It’s a main, it’s a side, it’s Brinjal

The Indian Express - December 23, 2012

The happily-ever-after formula at the dining table.

Being a creature of habit, I still use the original plug point and spend many an evening guarding my precious computer from man and beast. Rajat bhai and my husband faithfully replicated all the flaws in the old flat as if their sense of well-being depended on that. It reminded me of the joke about the man who married a second time and no matter what wonderful things his second wife served him at breakfast, he would shake his head mournfully and say, "Not like what my first wife made". Accidentally one day, she burnt the toast and ruined the coffee. Her husband beamed and said, "Exactly like my first wife made it".

I used to feed my daughter watery rasam and squishy rice with my hand, which prompted my usually taciturn father-in-law to offer me a spoon and at the same time say, “Kya nutrition hai ji, is mein? Roti subzi khilao na” (What nutrition is there in this? Feed her roti subzi). I used to mutter to myself, “I ate the same stuff and is my brain any worse than her father’s?”

I had a nanny who raised me, and reigned over all aspects of food at my parents’ home. When we got married, she critically appraised my husband’s food habits and concluded that he had come from a very poor home, because he didn’t eat fruit or curd or tomatoes or paneer or most vegetables. Obviously, he hadn’t been fed any of these in his youth. My mother-in-law’s protestations that she gave him sheera (a dish made with semolina) with real ghee every day were dismissed. How come he didn’t eat mithai then? Had she seen the non-vegetarian part of the food repertoire, she may have changed her opinion. But we were all too scared to tell her that.

My mother-in-law told the story of how, as a 19-year-old bride, she went from Pune to Koderma (in Jharkhand), where her husband worked. One day, when she heard him instruct the cook to make mutton for dinner, she cried and cried, thinking that her family had married her off to a “Mohammedan”. Her son now says she made the best mutton curry ever, except that she continues to eat only the gravy.

I recently gave my daughter a silver medal on our three-decade wedding anniversary. It was for the best balancing act. She balanced the differences between both parents on all things, including food. She loves roti subzi because she is daddy’s girl, and “gun powder” and rice squished together with sesame oil, because she is my daughter. But salad is where the alignments get sharper. When I pass a bowl of red and green coloured salad around at the dining table, it comes back mostly red, because father and daughter are experts at avoiding the carrots and the tomatoes. Zak, my Labrador pup, loves carrots and I, tomatoes. So I guess we are like the family in the nursery rhyme: Jack Sprat could eat no fat, his wife could eat no lean, so between the two of them, they licked the platter clean.

We have now reached a family consensus on certain important food related issues: That gongura (the leafy pickle from Andhra) and wine should be treated on a par because each of us dotes on one, and we are mindful of the problems that come from over indulgence. That brinjal is a many splendoured thing. It is the king in Andhra cuisine, known as gutti vankaaya (stuffed brinjal), and it is what my husband, raised in Bengal, knows as be-gun (without any virtue). We also agree that my mother must never be given charge of my kitchen because vegetables in a rice-eating, south Indian home is a side dish, which accompanies the pickle-rice, the sambar-rice and the curd-rice courses; but in a roti-eating home, it is the main event. Her quantity estimates go haywire and I often have to pacify an irate husband looking balefully at a very small bowl of vegetable.

If I have any advice to give mothers, it would be: don’t fret if your children give you the worst performance rating on food, compared to what they say the other children are getting. Just wait until they leave home and return yearning for the same stuff they turned their noses up at. And be careful in making sure what your child likes to eat, because there will be a spouse’s nanny or mother who will be doing your performance appraisal, many years later.

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Rama Bijapurkar
Management Consultant and Author