Our association with food is heavily influenced by memories – threads of the experience’s sentimentalism and nostalgia woven into our psyche.
While history may give us facts of a life gone by, food makes a powerful contribution to the emotional narrative of our life.
As an expat (since the age of three and a half), growing up in the U.A.E, I was never required to adapt completely to the interesting and aromatic food of this country. Indian foodstuff had comfortably existed alongside local and international delicacies on supermarket shelves ever since I can remember. Looking back, despite the options available, we continued to eat the delicious traditional South Indian food till I entered my teens.
A time, when I was smitten by the fascination for creating different flavors in our regular meals. Thus, occasionally instead of chappatis (leavened wheat pancakes), we started having meat ball sandwiches with salad for dinner, baked bread pudding instead milk payasam (traditional South Indian desert) when we had visitors and so on. I enjoyed my initiation into cooking meals with an international flavour.
But no matter, how much I enjoyed creating these dishes for my family, I would eagerly look forward to the aromatic traditional Keralite food that Mom made regularly. Food that took me to the monsoon showers that we experienced during our yearly holidays to Kerala, food that reminded me of my early childhood days in our ancestral home, food that reminded me of the Chechi (a respectful term for “elder sister”) who used to cook delicious Keralite food for all of us during our holidays and so on.
Food conveys to us the link from where we had come and ofcourse reminding us of our roots. What we eat regularly gives us a feeling of emotional continuity with our past – a positive and constant link that connects us to the past, to the present and ofcourse our future.
Any dish that we may taste would trigger a huge rush of enquiry, “have we had anything like this in the past”?
Like a good book that draws us into the story with incidents that are sweet, tangy, bitter and so on, whatever we eat, we enjoy it best when the memory associated with it is in harmony with the situation related to it.
My Mother enjoys making a particular chutney (spicy accompaniment to a meal) often and she recalls the childhood days she used to have that with her breakfast in the morning. In fact, she enjoys it so much today that she is delighted to have it with any meal of the day.
The lifestyle of generations that have gone by, the economic and social times prevailing during that era all are conveyed through the narration of a meal had in the years gone by (like in the case of my Mother and Father).
When was the last time the breeze brought in a certain aroma that made you stop in your track to wonder: Don’t I know that fragrance? At a dining table or in a wayside shop, the tip of our tongue declared: This taste is very familiar. When was the last time I experienced it? Our nostrils, our taste buds carry us to a time, to a place, an occasion, a person that we thought we had left behind for good. Nothing short of a trip down the memory lane, to borrow a phrase that says it all. It is indeed surprising how a certain smell, a certain taste, a certain sight can achieve this instantaneous flashback in our minds, in all its emotional ambience.
During last year’s holiday trip to India, my daughter and I had visited a city for a two day workshop. The faint smell of mothballs that escaped the cupboard of the hotel room that we stayed in took me to my visit to a metropolis twenty three years ago. The hotel room where I stayed with my parents, had the small whiff of moth balls. But the highlight of that room was not just the smell. A giant of (well, nearly) a dark coloured cockroach flew out of the cupboard at me!
Of course, some of the memories that we associate with aromas are less dramatic, such as my memories that I associate with warm, delicious, vanilla-flavoured golden sweet Bombay Toasts (please don’t ask me why they are called by that name – I haven’t the faintest idea).
Bombay Toasts evoke in me the familiar fragrance of my childhood years, the aroma of my Mom’s food, my Dad’s sunny laughter, my brother’s jokes on how we used to play mischief while we were in school and so much more. This breakfast snack opens such a treasure trove of joy – each bite invites beautiful memories that cascade from the first bite till the last. A pleasure to my soul as well as a satisfactory solution to my appetite.
Next time you experience a certain aroma that triggers a journey to the past, taste a certain food that your taste buds vaguely recognize, feel a glow about a certain music or song, put in a little extra effort to locate where you have been transported to. Other than pure nostalgia, what else does the emotional experience give you? Are you richer by the “alert” you experienced? Could you add to the value of the experience? Should there be anything disturbing or saddening about the memories invoked, how can you neutralize the effect and turn it around as something that you can derive strength from?
Our associations with our past through our senses is far more closer than we realize or are willing to admit. Association of our consciousness with taste, aromas, smells and odors can conjure up feelings and emotions experienced in the past and sometimes even lead to an uncanny feeling of Deja Vu.
On a grander scale of knowledge and understanding about ourselves and the world, our senses provide us with knowledge that exceeds the realm of mere memories.