On Why Food Memories are my Best Ones

Food connects us to strangers, but like photographs, it also gives us the facility to remember.  
A mango market in Kerala.
A mango market in Kerala. Photo by Ajay Tvm / Shutterstock.com

Ripe mangoes in summer remind me of my father. He was a “mango aesthete”. During the season, he would go to the market every Sunday to stock up on his weekly quota of mangoes. He would hold the fruit in his hand, as if trying to figure out how many kilos of memories it can cart. He would gently press the fruit trying to gauge its ripeness; inhale its sweetness with eyes closed. He’d then pick the ones, which I always believed, called out to him.

Back home, he’d wash the fruit, dry them on freshly laundered blue and white chequered cloth. He’d meticulously shave off the skin of the fruit with a gleaming knife. He’d then reverentially hold the mango, the bright yellow fruit striking against his dark brown hands, and make a slow vertical slash—top to bottom; then a horizontal cut. Sticky mango juice would coat the web between his fingers. With the tip of the knife, he’d coax the squares of ripe mangoes onto the stainless steel plate. The process would be repeated on the other side.

After three decades, I can still hear the soft thud of mango slices falling into the plate, skidding gently on the juices on its back before settling down—waiting to be consumed; its sole purpose in life. Throughout this entire ritual of cutting and eating mangoes, dad would tell me stories—how he hitchhiked a ride from a remote village in Kerala when he was 17 with just `10 in his pocket. How he met my mother; his journeys to the land of sheikhs in the Middle East; encounters of his communist soul in Russia and so on. To this day, mangoes remain my greatest memory-keeper.

Research says that smells are connected to autobiographical memory. The hippocampus in the brain, which is responsible for long-term memories, has a connection to the digestive system. Each of our taste buds consists of up to 100 gustatory receptor cells. These cells send the chemical information about the food we eat to the gustatory cortex in the brain. Humans also have 12 million smell receptors in the nasal cavity that are responsible for actually isolating and identifying different food smells. While these intangibles are at work within our bodies when we are chomping on chow, it is the tangibles unfolding outside that turn into memories associated with food.

Stories of love and hate, joy and sadness, and dreams and hope. The taste, smell, colour and texture of food can hold within its banks a treasure trove of memories for us. As they eat the foods of the land they travel to, people are collecting, consciously or unconsciously, narratives to be stored in their memory box. That’s why even after aeons, a whiff of chicken satay can evoke memories of trading anecdotes with a stranger in Singapore. The taste of freshly baked pizza can remind you of the first solo trip to Italy. Hot bhajis could transport you to that time when you played cards with unknown people under a banyan tree, or a cup of masala chai could take you back to that train journey when you sat by the door and felt a connection with a wanderer while sharing a ciggie. Momos, for me, will always call to mind a 78-year-old cook, Inchung, who escaped Tibet four decades ago with only a few possessions; amongst them was a bag of special herbs for cooking Tibetan food.

The best thing about travelling is food. It allows you to connect with people without inhibitions or prejudices. Deep fried prawns remind me of prawn-hunting with strangers in a remote part of Kerala. They also taught me how to catch a frog with a hibiscus flower and torchlight, and they gave me my first taste of toddy. I hitched up my sarong, piled up my hair and pretended to be a cook and waitress in their little kallu shaap (toddy shop). I fried prawns and shared stories with people I know I will never meet again in my life. I was my truest self that day.

Foods can carry so many compelling memories that when it’s time to hang up your boots and rock on a chair, the plate of food in front of you can transport you to places and remind you of the copiousness of life. Food becomes a way of capturing an image, a setting or a feeling for posterity. I have always wondered whether Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, was reminded of his historical journey whenever he ate a bacon square—his only meal on the moon consisted of bacon squares, sugar cookies, peaches, pineapple-peach drink and coffee. Just like a photograph!

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    Sudha Pillai is an artist, photographer, and writer. She writes about her encounters with people, places, art, and culture.

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