Every year, usually around January, I realize that there is a wide gap between who I am and who I want to be. Nowhere is this more evident than in my grocery shopping. Like most people I’m rather fond of junk food. One of the semi-cheap thrills of moving to London was discovering a whole new junk food alphabet – from Aero bars to Buttons all the way down to Wispa and Yorkie bars. For a posh night in I break out the Kettle Chips with cracked black pepper.. which is essentially junk food at its Sunday best.
Yet if you see me at a Sainsbury’s on the weekend, it’s like I’m shopping for a different person. The kind of person who eats crunchy carrots and radishes, breakfasts on organic oatmeal and drinks chamomile tea. Every Sunday afternoon is pretty much an exercise in optimism – with purchases of what feels like eight kilos of fresh fruit, muesli bars, authentic pesto from an authentic Italian man at the market, non-fat non-saturated no calorie yoghurt (i.e. white coloured water) and juice enough for your average kindergarten class.
Come Wednesday evening though and I can usually be found in front of the television munching nachos at 1 am while a disapproving pile of oranges watches over me.
She waves her hand above the saucepan. The oil is hot enough. She throws in the mustard seeds that burst into life, crackling. Adds the chopped onions.
Saute the onions until translucent.. she reads her mother’s neat handwriting. Recipes written for onions that were bright violet in the cart that Muruga brought around every morning. Her mother would run down in a nightgown and haggle merrily with him before returning with the day’s vegetables. Small tomatoes, potatoes still covered in spots of mud. And a handful of bay leaves that he would throw in for free.
How would she be able to tell, here where onions were white, in clear plastic bags under the bright lights of the vegetable aisle at the Tesco?
She guesses the best she can while measuring out the spices. It takes several tries to get it right. Too much salt (add some potates to soak it up). Too little tamarind. Finally, she adds the sambhar podi from a tupperware container.
Neatly labelled in tamizh, packed and sent from home, brought over by a cousin returning from a vacation. It was saved for a special occasions – when she was cooking for friends, when they were having people over. If it was only for her, she’d just throw in the “Hot Chilli Powder” (suitable for Indian curries) that she buys at the store.
But today, although she’s dining alone she uses the sambhar podi. On this rainy Sunday afternoon, she’s trying to recreate, in Liverpool Street, a tiny slice of Abhiramapuram.