My friend S, a fellow Calcutta-born aw-Bangali and a great mimic, loves to make fun of Bongs. One of his favourite ‘numbers’ is mimicking a pompous gentleman he saw at Calcutta Club, sometime in the 1970s. Somebody made the mistake of belittling the suited babu’s knowledge of some cocktail and the gent exploded. “Haawu deyaar iyu!” Here S raises his finger like a conductor’s baton and his jaw like a mini-Mussolini. “I whill habh iyu kno thet I habh dryenk saam oph tha phinest likwaars in tha wharlld!”“And! Also! I habh ittun saam oph tha phinest phoodz oph tha wharlld!” If S and I are together and someone boasts of having drunk such and such rare alcohol or eaten such and such a food, we immediately raise our fingers and start with “I habh dryenk…” But such is the revenge of time that on the last occasion that S and I met in Madras, he caught me out. I was raving about some Argentinian wine when S hit me with Mr Saam-oph-tha-phinest.
I tell the above story partly for some necessary self-deprecation and partly as a pre-emptive apology in case I’m perceived to be slipping into phinest-mode below. And, perhaps, I should also explain that I’m blessed neither with any great wealth nor the taste-buds or appetite of a proper gourmand or foodie. However, my personal situation and the nature of my work has meant that I do travel abroad at least once every year for a reasonably long chunk; and I’m lucky enough with my friends and writing assignments that I get to eat a wide variety of food including some of the phinest phoods.
Normally, when I hit phoren, I can sense a physical change within the first few days. More fruit goes into the old alimentary cement-mixer, and so does far more green salad than I eat in India, with a wider variety of leaf. The change also has to do with increased physical activity because you have to walk a lot more and take public transport that involves tangling with stairs and escalators on which you’re tempted to emulate others as they bound up two steps at a time. Whether it’s this, whether it’s the change of water, or the quality of even cheap, ordinary products (a Bongess friend who also does an annual commute always goes cross-eyed at the eggs in England “Maago, ki diim! Ekta diimer erokom shaad hotey paarey?” What eggs! How can an egg taste so good?), but soon one begins to feel slightly more like a lean athlete and somewhat less like a hydrogen balloon.
Normally, I try and arrive in the UK or Europe with the spring and try and scarper with the end of summer, but this year I found myself in snowbound Switzerland in early February. This had its problems and advantages: the winter continued for a long time past its sell-by date, everything was expensive, but the basic stuff, the water (from the tap), the milk, the chocolates and especially the cheese were fantastic. I got into a working routine built around a healthy breakfast of the best muesli in the world, ditto cheese and phinest good bread for lunch and a more elaborate dinner, sometimes pasta, sometimes self-cooked ‘Indian’, or occasionally, with company, a roast or some such. For three months, I didn’t miss anything from home. The next two months in London were ‘normal’ too. Then came another round of Switzerland. Around the five month period suddenly there was a flash, like one of those quick cut inserts in cinema — the kochuri and alu’r-torkari from the roadside shop on Lansdowne, near Jatin Das Road. It came and went in a flash — hot, tantalizing, unreachable. I went back to my nice cheese and nice wine and I was fine.
The problem with Switzerland is, unlike London, there are no good Indian restaurants, at least not in the town where I was. Not that I frequently visit the good Indian restaurants in London, but there’s a kind of ashwasan, a kind of solace and reassurance that they are within reach. It would take a lot for me to fork out £7.50 for a sada rawa dosa, but should I get an attack of acute dosa-missing or idli-litost (the Czech word Milan Kundera says best conveys the longing of an exile for their homeland) then an emergency trip to the Southy place in east London could be made. But being in Switzerland, I was beginning to get increasingly trapped by thoughts of home food. In the nick of time, I left for Italy. This provided a distraction: Italy has some of the best food in the world, and some of the best, affordable, ‘daily-drinking’ wines. So, I ate pizza and pasta, of course, and osso-buco, which means ‘hole of bone’, the meat around the bone being veal shanks braised in oil or pancetta ham, and so on. I ate at only two medium-fancy restaurants (strictly for research purposes). As for the rest of the time, there was breakfast of a ubiquitous croissant and coffee, the hot afternoons fuelled by the best ice-cream in the world, with a cheap but proper meal being saved for the evening. There was veal, there was pig, there was calves’ cheek, and there were walnut sauce and a steak Fiorentina the size of a small desk, served just with salt, pepper and a squeeze of lemon. I was fine, it was good. A day after returning to Switzerland, there was another attack. This time the flashes were repeated and they were close-ups of the chhola-bhatura in the shop near Batra cinema in north Delhi. I spoke to friends about going out for an Indian meal but no one was enthusiastic. There was one Indian place that was good, apparently, but it was closed for the summer, and somehow no one was overly seduced by Bajwa Palace, Biryani Haus or Kaschmir.
Now, back in London, having been away from home for nine months, things are critical. I did visit a desi friend who is a great cook and he’d made a wonderful Bihari maangshor jhol which kept me quiet for a few days, but now the flashes have become long sequences. Even the best truffle sauce or roast chicken made according to the recipe of the star chef, Heston Blumenthal, can’t keep my food-homesickness at bay. Cities meld into one another, as do foods that I miss. Odd things ambush me with their sharp absence — the fresh green pawnkh that Gujjus love so, and bhakhri, and jhaalmuri and the chow-chow toghaiyal friends make in Chennai. I’m sick and tired of the much celebrated ‘good produce’ one finds here, bored with elaborate tapas and delicate soups. I find myself craving cheap and dirty, I want unhealthy alu-paranthas, I want fly-pecked puchkas, I want those artery-damming samosas. In drink, I want Old Monk rum and bad Indian whisky, speaking of which I’m reminded of a story the late jazz man, Anto Menezes, once told me. Many of his family having emigrated there, Anto would spend many months in Australia every year. “It’s very nice over there, you know, the food n’all, the wine and cheese n’all, but do you know the first thing I do when I get back to Calcutta?” I shook my head. Anto grinned, leaned forward and lowered his voice. “I go get a full bottle of Director’s Special whisky and, you know, one of those tins of Amul cheese, and I sit down and eat and drink. I really miss these over there.”