It was last Sunday. For the first time both I and Kalini (my wife) offered services at Seva Cafe in Ahmedabad in the company of others including Siddharth and Lahar. Before the service began, as usual, there was group prayer followed by self introductions. This time, the theme was: whose food preparation you like most…All members were excited to share their views. Some members said, their mothers’, others said their grandparents’, a few also mentioned Raghu’s and Bhaskar’s (both are volunteers who take care of the kitchen). When my term came, I was bit confused, as I found the question both simple and complex. I replied: I like the food most that I prepare myself. I do not know what others felt at my answer. But it was the truth I spoke and it was revealed spontaneously straight from my heart.
I am a native of Odisha, a state on India’s eastern coast. Of my first 20 years of life (now I am 42), I mostly spent in small towns of Odisha and had deeply adapted to the food habit that flourish locally including plethora of leafy green vegetables, rice, fish, varieties of mushroom including a few wild ones and varieties of sweets made from rice flour, and country made paneer, locally known as chena. Those have been my most favourite food all time.
At age 20, I moved out of Odisha, to pursue a career in archaeology. I lived in Pune for about 8/10 years, adapting to Maharashtrian way of living, especially with relation to food. I liked a few and disliked also some. But any food offered with love and warmth was found delicious. As there were a few more Odiyas in the campus, where I did Masters and an unfinished PhD, we partied often having Odiya food in menu, though the taste differed considerably from the food of my childhood days. Then I moved to Delhi, where I adapted to Punjabi and North Indian food, spicy and hot, yet tasty. I lived in Delhi for 3 years. In the year 2003, I moved to Ahmedabad and since then I am here.
In Ahmedabad, in my initial years I used to dislike Gujarati food, as it was based more on lintel and pulses rather than tropical vegetables. But slowly I started liking it. However, when I started experimenting living alone, the seclusion often persuaded me trying out my all time favourite Odiya food again. I started surfing online recipe for some of my favourite dishes that I often had in my childhood and in teen. I started experimenting in my kitchen, which turned out as a small food lab.
Initially, the food I made was far from perfection, sometime half cooked, yet in other times over cooked. At times, food was found over salty and on some instances, it was less salty. I started bringing my food preparation to office and shared with other colleagues. I received mixed feedback, but through my constant observation and practice, I brought in perfection to my cooking. In the process, I discovered an inner joy as I got back my childhood days through food. On every evening I started calling my mom, who stays in far away in Bhubaneswar sharing the day’s experience of cooking. Sometimes I took tips from her and on next day I told her the result of the experiment. Sometimes she also wondered as she had forgotten many of the recipes, she once cooked during her early age.
Self cooking has taught me how to love myself, yet at the same time love those who offer me food with love and warmth. There are countless such people I have come across in my life so far. So when I was asked to share at Seva Cafe I could not figure out to whom to tribute as others did. I thought of admiring myself as it was the only concrete option left for me.