My earliest memory of being on vacation with my mother is of her cooking in our tiny cottage in Coonoor, a few miles away from Ooty in the Nilgiris. The stillness in the air is punctuated with the rustling of leaves as monkeys swing about fruit trees in the backyard. The cold air makes us ravenous, and the smell of egg stew and parottas emanating from the little yellow kitchen is something I will always associate with the mountains.
As we head home, the familiar tropical terrain of Thalassery replaces deciduous trees and rolling hills. But the smell of Eucalyptus stays with you long after the last hairpin bend. At home, we fall back into old routines—school for me and the kitchen for mum. Thalassery, like most small towns, does not offer much in the way of entertainment, and it is the kitchen that offers respite from the monotony of the slow pace. The only trace left of the holidays are the treats that mum bakes every now and then. Strawberry marshmallow, mint-flavoured boiled candy, pizza and lasagne from scratch—when we couldn’t travel to exotic places, my mother could still take us on an adventure with her dishes.
Since then, my mother and I have been travel partners in different parts of the world in search of the next memorable meal. And, the countless trips we have taken together, and the new dishes we have discovered there have informed me as a food writer as much as cooking by her side in our home kitchen has.
Roasted corn is usually a winter treat, but if you’re lucky, you can spot a cart on MG Road in the evenings even during summer months.
It’s 9 p.m. on M.G. Road, and the sea of traffic looks like an army of ants returning to a colony after a hard day’s work. We had spent the day walking around Commercial Street, enjoying the bustle of city-life, soaking in the magnificent winter weather, and stopping for a snack every now and then. The most exciting thing Bangalore (now Bengaluru) has to offer me is roasted corn on the cob. As a six-year-old, roasted corn held my imagination in the way that a PlayStation 3 probably holds the imagination of six-year-olds today. The highlight of every trip to the Big City, it was also my mother’s bargaining tool—be patient while I shop, and you can have a roasted corn after. A precursor to the sanitised, pre-cooked corn cup stalls that are now ubiquitous all over the city, roasted corn could be smelt before it was seen. On blue stands dotted all over the city in the winter, the corn is husked, roasted on hot coal, and slathered with an ominous looking, but delicious tasting, chilli paste. As a final flourish, a splash of lime juice anoints the corn, completing the trifecta of flavours—spicy, salty and sour.
As the evening progresses, and holiday cheer gradually turns to crankiness and tiredness, we cross the road to look for an autorickshaw to take us back to the hotel. The lights turn red and we form a human chain and trot across the road. Halfway to the other side, my denim skirt falls to the ground in the middle of M.G. Road. The crankiness disappears as my mother and sister burst out laughing. Roasted corn may have my imagination, but this is the Bangalore memory that’ll have my family giggling for years to come.
Buying snacks along the way is almost a ritual on road trips.
There are a few fundamental things that my mother and I don’t see eye to eye on—one of those being modes of travel. I have an inexplicable loathing for trains, and my mother feels similarly about road trips. And as the adult, she usually wins out, and at least once a month, I find myself picked up from school and dropped at the railway station where mum and I catch the 5 p.m. train to Mangalore, her hometown. We’ve made this journey at least a hundred times together. As the golden light filters through the tinted windows, it is mandatory to spend at least a good 20 minutes admiring the lush green of north Malabar. This is usually interrupted by the first batch of food, pazham pori (batter fried banana fritters), that arrives soon after. We tell ourselves, no coffee-flavoured water this time, but it cannot be helped—the train journey begs for a cup of coffee, no matter how terrible it tastes. The main attraction, however, only arrives by 7 p.m. It’s the biryani from Kanhangad station. We share an egg biryani between us, dividing the one precious hard-boiled egg that must be dug out of hiding from in between the layers of rice, much like an easter egg hunt. Although it’s a poor rendition of the Thalassery biryani, which sets itself apart from its contenders with its small-grained jeerakashaala rice and has layers of ghee rice alternating with swathes of masala, this particular version is a little ungenerous with the masala. Yet, on a journey, many things are forgiven—even bland biryanis.
