Tag Archives: food

The Venus Flytrap: A Litany To The Saint Of Lost Things

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Her ammi kal and arivaal in a corner, sentinels of stone and blade. I am here in the last house my grandmother walked in, the kitchen in which she fell and broke her hip weeks before she died in another October. I am here in the first city of my childhood, first city that I lost. Colombo. We are here, my mother and I, to clean this house so that it is something other than a relic to parallel lives we didn’t get to have, hauntings that river beneath the existences we wear, like hidden veins.

At the church of St. Anthony, patron saint of lost things, I tally up the heart’s inventory and ask him to help me lose even more. Everything one loses leaves behind residue, the way the plastic bottle of seawater I filled at Hikkaduwa became bottom-heavy with granules of sand. A litany as I light candles: Let me lose the things I still carry, the weight of what I lost. The grief and the greed, the sorrow and the sin.

A family emergency. The return postponed. And suddenly I have unstructured time, days that will either be too long or inadequate. My friend with two lines of Robert Frost tattooed on his forearm is in the same city now, a coincidence. If we meet, we will break our long history of seeing each other just before one us catches a flight out. That had been the plan. But in mine’s postponement, in the unexpected glut-gift of extra time, it’s another poem of Frost’s that I stumble on. It’s called “Directive”, and contains these darkening lines: “There is a house that is no more a house/ Upon a farm that is no more a farm /And in a town that is no more a town. / The road there, if you’ll let a guide direct you/ Who only has at heart your getting lost…”

My book comes out here before it does anywhere else. At its launch, I say, “I’ve read my writing on three continents, but this is the first time I’m doing it in my motherland.” It is. Do you know what a distance a one-hour flight is, if you calculate that distance in the intangibles of separation? I lived in Sri Lanka as a child, I lost and longed for Sri Lanka while still a child, and then that longing became the ink of my life as an artist. It’s taken until my early 30s to try to build something that isn’t connected to family or nostalgia. An adult’s emotional cartography. To fall in love with, and in. I barely know where to begin.

The first thing I make in my grandmother’s kitchen is her chukku kopi. The blend comes from Batticaloa; its secrets include coriander. I drink it and call on St. Anthony to take away my cynicism, to let me misplace it among all my other lost bearings. To give me back the only story I have told over and over: the fiction that I belong somewhere, to something worth holding, that anyone at all claims me among the elements that compose their definition of home.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 20th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

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Book Review: Love, Loss, And What We Ate by Padma Lakshmi

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The muse writes back, and is far more generous about the marriage than the artist was. Maligned in ex-husband Salman Rushdie’s memoir Joseph Anton, model and culinary savant Padma Lakshmi tells her side of the story, along with a handful of comfort food recipes. Love, Loss, And What We Ate opens on a promising, often evocative, footing.

She’s gracious through the recounting of her high profile marriage and divorce, compelling when talking about her early childhood and fiercely independent mother, and canny in her self-deprecations (“silly little cookbook”). Her descriptions of life within her grandmother’s kitchen are charming and familiar. Even a chutney of discarded citric rinds as a metaphor for how her grandmother dealt with the bitterness of marriage doesn’t ring twee.

So when a shockingly problematic streak shows up about a third of the way through the book, the reader who has rooted for her all along stumbles. The first trace of trouble is when Lakshmi extends her experience of racial discrimination as an immigrant schoolchild to her country of origin. For her to say that she is considered dark-skinned in Tamil society is disingenuous, to say the least. And she backs this with this bombshell: “my extended family urged me to avoid the sun… out of fear that my skin would darken to the shade of an Untouchable..”

While we’re still reeling at her word choice, we’re introduced to her second stepdad Peter, whom she hates. He is a “lower-caste” Fijian Indian, with a “crude, beast-like ignorance”. What follows includes references to his “stench”, his “ugly” Hindi accent, and “some inferior poni grain” he eats instead of basmati. She wants her mother to be with someone more “cultured”.

This vitriol is reserved for only for Peter, who is still her mother’s partner, as well as her own daughter Krishna’s favourite grandparent. By contrast, her mother’s second husband, whom she divorces when he doesn’t believe that a relative of his has molested the young Padma, is merely “pretty darn handsome”. The casteism, classism and colourism on display are guilelessly entitled, with neither self-reflectivity nor shame.

