Lately I’ve been feeling tingles running up and down my spine almost constantly. Although all food-related, this is a symptom owing to a happy tumble of coincidences, experiences and sheer excitement over the past couple of weeks. I’m on a pretty rollicking adventure, and my enthusiasm is being stoked as efficiently as railway workers stoke the fires with coal on some of the locomotives in the entrancing ‘Bombay Railway’ documentary.
And that documentary made the tiny hairs on the back of the neck stand on end many times, providing a whirlwind of information and tales of both inspiration and aspiration. Plus a strange affirmation of a virtual friendship soon set to be cemented in person, as the individual in question’s name randomly flashed up on a Mumbai departure board. Fate? A message from above? Just one of those things? Whichever, it provoked a real tingle.
I’ve never really been one to pay too much attention to notions of fate, kismet, cosmic vibes… Call it what you will, until recently I’d have called you a right old hippy for buying into it. But a few too many coincidences, serendipitous exchanges and happy, happy happenstance have made me eat my words. I’ll eat most things, but to a stubborn, opinionated mule like me, my former opinions were as bitter to swallow as raw karela.
Rendered as sweet as sandesh, though, by merely opening myself up to the possibilities stemming from this glorious tangle of oddly connected individuals; letting myself be driven by compulsion and guided by gut instinct. Exciting things are afoot. I can tell from the constant low level fizzing in my stomach that’s everything to do with new discoveries and absolutely nothing at all to do with drinking one too many bottles of Thums Up.
So forgive me the self-indulgent ramble, and allow me to throw some of my excitement your way just like a great big handful of gulal at Holi. Speaking of Holi, tossing handfuls of powder paint skywards and feeling the chilly particles rain down like a monsoon shower brought forth a sense of euphoria that started at a London party, and persisted until the last residues washed down the drain the following day.
That sense of euphoria is one I’m getting used to of late, though, and it’s no affliction at all. I lay some of the blame squarely at the feet of Angus, the vibrant Jhalmuri Express-wallah, for sharing the amazing film that transports you to Calcutta in all her chaotic, noisy, diverse, paradoxical splendour. What Angus created is not just an ode to the city through her food, but a desire in anyone watching to eat, learn and discover.
And I encountered Angus again, barely a week after the Kolkata Street Food screening, feeding the colourful crowd at Tatty Devine’s Holi party. He and his friend Dipu rolled cones, mixed like mad and scooped their jhal muri, I lapped up the differences between Angus’ own version and Dipu’s Dhaka-style snack, and my best friend relished the magical way Jhalmuri Express took her straight back on her own Indian travels.
Travelling as far West as Calcutta is East, I diverted to Mumbai by way of Shoreditch to hear some very personal recollections of the sadly-declining Irani cafe tradition that our beloved Dishoom has invoked so perfectly and is aiming to help preserve. Again, that friend-yet-to-be-met made their presence felt, their own Mumbai memory indelibly inscribed on one of the first batch of plates the restaurant is putting on its own tables to keep the older generation’s traditions alive.
Preserving and respecting traditions are themes I’ve become well attuned to working with Darjeeling Express. When people feast on food so steeped in generations of culinary history, replicated so faithfully, you can almost see those back-of-the-neck hairs on the rise. When your khana evokes such emotion, seeming to stir strange illusory memories in your diners that are not part of their own past, you know you’re doing something very right.
Another day, another encounter, and this individual deals not in culinary maya. Instead, I meet a man whose food comes from a people as rich in their ingenuity as their soil is poor. He is high on conviction concerning his skills; I am high on exploring the ingredients he has set out before me; desert fungus, the root of the paan plant, berries whose function translates but name does not. These items that come from nothing add everything to his noble food, and I am enchanted.
It’s these tingles, these pit-of-the-stomach feelings, which refresh and invigorate me. Little, inconsequential things can do the job, too – in need of inspiration, I dip into my coat pocket and retrieve a temple-scented Pan Pasand candy. Within seconds, India is invoked – for me; for a homesick friend; for the Spanish-born chef who tells me the tale of his own Indian family connections – a wonderfully romantic tale of traders, travel and Mumbai meetings.
I suppose you could say I’m just hungry; on a constant quest for new food for thought. At the moment, I seem to have rocked up at an all-you-can-eat buffet and, believe me, I’m filling my boots. Learning about ‘agni’, the digestive fire, at a recent Ayurveda workshop made me think; why stop with food? There’s an awful lot to learn, an awful lot to digest, and I’m going at it with eyes, mouth and mind all wide open.
- For more on Angus Denoon, Jhalmuri Express and the Kolkata Street Food film, visit streetfoodkolkata.com
- For further information on Dishoom‘s plate project, click here
Main image: 1875 restaurant