I was feeling sick, with a fever crawling over my skin, and a headache knocking against my temples.
It wasn’t covid – but it was seasonal fever.
Each time the season changes, we tend to fall sick. And each time I am sick, I remember my mother’s kitchen.
Depending on how poorly I am feeling, I have a hierarchy of comfort food. If I am really really ill, I ask for a thin moong dal khichdi, served with ghee. This watery concoction is something I would never touch unless in the throes of fever or stomach flu. The thing about khichdi is that it is all about the timing. A few extra minutes on the gas are the difference between a kind of watery, sad-looking soup and a more hearty concoction with real shape and texture. But whether soup-like or curry-like, one knows that khichdi is all nourishment. The ailing body cuts through the clutter of instant foods, the forest of fried stuff, and the garbage of chips to crave something as simple as lentils and rice—cooked in a way that even a baby can digest it.
Khichdi is for the first day of illness. The second day, tastebuds (and more sophisticated preferences) return. And I ask for less nourishment, and more sin. I want large brinjals cut into circles and fried in mustard oil. I want the extra mustard oil the brinjals are swimming in to douse pearly white rice in. I want potatoes boiled and mashed in gut-walloping mustard oil and tear-inducing green chillies.
Once I was seriously ill while living in the UK. I had a flu—common enough, but not serious enough for the National Health Service to consider me for hospitalization. I was on heavy medication, and my fever wouldn’t come down. Lying with my body folded up, I craved the oddest things. Banana flower, plucked and cooked in a dense preparation with white rice. Cabbage cooked with golden turmeric, and a sprinkle of sugar. And I wanted the fried brinjals. Comfort food.
In a place where all the world’s cuisine was available – pastas, curries, shawarmas, fish and chips – I had no doubt that banana flower would be impossible to find.
With banana flower (called Mocha in Bangla) it is not the taste that counts, but the effort that goes into it. My grandmother cuts the mocha using an upturned sickle-like cutter that sits on the ground. I have cut my toes on this as a child and it is frightening. But she sits on the kitchen floor, using this to fearlessly slice down the banana flower to size, then opening it layer by layer.
The banana flower is purple in colour – a rich purple with undertones of wine and burgundy. It is a huge thing, looking like a giant bud. When you peel off the layers, you find small yellow flowers in between. These are extracted by hand and cooked. The flower is not given up so easily – the entire exercise will stain your hands, leaving them blackened.
When I would see my grandmother with blackened fingertips, I knew mocha was cooking. The layers of the flower are the coming away of stiff formality. The beauty of this dish is the intense preparation by the sous chef in plucking and extracting the flower – the actual recipe is simple enough. There are no long stories about stirring the dish on the flame for hours; or grinding masalas that bring headaches. The peeling of the banana flower itself is a contractual understanding that all the love and care is in the first stage itself.
Coughing in the UK, I wanted mocha.
Coughing in Delhi in a weird year, I want luchi – fried maida pooris. There is zero nutrition in luchi, which means I am not so ill that I want something nutritious. I’m happy to wallow in the circles of oil and the feeling that luchis are always handmade.
Comfort food never asked for an accompanying nutritional sheet. They do ask though, for loving hands to peel back the feeling of being sick, roll the dough of antidotes, and serve some warm, fattening love.
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