The author – well-travelled, well-heeled, well-connected, speaker of half a dozen languages and self-proclaimed bookworm – has no excuse for her lack of sociopolitical intelligence or conscience. At the very least, somewhere between her late partner Teddy Forstmann’s philanthropy and the Rousseau she thanks Rushdie for handing her in the acknowledgements, a little tact would have served her well.

Perhaps unable to recoup after this ethical failure, or perhaps because Lakshmi’s early style gradually gives way to a tabloid-friendly one, the narrative simply begins to bore.

And then she chucks another jawdropper. The first non-breast milk meal Lakshmi gives her daughter are a few sips beef broth at a hawker stall in Singapore. The result? Brahmin guilt. “I prided myself on how well one could eat following a Hindu Brahmin lacto-vegetarian diet. I had extolled its virtues on many occasions and truly believed in its merits. I know what had happened, while an accident, was also karmic retribution for all the bodies of animals I had consumed in my life and career in food”. Yes, really.

Who would have known that the saffron brigade had an ally in the glamourous Lakshmi, who without irony refers to her ex-husband as a “fundamentalist atheist” and to herself, repeatedly, as a “secular Hindu”? After watching the author eat everything from live snails to her own placenta, it’s the reader who’s left with a bad taste in the mouth.

Love, Loss, And What We Ate is really a book about men – a series of partners whose influence and guidance shaped Lakshmi’s life. She plays the ingénue often, and credits everything from her sartorial sense to her gastronomical savvy, and even this — her writing — to a lover. She does not memorably detail even a single non-related female friendship or mentorship. Most disappointingly of all, as co-founder of the Endometriosis Foundation of America, Lakshmi speaks only about her experience of the disease, not the work of the foundation, or its impact. With the exception of her mother, she does not weave in other female narratives of struggle and success – be they on the catwalk, in the culinary world, or in any of the many spheres of her experience. Her feminism begins and ends with the desire to date more than one man at once – a desire she quickly regrets once she realises she doesn’t know who has fathered her child.

But there is a singular feminist saving grace in this memoir, and that is the other Ms. Lakshmi – her mother. Vijaya Lakshmi’s journey is a tale of its own, beginning with an arranged marriage in which the groom cheats on her on their wedding day, and a divorce after which she endures a two year separation from her child. Upon her arrival in the US, she takes her mother’s name as a surname, abandons her limited diet, dates and falls in love, has the courage to leave marriages, explores what the world has to offer, and even takes her daughter to a nudist beach. None of this is typical for her generation, and in the Chennai they still call home, it isn’t even typical for her daughter’s. It is the story of this dedicated nurse – who keeps fruits in the fridge for her terminal patients, and manages somehow to save enough money to give her daughter Indian vacations, skating rinks, and myriad pleasures – that is ultimately the maverick one.

An edited version appeared in The Hindu Business Line’s BLink.

A Poem In Prairie Schooner

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I have a poem, “Benediction For The Feast”, in Prairie Schooner’s online Fusion series. Guest editor Sudeep Sen has this to say about the poem in his introduction to the issue: “Sharanya Manivannan’s ‘Benediction for a Feast’ has a seductive oral quality to it—it almost urges you to be anointed through her wordplay”. Read it here.

Guest Column, iDiva: Food In Film

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The sweet, underrated magic realist film Woman On Top is probably best known for the image of Penelope Cruz associated with it: a sultry gaze at the camera, a bright chilly poised tantalizingly close to her lips. Yes, we get it: food is sexy, sexy, sexy – this philosophy is thrown at us in everything from advertising that uses the suggestive forms of fruits to imply other ripeness to the lust and aggression that propel cooking-based reality shows. And it is, of course. Sexy, that is. Hunger, in both its desiring and satiating stages, is just as physical as sex. But food is also equally as psychological and – let’s just say it – equally as emotional.

