Chutney's, Dubai, October 2023
Please note that this is a long read, and I recommend that you book yourself a table before you decide to sit down with these words. The Peacock Thali from Chutney’s was my choice for this story's scripting and narration, and I loved that I had the wisdom to consume a light lunch on the day I penned this one.
The Emotions Game
The only two emotions that I now feel aggressively and passionately are anger and hunger. Nothing else, anymore, has the power to take over me, especially, my stomach and soul. And the cure to both, as per my mother, lies in a good meal. She spreads a piece of cloth on the grass and begins to arrange the many bowls on it, and I begin to calm down — the anger melts down, and the cravings are met just with the sight of the heap of Saffron Rice in the center of the steel plate, the thali. She and I both know that I’ll start by emptying the bowl of the Panchratan Dal on the rice, and mix the two, using my fingers, as I eat. And for the nth time, I’d ask her the same question, “Is this made by mixing five lentils?” And she’d patiently reply, “Yes,” and touch my forehead, as she did when I was five. Just for this bowl and the touch, the 33-year-old me would turn into a five-year-old once again. I’d head back to deal with the daily turmoil, in a few minutes, but for now, I’d bask in the warmth of maa’s love, the glow of the yellow lentils.
The Traditions Game
Traditionally, you’re to eat the Thali using your fingers — the right hand, for eating and the left hand left spare to pouring the curries and grasping the glass of water. “Who eats with hands, anymore?” my millennial son wants to know. He’d not make the same statement when offered popcorn or a slice of pizza, we both know that. Traditions die when they are not passed on from one generation to another, I think to myself. He scoops the Kachumber Salad from the bowl using the Roasted Papad and I know that is a start. We don’t sit around the table and share a meal anymore, everyone looks into their phones or we look at the television screen as we have dinner. But with a Thali, the many loaded bowls in front of us, we have no choice but to chew better, as we share stories of how our day was, and unknowingly even scoop bites of Palak Paneer with a Laccha Paratha — no complaints about eating greens and ghee — make way to everyone's stomachs.
The Carousal Game
“Does the carousel go clockwise, or does it go anti-clockwise?” asks my little one. She is seven, and this is the first time she’s looking at the Indian Thali. She’s curious, and I am excited to see how she’d react to this display of dishes in front of her. “Shall I start to taste clockwise or anti-clockwise?” she asks. We hop from one bowl to another — the Plain Raita wins — you can’t go wrong with yogurt, now can you? I begin to worry as she bites into a Gulab Jamun, the sugar rush near sleeping time, but as the saccharine syrup leaves her mouth sticky and she grins at me, I forget about the sleep routine, and we decide that before we go to bed we’d learn how to draw a paisley (The Peacock Thali is adorned with the classic Indian motif).
The Relationship Game
I like my Paneer, he likes his Mutton and Chicken. And that’s our definition of love. What’s life for a Punjabi, without a bowl of Butter Chicken, now and then; after all? Often, I cook a Butter Chicken for him, and I tell him stories of how my parents introduced me to all kinds of food, and I chose the vegetables over the meats. And how my childhood in Lucknow was filled with the aroma of Mutton Qorma Awadhi, and even decades later, I remember how every morsel was a celebration in the land. And just like that, our love continues to grow over spices from what was once home.
Often, I think to myself in the world of kale and celery, what chance does a Palak Paneer have? In the world of bran rotis, how often do we relish portions of Garlic Naans, and do that sans guilt? I look at a Gulab Jamun Cheesecake and think to myself, no Indian dessert should be 'fusion'ised', and neither should it be 'sugar-free'. I wonder how many of us know what it means to fall asleep, instantly, after eating an Indian Thali; and for a moment, for a meal, indulge in food with our heart and soul — calories matter, and health matters foremost — but am sure we can afford to not make every meal a transaction, a compromise or a cheat meal.
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