Our experiences are often food mediated memories. Menus, food blogs, art, may all be seen as attempts at translating this collective recollection, making apparent the language food offers to help remember things. Taken together these endeavours sew a network of communication and understanding, a linguistic web of feelings, remembrance and taste.

My parents met discussing food.

Library cupboards filled with recipe books collected over three generations were not enough to keep them from buying more. Shelves spillled over.  At home, food defined moods. Growing up – holidays, celebrations, time with family, friends – were all associated with food. Once in a small restaurant in the German countryside my father had requested the chef for the recipe of a pfifferlinge mushroom soup he had loved. The chef had refused. Not to be deterred, my father made a list of the ingredients he suspected went into the dish and sent it to the chef, asking if he had missed anything. The chef sent it back with a short tick, indicating all to be in order.

Or so the story went.

Pfifferlinge mushroom soup

Breaking down food was a regular ritual. As a kid I remember sitting in restaurants and decoding dishes we liked. We made notes on napkins so we could try recreating the dishes later, at home. I still cook some of these gems, often from memory. But disremembering plays a role in what I remember too.  The best liver paté my mother ever made involved her mistakenly using Hennessy XO instead of cooking brandy.

Earlier last month, soon after Anthony Bourdain’s death, I returned to one of his essays I had once enjoyed. In it he spoke about his father, the food he introduced the young Bourdain to, the person he helped him become. Age had simplified his taste, Bourdain wrote. Over time what he looked for in food was emotion, happiness.  It made me think about the way I cook, sometimes with the aid of recipe books but often from memories – others and mine.  Perhaps this has to do with growing up looking at food through my parents and grandparents’ adventures at tables. Maybe it has also to do with Bourdain, and how he taught a lot of us to see food.

Kejriwal toast, Ammini’s Duck Curry at The Bombay Canteen, Image: Sanjay Ramchandran

My favourite dishes at restaurants are often those that are inspired by recipes collected from aunts and grandmothers. I always wonder about the stories and memories around these. At the Bombay Canteen, which I frequent, every dish has a story to it. During an afternoon conversation with Chef Thomas Zacharias, he tells me about his grandmother. Having developed an interest in food while cooking with her as a young boy, the memories from her kitchen easily find their way into the menu Zacharias created for the restaurant. The menu changes every two months, he tells me, but the favourites stay put. A number of them come from his grandmother’s kitchen. He remembers eating green tapioca chutney as an afternoon snack in Kerala. It’s now the main feature of the restaurant’s bestseller – the Kejriwal Toast (of Bombay fame). Ammini’s Duck Currywas a regular when he returned home after months. (Sometimes he even had it for breakfast!) Having lost his grandmother a year before the restaurant was launched Zacharias regrets that she hadn’t had a chance to see what he is doing today. But, through her food, he likes to think, he has kept her memories alive.

Ceylon Curry for Sunday Lunch, Illustration by Richa Kashelkar, Image: The Goya Journal

Over the past few years a number of online initiatives have similarly taken up the task of preserving food memories. There are now numerous digital journals that reference recipes that run in the family. But only some of these present food as entwined with familial memories. The Goya Journal is one such. Founded by Anisha Rachel Oommen and Aysha Tanya, it was started with the intention of forwarding and encouraging conversations around food. A series of articles in their online journal, #1000Kitchens, taps into recipes that carry special meanings for families. Tales that travel around the world with incredible experiences and stories to learn from, are laced with the making of heirloom recipes such as ‘Ceylon Curry for Sunday Lunch’. The journal revives memories and recipes from kitchens across seasons even while it explores the relationship food has with the varied socio-economic fabric of India.

As a language food allows us the medium to grapple both with the macro and the micro, the public and the private. Even as I think about the wide variety of people the Goya Journal engages with, the disparate kitchens it travels into, I am reminded of the intimate experiences food mediates. I think of Zacharias’ grandmother and the strength food often offers for negotiating loss. It has been a while since I first saw Reena Saini Kallat’s autobiographical work, ‘Walls of the Womb’, but perhaps because it too deals with the memory of food it comes back to me in a flash.

Reena Saini Kallat, Walls of the Womb, 2007, Installation view, Hangar Bicocca, Milan, Image: Reena Saini Kallat

Based on the memory of her mother, who passed away when the artist was very young, Kallat often recollects how difficult the work had been to formulate. The final installation centres around her mother’s recipe book, displayed in a showcase, twelve red dyed sarees surround it. On closer inspection, the raised white bandhini patterns on the sarees turn out to be inscriptions in Braille. They translate Kallat͛’s mother͛s recipes to a sensory memory. Kallat has referred to this work as an after-presence, where images, taste, touch sounds and smells have an after-life. They exist even after being experienced, but are illegible, just like the dotted patterns of Braille on the sarees.

Experientially, the work is a reminder of how we remember a person through food related artefacts. It highlights how all our experiences are often food mediated memories. The creation of menus, food blogs, art, may all be seen as attempts at translating this collective recollection, making apparent the language food offers to remember things.

* Cover image: Reena Saini Kallat, ‘Walls of the Womb’, 2007, recipe book details, image courtesy artist

Veeranganakumari Solanki is an independent curator and art-writer. Her curatorial experience has involved research, curating and co-curating exhibitions, writing for art publications and journals on emerging Indian, Asian and international artists and art practices; in India and internationally. Her interest lies in the manner in which interdisciplinary forms merge with art to create dialogues that travel from public spaces into private ones. She has contributed papers and articles to several international art journals and publications including Flash Art, Culture360, TAKE, Kolaj and several others. She has lectured on curating and art practices, and conducted workshops internationally at institutes such as the Siddhartha Art Foundation, Kathmandu; the Asian Contemporary Art Conference, Taipei; Icastica, Arezzo; Academia di Belle Arte, Florence.