My first memory of food is of my mother feeding me choori in winter. In fact, this is my first memory of anything. I remember lolling like a queen on mum’s lap, relishing every mouthful of the Punjabi crumble made of leftover parathas, jaggery and ghee. I felt precious and loved.
During my time as a food writer and editor, I have eaten my weight in sugary treats from across the planet, yet nothing quite matches the delight I feel each time I get a whiff of this simple baby food. Was it the best dessert I have ever eaten? No. Was it simply a very good choori made perfect by the moment — the icy weather, the warmth of home and of my mum’s smile? Absolutely.
I’m reminded of that iconic passage from Remembrance of Things Past where Marcel Proust dips a madeleine in his lime-blossom tea, and, suddenly, finds himself back in the small town of Combray on the coast of Normandy. Choori was my madeleine moment.
Blame it on the part of the brain called the hippocampus (one in each hemisphere) that is critical for memory. Finding food is so important to survival that it is clear that the hippocampus is primed to form memories about and around food. As MFK Fisher mused in the preface to her food memoir, Gastronomical Me: “It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others.”
Winter, in particular, triggers memories and emotions from the past more poignantly than any other season. There’s something about sticking a spoon into a bowl of freshly made carrot halwa that epitomises comfort.
Delhi, where I spent much of my childhood, will always call to mind hazy mornings with piercing cold, crisp air and the smell of roasted peanuts hanging over the streets. I visualise black urad lentils bubbling over slow fires, buttery mustard greens to be mopped up with fresh corn rotis, radishes cooked with their leaves and the feasts of the winter holidays, which we celebrated with layered stuffed parathas, chana bhatura and almond-topped pinni.
I grew up around amazing, intuitive home cooks. The magic of my grandmother’s signature dish, dark, tea-infused chana masala cooked with ginger and dried pomegranate seeds, came not merely from the sheer pleasure of the food. It was a taste of Dadima’s youth in Lahore, of Gujranwala’s orchards laden with juicy blood-red maltas, of a homeland before it was torn apart by Partition. Her older sister, whom we fondly called Didi Aunty, wowed us with her keema pie. Her recipe was simple, extolling the forbidden delights of eggs and butter and calories. She warned against the fear of ghee, insisting that some amount of fat is essential for good cooking, sharp brains and joyful eating. The culinary rivalry between the two sisters kept us constantly amused. Each had her own loyal fan following.
Vividly embedded in my food memories are the markets and produce of the season. I recall early morning trips to the Ghaziabad subzi mandi with my grandparents. Heaving with the season’s bounty — green garbanzo beans or chholia, bunches of leafy bathua, sarson and methi, purple-topped gongloo or turnips — the market was a celebration of everything precious. On the way back, we would stop to buy syrupy jalebis to dunk in scalding hot milk and devour while they were still crisp.
At Welham in Dehradun, where I studied for four years, bowls of soupy Maggi noodles were the mainstay of secret midnight feasts in the dormitory. “Saturday pudding”, a jam-laced custard trifle served in the boarding school’s dining hall, marked the start of the weekend. I would eagerly look forward to outings with my local guardian, Khurana uncle. Come Sunday, his trusty white Ambassador would drive my friend Soni and me straight to Ellora’s, the local bakery famed for its chocolate eclairs, coconut macaroons and cream rolls. Bliss.
It wasn’t till I began travelling as a food writer that I discovered the staggering range of comfort food across India: in restaurants, dhabas and street stalls, and, above all, in home kitchens where cooks have welcomed me and shown me how they feed their families. The dishes represent just half the culinary picture; the rest emerges in conversations. Over the years, I have come to realise that these staples are more ritual than meal, their backstory the memory of togetherness and shared joy, hardships and adversity.
On my first visit to Amritsar, my friend Gayatri Peshawaria, who runs a gourmet catering service, treated me to Pal da Dhaba. The hole-in-the-wall eatery serves the best kharode (lamb trotters soup) in town. Over a bowl of the rib-sticking broth, Gayatri shared her association with the dhaba, which she would visit as an eight-year-old along with her grandfather. “We would get a smoking hot plate of paya with crisp tandoori roti. Dada would urge me to slather white butter on the roti and plunge into the gelatinous, spicy gravy. ‘This is what Superman eats. It’s the food of champions.’ I’ve been hooked ever since.”
