Food as a mnemonic and its memory keepers

In the bustling market, one lane is dedicated just to street food carts selling chowmein, momos, chaats, kebabs, champaran mutton and roti, biryani, and the likes
Image for representational purposes
Image for representational purposes

There’s a nip in the air that one can’t miss these days. It feels like we’re gearing up for an early winter this time. Now, I’m not one to complain - honestly, this is my favourite time of the year. The air is crisper, the spirit and aura of the festive season are everywhere, the markets adorn a vibrant hue and you can quite literally sense excitement and a feeling of happiness around. Somehow, these few weeks also always evoke nostalgia.

A few days ago, I was at Noida’s Sector 50 market for my weekly grocery run. In the bustling market, one lane is dedicated just to street food carts selling chowmein, momos, chaats, kebabs, champaran mutton and roti, biryani, and the like. But, in one corner of the market, sits a certain Pradeep Halder - a jhal muri seller who has all the paraphernalia that you’d associate with jhal muri sellers if you’ve ever been to Bengal.

Since the past decade, Halder has been coming to the market in the evening, and churning out thongas (paper bowls) of spicy jhal muri - a Kolkata street food speciality made of puffed rice, boiled chana, finely chopped onions, tomatoes, green chillies and then topped with a special masala and a splash of pungent mustard oil. His small, makeshift stall is easy to miss, but come rain or shine, loyal customers like us know where to find him. Speak of consistency and loyalty between buyers and sellers and Pradeep’s stall is the flagbearer of it.

Pujo aane waala hai didi, ab thode din pandal mein kaam karunga,” he tells me. Durga Puja is a fortnight away and, it’s that time of the year when Halder will shift his stall to a nearby pandal and whip up jhal muri by the minute for eager folks looking to get a taste of their home away from home, as they go pandal hopping. He puts up a stall outside Noida Kali Baari, and sometimes also outside the Sector 50 Durga Puja pandal here in Noida.

I ask him what is the secret to a good jhal muri and he tells me, “Jaldi jaldi banana hota hai warna seel jaata hai”, emphasising on the speed that this snack needs to be made to ensure that it doesn’t turn soggy. He also shares that the chana-chur mixture shouldn’t be too spicy, as it tends to overpower the taste. What might seem like a simple snack actually has a lot of tricks and tips involved in its making!
This, in fact, is something that the Bengali community will vouch for. As I spoke with my Bengali friends (and there are quite a few of them), they all had one common observation -- that jhal muri-making often feels like an art. My husband, who has now been living outside of Bengal for over a decade, reminisced about train journeys from his childhood, while waiting for Halder to whip up our share.

“As a kid, I’d take the early-morning Black Diamond Express from Howrah to visit Durgapur, where my relatives lived. There were a few things constant in this journey - some familiar faces, the cucumber seller who’d put generous amounts of pink salt between each slice, and the jhal muri seller who’d whip up servings with machine-like speed, and would be very happy in adding extra lonka (chillis) and shorsher tel (mustard oil) to it,” he says.

Halder, incidentally, also migrated from Durgapur to Noida in search of employment. After trying multiple odd jobs across the city, he settled on selling jhal muri, because he missed the taste of his home. Soon, he realised that there might be others like him who crave it. Food, you see, is the best mnemonic -- it has the power to transport one to a time in the past and relive seemingly nothing moments. It is not only an act of cooking, serving and eating but of being able to fill some emotional voids too.

On our way back from Halder’s stall, my husband reminisced about his childhood trips to Sikkim, a common affair for Bengalis. “There’s soul and simplicity in momos from north Bengal and Sikkim, something that you wouldn’t find here,” he said. Weeks later, we got a meal of momos home from Mood Kitchen, run by the mother-daughter duo of Kusuma and Nicole Juneja.

Kusuma’s roots lie in Darjeeling, which you can smell, taste and nearly see in her momos - essentially the very best of Delhi. Such is the power of food that even with thousands of kilometres and decades of memories separating the two, a bite of Mood’s momos evoked a happy tear in my husband. This, perhaps, is the sole reason why we seek comfort in our food, and despite diversity, you can’t quite detach the feelings of ‘home’ and ‘food’.

Related Stories

No stories found.