Down the street from my home in Paris are three cheese shops, four beauty salons, five bakeries, six wine shops and seven bistros, revealing, in no uncertain terms, the French approach to priorities in life.
It isn’t my home, really. It belongs to Elisabeth Guez, my neighbour in Bangalore. In a twist in the decades-old tale of entrepreneurship and immigration, Elisabeth’s husband, Michel, moved to Bangalore four years ago to start a firm and seek his fortune. When he first told me his company’s name, Smartesting, I thought it had to do with IIT coaching. But the website says that it is about “business critical applications testing”, which you probably understand, even though I don’t.
In Bangalore, Elisabeth and I bonded over her Mariage Frères Earl Grey tea and my south Indian coffee. When they heard that I was visiting Paris, they gave me the keys to their chic apartment near the Champs Elysèes and allowed me to pretend, if just for a week, that I actually lived there.
Living in a residential neighbourhood helps a tourist learn the rhythms of a new city. Some are universal: harried parents hustling children to school in the morning; suited office workers grabbing a croissant and a coffee before jumping into the Metro; vegetable vendors unloading the day’s produce. The details differ. Where we have mangoes, they have fragrant peaches, nectarines and apricots. Where we have delicate lady’s finger, they have white asparagus. The Oriental lilies that I love cost Rs.100 a stem in Bangalore. In Paris, they cost €12 (Rs.850) each. Beauty salons advertise a variety of treatments that will zap cellulite, contour faces and take out wrinkles. Cheese and wine are incredibly cheap relative to India.
Every evening, people walk into wine stores and discuss choices with the caviste behind the counter. The caviste begins with the same question: “Blanc ou rouge” (red or white)? Each customer lists preferences: dry, burgundy, and approximate budget. The caviste walks through the store, picking out bottles from different wineries and then, after some discussion about the vineyard, the type of grape and the vintage, a selection is made. The customer pays and takes it home for that night’s dinner. The same scenario repeats itself at the cheese shop. Short of telling you the name of the goats that were the source of that Clochette, the cheese monger can tell you pretty much everything about her cheeses: which part of the country it is from and how long it has been aged. The French have a word for this obsession with the source of things. They call it “provenance” and it illumines how they live and what they do.
Indians have this obsession too—or rather, we used to, before we became too busy to care where our food came from. My sister-in-law, Priya, who grew up in Kolkata, tells me that Bengalis buy (or used to buy) everything fresh every morning—even cooking oil. South Indians buy fresh vegetables every day, but the day’s oil? That’s a bit extreme, I thought. Buying the day’s fruits and vegetables is, of course, a great Indian tradition. Walk down the streets in Mumbai’s Chembur, Bangalore’s Cox Town, Chennai’s Gandhi Nagar, or Delhi’s Greater Kailash, and you will see women come out of their homes and choose their vegetables. They expertly pick out the most purple brinjals, perfectly ripe tomatoes, cauliflowers without black spots, and the tenderest greens, bargaining all the while for the best price. The scenario repeats itself for fruits, except that neighbourhood aunties and uncles walk to the vendor carrying plastic woven baskets reminiscent of Bottega Veneta’s intrecciato style.
Women of our parents’ generation go a step further. I know homes in all four Indian metros that still grind their flour in the chakki (flour mill). My aunt in Delhi mixes a bit of ragi, oats, jowar and bajra with her wheat to make home-style multigrain flour that is heartier than the “chakki-fresh” Aashirvaad or Annapurna atta that I buy. In Chembur, Sion and Matunga, south Indian women still walk to the neighbourhood mill to grind their sambhar powder—made with dried red chillies (the Byadagi chillies of Karnataka are the best to use), coriander seeds, pepper, mustard seeds, fenugreek, cumin, asafoetida, fresh curry leaves, and two types of dal. You wait in line for the chakki-master to pour the raw ingredients into the cement-mixer-type instruments. It snarls like a banshee while the spices are being mixed. You pour down some extra lentil seeds (tuvar dal) just to make sure that the remnant of the powdered spices are mopped up. In Bangalore, they charge us Rs.30 per kg at the local chakki. Most women make 5kg batches of sambhar powder that they store in giant stainless steel “drums” for use through the year. Fresh local seasonal vegetables cooked with home-made spice mixtures—that’s provenance, Indian style. Pity we are losing it.
Shoba Narayan enjoys her local chakki, but she wishes she had a caviste in her neighbourhood too. Write to her at email@example.com.