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Shalaka Pai
Urban Urchin

Shalaka Pai is a writer and a photographer.She doesn’t have Instagram (yet)and won’t spam your Facebook feed with badly watermarked photos

The fragrant warmth of khichdi in a bleak Prague

If I had a five-rupee coin for each time someone looked me up and down and said, "You probably don't like food very much, do you?" I'd have... a pocketful of loose change. Believe it or not, I have a voracious appetite and a great love for good meals, and my scales always clock in at least five kilos underweight. Yay me.

They also knew me as one of the two girls who loudly lamented when their appam-stew wasn’t available.

I had a few regular food places in Mumbai. There was, of course, Madras Café, where the proprietor knew me by face because I'd show up every Sunday morning, impatiently waiting with the rest of the breakfast-seeking crowd. They also knew me as one of the two girls who loudly lamented when their appam-stew wasn't available. Then, there was Sneha, forever known to me as the beef chilli place. Over at my old workplace, we'd order beef chilli in bulk, and the entire café room would soon turn into a veritable feeding frenzy, hungry punters descending upon plates of spicy Kerala beef fry, ripping apart parottas, hovering around chairs like sharks, looking for leftovers.

Living alone at the Swastika House in Mumbai, I didn't really cook much. My kitchen was more of a disaster zone nook than an actual cooking space, and I realised early on that it's rather depressing cooking for one, and then eating alone, sitting on my mattress with only my laptop for company. My fridge was perennially empty. Occasionally, I'd go into productive frenzies where I bought vegetables from the market across the street and made myself meals for three days...and then it was back to calling the sandwich place near Matunga station for delivery. When I got fed up of my daily diet of grilled sandwiches, I'd go camp out at my grandmom's place, where I was fed excellent sambhar rice, idlis, dosas and miscellaneous warm comforting food. Those weeks, I'd get phone calls from the sandwich place asking if I was okay, because I hadn't ordered in a while.

hen I moved to Prague, and I'd like to say everything changed, but not much did. Our fridge is still perennially empty, and my flatmate and I eat out all the time. One thing has changed however: I finally figured out that I can actually cook quite well, and that it doesn't have to be much effort. It's much more heartening cooking for other people than eating solo. I've realised that cooking is rather therapeutic, when everything else in my day is chaotic I can decide to cook, walk into my spacious kitchen and throw chopped onions and garlic into a pan and make everything better. At this point, my flatmate emerges to tell me that everything smells so good, and I have to convince her I haven't even actually started cooking yet. My repertoire currently extends to various easy pasta dishes, chana masala and rajma. Learning how to make rajma-chawal was my diabolical master stroke here in Prague. I cooked it for a large house party pretty early on in the semester, and for the rest of the night I had every single Indian student here come up to me to give me a massive bear hug. It turns out that rajma chawal is intrinsically entwined into the Indian psyche as the ultimate comfort food.

Not mine, though, and that's why I had to conquer my pressure cooker and learn how to make khichdi. Three weeks ago, feverish, very sick and alone at home, I bit the bullet and made myself some moong dal khichdi, glaring at the pressure cooker the whole time. My experiences with pressure cookers are limited, I can never trust them not to over or undercook everything I put into them. This time, however... victory. When I opened the lid, there behind a mushroom cloud of steam was fragrant yellow, warm, comforting khichdi. I ate it all, and revelled in the familiar taste of home and the great joy of having finally bested the dratted cooker. Food is love, I think, entwined into our consciousnesses, filled with memories, and with that first spoonful of khichdi and yoghurt, I loved myself.

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