At Suryagarh in Jaisalmer, I discovered the simple goodness of bajra khichri, a dish I cannot do without today. After a day of shooting a food feature, I sat down to savour the gruel of coarsely pounded millet served with ghee and jaggery. On the table were several other seasonal specials including chaulai ka saag, mogri ki sabzi and makki ka raab. It was a mouthwatering spread.
When I landed in Kolkata in 2014 during the thick of winter, I had one goal in mind: to get my hands on nolen gur, the famed date palm jaggery which is the quintessence of the Bengali winter eating experience. En route to Sonartori, a Bengali-themed restaurant at Ganga Kutir in Raichak, I stopped at Joynagar for moa, a seasonal delicacy prepared from nolen gur and puffed rice. The cloyingly sweet laddoo left me underwhelmed. Fortunately, chef Sumanta Chakrabarty’s divine creations at Sonartori — nolen gurer payesh made with Gobindo Bhog rice, jol bhara sandesh and nolen gur rasgollas — changed my mind. It was love at first bite.
Sumanta recalled how, as a four year old, he would visit a small village called Hiranpur in Chhota Nagpur Plateau on the border of Bengal and Bihar to meet his grandparents during winter vacations. “My grandmother would pamper me with nolen gur, pithe and moa. The gur was from our ancestral land there. Grandfather and I would set out every other day to collect gur and green gram by bullock cart.”
At a pop-up hosted by northeast food curator Gitika Saikia, I got a taste of na khuwa bhooj or the new harvest feast celebrated in the months of November and December in Assam. On the menu were gahori lai-xaak or broad mustard greens cooked with pork fat and meat, paro jalukiya, a peppery pigeon curry cooked with small baby potatoes and loads of pepper, and kumura haanh or ash gourd with duck meat. The farmers’ festival coincides with the wedding season in Assam. Gitika told me that in Upper Assam, among her tribe Sonowal Kachari, the status of a guest is determined by what he or she is served. Duck meat means you are a VIP, and goose meat elevates you to a VVIP. “You still have some way to go,’ she teased.
For an anniversary issue of the magazine I edited, dum maestro Imtiaz Qureshi made a sublime shab degh, the famed slow-cooked stew of mutton balls and fried turnips, its two main ingredients impossible to tell apart. The octogenarian was in his element, delighting us with anecdotes from his extraordinary career as he cooked. The Padma Shri awardee placed shab degh within the great tradition of one-meal dishes like biryani, haleem and khichra, all of which evolved out of a need to feed the army. “Shab degh was a simple, rustic Kashmiri dish which was refined by the nawabs of Awadh. Use the cut of the shoulder and cook it in a stock of paya. It makes all the difference,” he shared. The meltingly tender meat fell apart in my mouth. It was easily one of the best meals of my life.
The part certain recipes play in people’s lives fascinates me. I love how food becomes a vehicle, a mode of storytelling. For Delhi-based pastry consultant Kishi Arora, banarasi matar cheewda made with flattened rice and peas is a joyful family ritual. “It’s a time-consuming recipe that involves lots of roasted and ground masalas, so we share the labour. My grandmother used to make it in winter. Now, when mum makes it, it’s a way to celebrate her side of the family.”
Chef Amit Pamnani grew up eating poppy seed halwa, or khuskhus jo sheero, made by grinding soaked khuskhus and cooking it with ghee, milk and sugar. “It was one of the sweets prepared during winter at my nani’s place. As kids, we used to get impatient and ended up helping her out so it cooked faster and we could enjoy it.”
I could go on and on. So many dishes. What do they have in common? Each one is designed not only to nourish but to satisfy, soothe, and indulge. Nostalgia is a key ingredient in them all, an abstract craving for comfort translated into sweet, savoury or spicy.
I don’t know why we hold on to these first tastes so strongly. But I do know they are an incredibly important force guiding us in the kitchen. They testify to the role the brain plays in the rich sensory experience that takes place every time we eat. More than merely delicious, they are edible archives of our emotions.
Winter is not my favourite season. But each time I feel glum about the short days and the cold, I remind myself that there’s a lot to celebrate from bajra khichri to doodh jalebi. And choori.
Sona Bahadur is an independent food writer and photographer based in Mumbai. She is the former editor of BBC Good Food Magazine India.