Kabhi Fishy Kabhie Gham…


Kabhi Fishy Kabhie Gham…

Illustration: Akshita Monga

When my parents split, everything turned bitter. Sadness has a way of seeping into your tongue; resentment and anger sit heavy in the stomach. I ate a lot of sheddho bhaat (rice boiled down to melting point, infused with ghee and vegetables) at the time. It was easy to make, it slipped down the throat without fuss. Emotionally turbulent times demand calm food.

We’ve always been a family of foodies. Conversations, vacations, get-togethers, all revolve around meals. Breakfast is a discussion about lunch; lunch is an argument about where to go for dinner. Food has kept us together, sort of, even when there was nothing more in common other than a shared love for nargisi kofta (eggs boiled and coated in kheema, eaten dry or with gravy).

When my father remarried, my stepmum won over the family by her ability to eat fish. She would use both hands, pick the smaller bones out, and separate the flesh from the big bone neatly. She could endure spice – mustard that seemed gentle at first, then attacked your tongue with a million zings, bhut jolokia (ghost chilli) from Assam that tears at your taste buds and leaves you weeping. She was a winner at the dining table.

My relationship with my father underwent a change after his second marriage. He took up cooking in his 40s – he said it helped him relax. His specialty is Sichuan cuisine – he loves those unassuming-looking Sichuan peppercorns that make the blandest dish exciting. He makes an entire poached fish and shows us how to break away the flesh without flipping it over. In China, flipping a fish is considered ill luck. My father spent two years there and among his favourite eating joints was a konjee stall in Shanghai that served soup dumplings. He has been trying to recreate the dumplings for years and I’m his guinea pig. We don’t talk much, he and I. We send each other links of restaurant menus. We’re both avid fans of spicy pork pickle and Hajmola. We consider it a healthy relationship.

Why miss out on the world’s best caramel custard just because the woman who makes it happens to be the mother of a man you didn’t want to stay married to?

When my mum comes visiting me from Spain where she now lives, my grandmother always asks us over. That should be awkward, right? This is her former daughter-in-law she’s socialising with. But, the first words grandma says as we walk in are: “I made Bombay duck.” My mother loves Bombay duck. I hate it. There’s usually Kashmiri mutton curry for me. Grandma makes sure I’m served the marrow. She fusses over my mother and tells her she’s eaten nothing. My grandmother believes staunchly that no matter how much we’ve fought with one another, or however long it’s been since we’ve spoken to one another, food will be the healer.

So my mother eats everything. When she returns to Spain, she calls her former mother-in-law to ask for recipes. Why miss out on the world’s best caramel custard just because the woman who makes it happens to be the mother of a man you didn’t want to stay married to?

Popular culture is forever showing the ideal family as one that eats together. There’s always a perfectly symmetrical family (mother, father, two kids, and a dog) clustered around a dinner table and looking marvelously happy. Ours is a little different. There will probably always be a few rough corners, some awkward pauses, and an undercurrent of tension if we all gathered at a dinner table.

There’s nothing ideal about us, except our love for food. And, in some truly unique ways, it has worked for us. A family that eats together might sometimes stay together. But, more importantly, a family that’s struggling to stay at all can still eat together.