It comes with a sachet of spicy lime pickle and yogurt. The yogurt is tossed aside—it’s the lime pickle that saves the day. Bitter, salty and sweet, it is the perfect counterpoint to the heavy biryani. If there is one thing that I have learned from these train journeys, it is that lime pickle and boiled eggs are a match made in heaven. At least during travels on the Southern Railways.
By the time the train zips past Kasaragod, the biryani has been wolfed down. The outside, now dark, offers no distraction, and the only thing that keeps us occupied in smartphone-free times is a good old-fashioned book.
For my mother and I, food items like ingredients from New York’s Grand Central Market make the best souvenirs.
Although I have spent four years of college in N.Y.C., when my mother finally arrives for my graduation and a 10-day vacation after, the city looks completely different with her by my side. For the first time, I see the inside of the impressive Grand Central Market, a place I had probably walked past a countless times in the past, but never thought to venture into. We walk for hours, peering into baking stores and farmers’ markets.
I hadn’t started thinking about food or writing from a career point of view, so instead of exploring one of the most vibrant food scenes in the world, I wanted to take her to the places that had been my frequent haunts in college. Our mornings start at 8 a.m. and pans out exactly like the day before—at the local bakery in midtown Manhattan, getting a tuna melt on a croissant. It might seem like too much of a good thing—a buttery croissant almost as delicate as a crumpled tissue, with a generous blob of tuna, a slice of American cheese, warmed till the cheese melts just so.
Years later, this is the meal my mother associates with the holiday. But right then, as we try to get the better of the messy sandwich that threatens to fall apart at first bite, we tell ourselves vacations are meant to be over the top. However, the dish I am most excited to introduce my mother to is the gyro, albeit an Americanised version.
Standing in the middle of Times Square, almost getting swept away by wave after wave of map-clutching herds of tourists, I watch excitedly as my mother bites into her first gyro. Sliced rotisserie lamb, nestled in a warm and fluffy flatbread with a few unremarkable vegetables, doused with hot sauce and tzatziki. When I missed home food, this is the meal I’d treat myself to. With extra hot sauce of course. Mum nods politely, and looks significantly less enthused about the whole thing than I am. But watching my mother standing in the middle of Times Square, wrestling with a gyro from a street cart is the quintessential New York moment for me.
We’ve finally fallen into a routine while travelling; mum wakes up at dawn to say her namaz, and makes enough noise for me to eventually crawl out of bed at 8. Our days are planned down to the second by my sister Sadia, who’s hosting us in in her apartment in Little India. I have a fair idea of what I want from a holiday by now—sleep in, laze around, and finally, step outside for a few hours with my camera and a ravenous appetite. My mother’s idea of the perfect holiday, on the other hand, is to try to cram in as many activities, and places as she can before she’s forced to go to bed but she’s up again, early next morning, dressed before I’ve even cracked open an eyelid, and by sheer willpower has both her grumbling daughters out of the house by 10.
We’d make for terrible travel partners, it might seem, but our interests align when it comes to food. As anyone who has visited Singapore will tell you, the true Singaporean culinary experience is in the hawker centres best known for the Hainanese chicken rice. Although I usually tend to stay away from crowded places, I recently watched an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s show that featured him exploring the hawker markets and I am ready to be adventurous.
The strong fishy smell that permeates from the stalls takes a few minutes to adjust to. There are signs announcing octopus balls soup, turtle soup and crocodile tail soup. But the halal vendors are usually Malaysian or Indonesian and those are the stalls we end up stopping at instead. Roti kanai is the Malaysian version of parotta—so flaky and melt-in-the-mouth, that it feels like you’re eating puff pastry. Served with a coconut chicken gravy that is so intensely flavourful, it begs to be slurped like soup—and this we do, shamelessly.
