food, my beloved uncle and aunt smuggled in piping hot chicken tikkas and always knew to order us creamy chicken sandwiches after a swim at the Bangalore Club. It’s amazing how none of us has to think too hard to remember what each person in the family loves to eat, we just know.
So the next time someone in your life shows up with a delectable offering, you know what it’s really about. Watch for the bright eyes, the smile and the warmth that follows – yours 🙂