There was a constant Tom and Jerry sequence playing out between my mother and I when I was growing up. She wanted me to drink milk — I hated it. “Milk is good for your studies,” she’d say. “It will make you brainier.” I’d pour it down the sink quietly. Mom tried everything to make me drink milk — serve it hot. Serve it cold. Never at room temperature, for some reason. Never plain. With cocoa powder. Or chocolate derivatives. Mango, vanilla, strawberry. With rose syrup in hope.
The results were the same, regardless of what she added to the milk. I would head to the sink, glass in hand. But studies came before all else to my mom and I simply had to drink milk. My chhoto mashi, the younger “cool aunt”, was co-opted: “If you don’t drink milk, you won’t do well in your studies — and you won’t find a nice girlfriend.” I considered the argument, looked at the glass of milk.
I decided to take my chances and put my future love life at stake, heading to the sink to try my luck. The turning point came when my mom thought of adding coffee to milk when I was in class eight. Coffee was cool and grown-up; I liked the idea, and the taste and aroma too. I finally began drinking milk without making a fuss.
I don’t know if any of the milk I had made me brainier. It did help me in my exams in a roundabout way: Inspired by the story of an Ethiopian goat herd who apparently chewed on coffee beans, I too chewed on instant coffee to stay up at night to study. (Ironically, my favourite way to drink coffee today is as a cappuccino — a milk-based coffee. Hopefully, my mother will finally be relieved). This “milk is good for the brain” is a universal mom’s logic. The day I got married, my Parsi mom-in-law said to me: “Please look after my daughter — and please make sure that she has a cup of milk every morning.”
Another “brain food” both Parsis and Bengalis love is fish. Or, “alleged love for fish”; the truth is, many Bengali men, like my uncle, brother and I, are not very fond of fish. We’re happy to go to the market and buy fish to feed others. I like cooking it too — just don’t make us eat it. Which is a problem for our mothers, who believe that chhoto maach — small, bony, sweet water fish — is the best fodder for the brain. Unfortunately, many of us Bengali boys prefer larger maach — rohu, kaatla, betki, ilish — over the smaller pabda, paarshe, tilapia and tangra.
In contrast, the first thing my granny and mom loved about my wife, when she visited Kolkata, was her willingness to eat all fish, including the chhoto maach that I spurned. The Parsis love their fish: Though she belongs to a community of seafood lovers, my wife took to the Bengali penchant for fresh water fish instantly — she is obviously the “brainier” one.
The other “brain food” in our house was macched mudo, or fish head. Mom would add fish head to moong daal and cabbage. The fish brain was deeply coveted. When I moved to Mumbai and got my own kitchen, fish head-plus dishes were the first I taught myself to cook. Now, mom says I should avoid fish head because of cholesterol: I throw her “fish head will make you brainy” logic back at her when she does.
Yet, truth be told, I prefer meat to fish. Mom used this to her advantage and made mutton (goat meat) with spinach on Sundays when we were kids. “Spinach makes you brainy”, was what drove her to do so. Luckily, the saag gosht tasted great and my brother and I lapped it up. Another “brain food” in many Bengali homes is ghee. A dollop of ghee is added to steaming rice before you pair it with the bhaajas or fries and curries that follow. On special occasions, ghee bhaat — the simplest of pulaos, but very tasty — is served with fish, chicken or mutton. We didn’t eat ghee on a regular basis as my mom was quite health-conscious. But today, dieticians and doctors have woken up to the attributes of ghee.
My wife’s maternal uncle, a Parsi, always espouses ghee for overall well-being. He gets us ghee from local dairies in Mumbai. And of late, I’ve discovered a love for “Jhorna” ghee. A homegrown Bengali brand of cow’s milk ghee, I bought a bottle when I visited my grandmom in Kolkata. I occasionally add half a teaspoon of ghee to my meals. Just like I saw my mom do when she visited Mumbai. As they say, we all grow up to be our mothers.