A big helping of apnapan on your plate
One day, we went to a family dinner in which my cousin's wife, S Bhabhi, made her specialty dessert
What does it mean to have a favourite dish? Is it a forever love? Does it mean we can eat it anytime?
As a child, I found caramel custard disgusting. Eggy, rubbery, heartless, powdery. As if the milk had split while cooking. No surprise, considering I had eaten this archaeological-sounding item mostly in fading post-colonial air force messes and pre-liberalisation 'continental' restaurants befitting an assistant director's salary.
One day, we went to a family dinner in which my cousin's wife, S Bhabhi, made her specialty dessert. On hearing it was caramel custard, I feigned enthusiasm but failed (I'm sure no one noticed, given most young people's family event expression has two settings: sullen and vacant). But it turned out to be a smooth, plumply satin, creamy moon of vanilla-scented sweetness; cold, but a nice cold, like you imagine the moon might be if you ate it.
Dripping sinuously over its cushiony circumference was a thick but liquidy, bittersweet, umami caramel. One spoonful and it was love so compelling, that I even embraced a heretofore unseen (in me) demure, Eve's Weekly recipe-of-the-month level domesticity — I became sundar and susheel at unmoulding the custard. Soon it was a familiar anticipation of my Delhi visits. Dinner at cousins, S Bhabhi's caramel custard, unmoulded by yours truly, leftovers carried home, by yours greedily.
I then became a creme brulee aficionado. But, it's not that I always chose this dessert. Nor did I ever learn to make it. I just wanted S Bhabhi to make it for me, because hers was best, and in her house, too, it is sometimes known as "Paromita's favourite."
Similarly, my friend A always wants me to make roast pork with oranges when he visits. Immodestly, I admit, my roast pork is pretty excellent. But A lives in East Asia, a roast pork paradise, so his wanting to eat it at my house is droll. Still, I make it and he polishes up every last shred, each time. Sometimes I consider making some new culinary extravaganza, but I suspect he will respond to that exactly as I did, the day S Bhabhi decided to go in for variety in the sweet dish department and brought out some impostor dessert that was not caramel custard. "What is this? Where is the caramel?" I asked, my face falling like no one's favourite soufflé. "I thought you'd like something else for a change," S Bhabhi said, crestfallen. I ate the paraya dessert in a disproportionate pall of gloom with a stoic side of betrayal. Such no doubt will be A's reaction even if I produce a stuffed partridge some day.
On the other hand, M Mashi, who cooks for my mom, makes several tasty dishes. If I praise one, she unilaterally decides it is my favourite. Every time I go home, she will make macher jhol or Sunday chicken curry or fried partial saying, "It is Didi's favourite." It's not really, but I like the idea that she thinks this. It makes me feel cherished.
These favourite dishes are about taste, but also about a claim we make on each other, secure and trusting as children, that it will not be spurned or denied. Who knows about forever love? These loves, though, are slow-cooked versions of that untranslatable word for an umami feeling: apnapan.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevipictures.com
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