In life as in cinema, there are piners and there are bingers. Food is emotional not just because, paired as it is with the supreme mnemonic of smell, it is full of memories and rituals (the ritual of a family meal, a first date, the food associated with occasions), but also because our relationship with it is affected by our relationships with other people. Some people, arguably, sublimate the sex drive into the appetite, giving rise to the erotically charged sequences of the also magical Like Water For Chocolate, in which a family’s youngest daughter, by decree of tradition, must remain unmarried and take care of her parents – which results in a recipe of forbidden lust, envy and voodoo victuals. Some use it to enhance their erotic lives, as in Tampopo’s use of an unbroken egg yolk in a tricky kiss or the ubiquitous Chocolat, in which a beautifully androgynous Johnny Depp is seduced by a maker of that most famous aphrodisiac of all. In Chungking Express, a brokenhearted Takeshi Kaneshiro compulsively devours canned pineapples, having decided that on the date on which his stockpile expires, he will either have been reunited with his love, or lost her forever.

The converse is also true – the master chef patriarch of Eat Drink Man Woman loses his sense of taste, until he is able to make peace with his widowering and his daughters’ lives. The same goes for Tortilla Soup, a Mexican-American remake of the Taiwanese original. Food is identifiably cultural, but responses to it are identifiably universal.

Of course, sometimes craving is uncomplicated. Who can forget modern cinema’s most iconic food-sex parallel: when a virginal high school senior is caught making sweet, sweet love to a pastry in American Pie? Or even Jamón Jamón, which first paired Cruz with Javier Bardem, in which a pork-loving delivery boy turns gigolo against a backdrop of cured meats, double entendres and even a soda-can wedding ring.

Drinking, strangely, seems to have has less cinema devoted to its pleasures, but the likes of Sideways, Bottle Shock, Autumn Tale and A Walk in the Clouds certainly do justice to the wonderful world of wineries. For those on diets of two highly-compatible vices, Coffee and Cigarettes brings the triumvirate to a neat convergence with the third C: conversation (the fourth, cancer, I’ll leave to preachier types).

Which brings us back to why Woman On Top is underrated. Quirkily spiritual and hopelessly romantic, Cruz’s domestic goddess cannot help but long for her philandering husband. Her otherworldly culinary skills are muffled in her loneliness. What’s more important – the meal or who it’s shared with?

It’s not always the saccharine answer that’s the best one. The way to a man’s heart, the saying goes, is through his stomach. But all goddesses are gluttons, and for many of us, our hearts are our stomachs. And in heartache and in heartburn, we’ll take good care of them.

An edited version appeared in Times of India’s IDiva supplement today. A previous guest column in this supplement can be read here.

The Venus Flytrap: The Hungry Bride

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Give me a gnawing like fire ants in the stomach, four in the morning and the night still thick as treacle. I’ll forfeit the noon gladly for this deferred sleep, the bright nip of this hunger guiding my way out of the unlit room. I will give in.

In my kitchen, poltergeists. Against the hour’s yawning silence, the cacophony of tap water tumbling onto pans, the ignited gas stove ticking, the crackle of eager oil. This hunger demands immediate satiation, first orders, and so an egg is whisked, smattered with turmeric and pepper, cascaded in a rush of sputtering onto the pan, turning Midas-gold before my eyes. Sop it up with a side of Sri Lankan “Chinese Chilli” seafood paste – ill-advised and just a teaspoon too much – and it is done. The head is clear. The greater craving can now annex the kitchen, the sleepless eater’s stomach lucid with longings.

Give me the glow of the refrigerator light. Lucky is the insomniac epicurean who has an accomplice, because there is something utterly romantic about this electric illumination, the rectangle of yellow that falls across the dark. The remembered thrill of condensed milk sandwiches eaten by this light as a child, sweet memory warmed along with the reheated idiappom and potato sothi, quiet adult conversation at an hour when everything is louder, more pungent, than life.

Give me the glow of my laptop then, typed conversations with cronies in different time zones, whom I inadvertently curse with obesity and alcoholism – what are you eating, my love, what are you drinking; have another one on my behalf, won’t you? Pangs of the heart and the belly, voracious. Every entreating appetite.