Cafés selling tea in Singapore often have a delectable selection of tea on display.
A meal at a hawker centre is not complete without ice kacang—the original unicorn dessert. This brightly-coloured Malaysian treat is proof of that very wise line, “never judge a dessert by its colours.” A mountain of shaved ice, topped with red beans, rose syrup, jelly, evaporated milk and palm sugar syrup quickly collapse in on itself and against the ice-cold of the dessert, the flavours meld, and turn into one singular sweetness. The real treat here, is the play of textures—the soft squishy beans, the chewy cubes of jelly between bites of ice shards. A race against the melting ice, this dessert demands to be eaten with full attention, something neither mum nor I have any trouble doing.
Once a day we visit Toast Box, a café chain that’s a block away from my sister’s apartment. We’re here as much for the coffee as we are for watching the natives in their natural habitats. Boiled eggs, we have discovered, is perfectly acceptable café food; with a splash of soy, the soft-boiled eggs yields its runny yolk that eventually turns a muddy brown as the soy slowly makes its way into the egg. It’s anytime, anywhere food. The other local custom that has us captivated is eating a big bowl of rich, fragrant chicken or seafood laksa for breakfast. Sitting by yourself in a café or even a hawker centre, with a big bowl of steaming noodles and broth in front of you, and slurping away unselfconsciously, seems to me like a celebration of life, if I ever did see one. Why save the good stuff for lunch and dinner, when you can start your day with it instead?
Our usual orders at the café are a Kopi C for me and a Teh O for mum. “C” indicates that you’d like evaporated milk instead of the usual condensed milk, and O in Malay means, black, without milk. Made with Robusta coffee, an iced Kopi C is strong and rich, the best form of relief on a typical warm sultry Singaporean day. We also occasionally indulge in a plate of kaya toast, thinly sliced toast with a slab of butter and a generous slathering of kaya, a sugar, coconut milk and egg spread. It is one of those things that tastes like biting into sweet sunshine when in Singapore, but falls flat when we try to recreate it at home—something my mother always enthusiastically does as soon as we’re in home turf. And that, I suppose is that inexplicable magic of a holiday.
A childhood picture of the author with her mother.
Viceroy Restaurant on M.G. Road, Kasargod, serves some of the best biryani in town. It is open from 11 a.m.-10 p.m. A meal for two including a starter and a main course costs `300.
New York City
Zibetto Espresso Bar on 42nd street, 5th Avenue, offers excellent croissants and cappuccinos. The café is open from 7 a.m.-7 p.m. on weekdays, 9 p.m.-6 p.m. on Saturdays and 10 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays. A meal for two costs approximately $15/`967.
The Halal Guys run the most popular street carts in NYC. The main one on W 53rd Street have lines that go around the block, so go prepared. They open at 10 a.m. until 4 a.m. A chicken gyro costs $4.79/`309.
Toast Box in City Square Mall on Kitchener Road is a local chain that sells tea, coffee, pastries and a few Asian favourites like nasi lemak and laksa. It is open from 8 a.m.-10 p.m. A meal for two costs SGD 22/`1,024.
Newton Food Centre in Newton is one of the popular hawker centres in the city. Try out the Kwee Heng stall and fried oyster omelette at Hup Kee. Open from noon-2 p.m. A meal for two costs SGD 13/`605 on an average.
For more adventurous fare, head to the Berseh Food Centre in Kelantan Lane, Singapore. Very Lucky Turtle Soup Stall sells delicacies like turtle soup and crocodile tail stew. The centre is open from 9.45 a.m.-9.45 p.m. on all days except Tuesdays. A meal for two costs SGD 12/`558.
is a freelance food writer and photographer who divides her time between Kerala and Bangalore. She also runs a food blog with her mother, in which they chronicle the joys (and struggles!) of cooking world classics in a small-town kitchen.
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