This Indian Life by Shoba Narayan: The pleasures of an Indian gooseberry

Love is not the only thing that makes the world go round

Shoba Narayan
Hindustan Times

I went to a women’s college called Mount Holyoke. My best friend there was an orange-haired painter called Jennifer Harris. She and I stayed in touch long enough for her to visit me in New York when I had my second daughter. Jennifer too was married by then, to her girlfriend, Sarah (who I also knew). They had a baby boy together – Jennifer carried the baby. 

This bit of personal history is perhaps why my niece, Sumi, called me to brainstorm ideas for how to get our closest relatives to attend her upcoming wedding with her short-time girlfriend, Kalyani Sharma, to be held in Kalyani’s home in Long Island.

“I want my wedding to be beautiful,” said Sumi. “I don’t want any of those snarky, judgy comments that our family is famous for. How to pull this off?”

Frankly, I couldn’t understand why Sumi wanted our conservative, cacophonous, embarrassing, politically incorrect relatives at her wedding. Weren’t she and Kalyani fighting enough battles already? They were gender-fluid brown-skinned immigrants in a polarised land led by an orange-haired bigot.  

“That’s precisely why I want to keep in touch with my roots,” said Sumi.  

Having been an immigrant myself, I understood immediately. When you move from your hometown, whether to Mumbai or Montreal, there are many aspects of your homeland that you can duplicate: food, clothes, music and movies. But you cannot recreate your relatives. 

All you may need is love. But sometimes you need food to facilitate the love

All you may need is love. But sometimes you need food to facilitate the love(Getty Images)

What happens when you live away from home is that you tend to choose friends who are just like you. People who belong to your social class, watch the same shows, have the same political beliefs and interests. Soon your life becomes an echo chamber. You only hear your own thoughts. There is a beauty and harmony in this. But this is also the quickest road to intolerance. 

Your relatives though, are another kettle of fish. If you are Indian, you probably have whack-jobs as family members. Interacting with them is an exercise in cultivating the tolerance that India is famous for, and I might add, is in danger of losing. Tolerance as a virtue is eroding globally.  

When you move you can duplicate many aspects of your homeland….But you cannot recreate your relatives!

The wedding would be held in Kalyani’s home in Long Island, with her brother officiating as the priest. The couple’s friends and family would be in attendance. Our extended family was the wildcard.

“A lot of our friends here are gender fluid questioning artists and activists,” said Sumi. “I want my worlds to collide: Palghat meets Paco, my best being (not man or woman).” 

After much discussion, Sumi and I hit upon the solution.  

The next day, the whole family received an email with a single photo. Two brown hands, each with the words, “She said yes.”

Underneath the invitation to the wedding was a single line in eye-popping bold print: “Food catered by Noorni Natarajan.”

That was all that was needed for some 50 of my relatives to pack up en masse and land in Long Island, basically salivating. And you know what, I didn’t blame them. I would travel to Antarctica to eat this food.

You see, Noorni Natarajan (also known as Noo-Na), has churned out feasts of uncompromising quality for most of his 60-odd years, beginning as a cook in his native village and then moving to New Jersey in the ’80s. His food was tasty, consistent, and importantly for immigrants, transported the eater back to the homeland, which, for us, was a patch of land in the border of two South Indian states: Kerala and Tamil Nadu. We called this region Palghat but it was more than geography. It was a confluence of identities and cuisines. For people from Palghat, food was more than nourishment for the soul. It was a source of pride, and a pledge of loyalty to cooking techniques, red rice and elephant foot yam (Amorphophallus paeoniifolius).  

Take for instance, a simple dish that we call Nellikai Arachu Kalakki, which literally translates to Amla Grind and Stir. The name of the dish suggests its making technique. It has just four ingredients: ripe gooseberries (amla), coconut, yogurt/curds, and green chillies. That’s mostly it. A few sprigs of curry leaves fried in coconut oil along with some black mustard seeds for the garnish. But the sour, tangy taste of this dish makes my heart sing. Eat with hot red rice and a dollop of ghee or better yet, coconut oil. It is divine. Also relatively unknown. Try getting this in Mumbai or Delhi, even in a South Indian restaurant. People cannot pronounce it much less make it. Noo-Na listed it as a key highlight in his wedding menu, alongside other unpronounceable dishes such as puli-inji, chenai-eriseri, chepankizhangu-puliseri, koorkan-kizhangu-mezhukku-varatti (yes, that’s one name), and paal-adai-pradhaman

No wonder the relatives toed the line. And how smart of Sumi to figure this out before her wedding.

All you may need is love. But sometimes you need food to facilitate the love.

(This column addresses the issue of parenting our parents and other unique facets of This Indian Life and our culture. If you have stories about the weird and wonderful relationships that enrich or enervate your life, write in.)

This Indian Life appears every fortnight

From HT Brunch,February 2, 2020

BRUNCH Updated: Feb 01, 2020 21:20 IST

Shoba Narayan


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