And what, and what, will I eat now, and drink now, after the omelet has settled? What do I do with the ferocious hankering for waffles with maple syrup, or smoked salmon, things I could wait till the day arrives and go out to find, if the wallet can spare it? Worse is the desire for that which cannot be found except by way of travel. Happiness, my friends, is a warm char siew pau. Sadness is living in a country where it does not exist.

How capricious is the mid-night craving. One moment a yen for spice, the next for sweet. The thought of milk toffee, sticky in the teeth and sublime on the tongue, the pining for the rubbery flesh of frogs’ legs with porridge. Survey the spread, between cabinets and fridge: instant noodles, more eggs, milk, cold rice. Coffee – a miracle. This is what happens when you have eaten by day everything you have bought by day. A rueful flashback to a wedge of mutton so tender your thumbnail slid clear into it at lunch, and how you ate each piece as if there would be no tomorrow – or no tonight. Remorse for the half-finished dishes of your past. Again, a desperate longing for places where gluttony is no sin, and the streets bustle all night with grime, steam, oil, even the smells of food lingering in a thin film on your own skin.

Riot in my belly, what will I do with you but wait? I’ll allay this hunger with obsession and promise, hope and fancy, fanning its flames to fever pitch. When dawn rises, I will devour the world.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

The Venus Flytrap: Hunger

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I recently met with a dear friend I hadn’t seen in a year and a half because we had both left the city in which we’d lived. Prior to his arrival, he got in touch to ask if there was anything I wanted from his part of the world. I didn’t miss a beat. “Guarana berry shampoo,” I said. I didn’t even bother to be polite.

I have a fondness for edible things in my toilette. Between a Swiss vanilla shower gel, grapeseed oil body lotion, green tea scented moisturizer and the old world charm of my rose fragrances (dried petals in sharbat are lovely), I must smell – and taste – like confection. To put it as coyly as possible, you could say I would make a most delicious corpse.

I’ve had my experiments with olive body butter, chocolate lipstick, coffee cologne, goat’s milk soap, almond scrubs and seaweed face masks. I’ve clogged my drains putting raw eggs in my hair. And those are just the docile delicacies. Eventually, I suspect I will graduate to sheep’s placenta for my cheeks and awaiting wrinkles – I’ve already conditioned my hair with rabbit’s blood. Someone remarked that I bathe like a Greek goddess – a vengeful one, I laughed.

Perfumes are pleasant, but the smell of food is provocative, appealing to our base needs and instincts. Be they to eat or to be eaten. I don’t shower, I steep and season. I don’t moisturise, I marinate. Like some fatalistic Gretel in a fairytale gone awry, I prepare my body. I tend to it like the gods who made offspring from their dust.

It has nothing to do with beauty and everything to do with pleasure. The pleasure of deep sleep, of a groan or a stretch, of a breath inhaled to fullness. The pleasure of waking before dawn to a blue that percolates into mellow yellow. The pleasure of catching your own eye in the mirror and falling for your own smile. The pleasure of perfect underwear, or none, on a night when I can be a woman with long hair, unbound, listening to Billie Holiday alone. Every road I walk along, I walk along with you. These are pleasures for the solitary ones. The slow burners. These are pleasures best enjoyed in a body seeped in ripe things, pungent.

I bring my braid to my mouth often, my scented wrist to my nose. I touch my bare arms under the canopy of a pashmina wrap, comforted by my own softness. I write poems to the fold at my stomach, such fullness on so small a frame as mine. To take pleasure in one’s own body is to wait without waiting. It’s to own one’s loneliness. To let it drift on its own weight, it’s full-bodied song.

So they’re worth it, all those expensive, imported, indulgent things that treat the body like a bronze doll being scrubbed, the delicate rounding of the cambers of her limbs with ash and coconut oil. Or rather, like the hours salivating at the oven over the centerpiece at a table; kneading, steaming, tasting, hoping. The rites of adornment. The gluttonous anticipation and sensuality of preparation, and then of waiting to feast. Or be feasted on.

Be slow to submit to devouring. Light every candle first. Sprinkle salt into the bath to sap away draining energy. Dress to undress, and then dress again. Get ready as though every act, every lifting of jewel to ear and tint to lip, is a bead in a rosary to the self.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.