Matters of taste

Idli & sambhar—Eh! Yes, I’m an apostate.

As a kid, I loved eating out. You could get me to do anything for dinner at a restaurant. That came out wrong.

Let me start again. It’s not like I was a gourmet—more a gourmand, really. Not that I was particular about cuisine either. Any place was okay. Except South Indian food. I was never a fan of dosais and idlis. Even today, I sniff and taste with a creased brow when friends call upon me as the token South Indian to critique their sambhar, but I’m always afraid of being exposed as a charlatan. Also, my mom cooked South Indian better than most restaurants, so all my cravings were satisfied at home. No, my desire to eat out wasn’t about being an epicure.

And it wasn’t so I could wear ‘outside’ clothes. This was years before I became fashion conscious—I used to wear any shirt and pants that floated to the top of the drawer. Nor was it about going somewhere by car—I was never one of those let’s-go-for-a-drive people. Drive to what, I’d ask. I wasn’t getting in a car without a flight plan. Going for a spin in the Maruti Zen seemed pointless. Maybe what floated my boat was to go to a nice place where I could order food instead of being told to eat or go to bed hungry. That seems probable.

This guy has most of my DNA now.

Sitting down to eat is the easy part, right? Well, you see, my dad loves outdoor seating. He finds it peaceful and natural. I still think that the mosquito-mafia of Mumbai had gotten him out of a jam once in exchange for sanguinary installments from his offspring. He rarely got his way though, what with the rest of us preferring air-conditioning to dengue. Not to mention the heat and the humidity. I chuckle when Americans comment on how spicy Indian food is while they’re helping themselves to chilli paneer in the New York winter. Try eating vegetable kolhapuri outdoors in the Indian summer. You’ll sweat so much, it will be the first time you tightened your belt after a meal.

But really, once you were on a comfortable chair and teased by the arctic outpouring of a quiet Voltas, what was not to like? There were clear glasses (instead of the boring steel tumblers we had at home), tablecloths, and cloth napkins that I spread on my lap—but only after tying them bib-like as practice for lobster dinners when I become rich and famous. (It’s happening, trust me. 2012 is totally my year.) Being called ‘sir’ by the waiter didn’t hurt, and nothing beats meat-eating under mom’s vegetarian scowl.

I can imagine what an embarrassing little turd I must have been—grabbing at the appetizers before the waiter set the plate down. Mom always had to bat my hands away so dad could get at least one bite of the chicken tikka. To a Tambram boy with herbivorous tradition, meat was shiksa-like. Luckily, the cultural embargo on all things slain ensured more meat for me. I remember welling up when my sister sunk her teeth into a piece of chicken and declared that she liked it. It was historic. All meat dishes smuggled home by dad would have to be shared. Still, I lied, cheated, and stole. My sister never found out that chicken lollypop came eight pieces to a plate. I always hid two pieces and very publicly divided the remaining six. I remember filling two glasses with Pepsi, topping the under-filled glass with water, and controlling my glee as she took the diluted, but ostensibly favored, glass. To be fair, my parents did ask me whether I wanted a sibling before trying. But it was hardly informed consent—I was three years old. So, while my kid sister was looking up to me, I longed for a sibling-free universe with routine stomach-aches from too many reshmi kababs.

A sibling, son, is someone who gets half of that.

I’d start to get depressed by the arrival of the main course. The naans were like Sunday to me. No, I didn’t misspell that. You see, I’m most comfortable with a buffer between the present and the work-week. I truly enjoy my Sunday on Saturday. And I knew that the main course meant the check was next.

The check scene at our table was always strange. Dad would scan it for a whole minute. (I think it began when some restaurant overcharged him in 1982. We knew better than to ask.) Only then would he pull out the Visa. I held my breath the first time he placed a credit card on the check and the waiter carried it away without enquiry. I remember asking him, “When the waiter gets that card, does he assume that you have paid?” (I was ready to bow to the plastic god.) “No beta, he makes sure that you pay,” was my mother’s wry reply. So you can imagine how long I was allowed to believe in Santa Claus.

Today, restaurants are as much about the conversation as the food. Also, the whole you’ll-get-sick-if-you-eat-out-a-lot adage doesn’t scare me anymore. At least restaurants have standards. My kitchen doesn’t have a Zagat rating.

But the fruit flies love it.

25 thoughts on “Matters of taste

  1. There was this restaurant in Bangalore called Caesers which was my family’s adda.

    They used to have chicken pepper fry. I must have eaten in hundreds of places better than that since then, but nothing beats the thrill of that one non veg dish every two weeks.

    PS: I think the non veg son-father vs disapproving veg mother was a universal thing in Brahmin homes.

    • Oh, the Indian food in the U.S. is plenty flavorful, but they tone down the chili to suit the typical Western palate. So, trust me, you’re getting the good stuff! Thanks for visiting and commenting!

  2. I think your dad might know my mom. I used to cringe in silence as she talked the lady behind the counter at the local department store into giving her an extra 20% discount based on some stain on a new shirt she was about to buy that I couldn’t see. Now I find myself doing the same thing. Ugh. =/

  3. I never really enjoyed eating meat (or drinking for that matter) in front of people who made their disapproval visible. if they were elders, i cant argue too much, if they were peers, then the argument took the fun out of eating out experience. Anyway, the discussion on the ethics of it is stupid.

    Restaurant south indian food, outside the four states, has very low probability of being good. Similar to what the experience would be of a vadapao in delhi or chole-bhature in bombay. In the home states, even something conceptually bland like idli can be awesome in many joints. And south indian food experiments in non-southie homes is sure to fail.

    • To be fair to my mom, it’s impossible to extricate her disapproval of my meat-eating from her fear of losing an eye as I pawed at the kababs. These days I rarely eat meat if my group is largely vegetarian and vocal about it. And yes, I refrain from moral discussions on meat-eating.
      You’re right about South Indian food at restaurants. And never say never about sambhars in non-southies homes. Someone might surprise you.

      • that surprise would be sandwiched between two large rotting loaves of bad experiments where each time i would have been forced to nod along approvingly. much rather cook on my own or eat at southie homes.

  4. Bharat, this is hilarious. “still think that the mosquito-mafia of Mumbai had gotten him out of a jam once in exchange for sanguinary installments from his offspring.” is genius and I am particularly jealous that I didn’t think of:
    “My kitchen doesn’t have a Zagat rating.

    But the fruit flies love it.”

    Really great stuff, Bravo.

  5. I loved this post. Especially the line about sweating so much you’ll end up tightening your belt after the meal. What great memories you have (sibling rivalry and all!) When you are famous and need a good lobster dinner, come here, they are ridiculously cheap right now. We bought three yesterday and the total was 10 dollars.

  6. Thoroughly enjoyed this post, so much I was able to relate to, and I’m of a different cultural background and my mom was a LOUSY cook. 😛 I too, however, seem to be a special favorite of mosquitos.

  7. Pingback: Reggie Profile #11 (Mother of a Caption Winner!) | Sweet Mother

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