Image by Trisha Purnaiya.

A banana-leaf plate piled with fragrant, warm rice and thirty different curries was laid before me. The broad leaf resembled a map; you had to start with the lentil salads in the upper right corner before consuming the spicy chopped-vegetable sabjis at the top half of the frond, travelling at last to the centre for the star of the show, sambar. The meal was heavy and satisfying. Our festive food culminated with saffron milk, piping-hot payasam, and the pleasure of familial company.

“Ma, can I just have some pizza?” my twelve year old cousin whinged from the corner of the room. Internally, I was thinking the same thing, although it takes a twelve year old to say it.

What use is it to consume our culture’s food when it requires so much preparation and rigidity? Only people of certain backgrounds are permitted to cook for festivals, and the extensive time required to eat our Indian fare seems a hassle. Surely globalisation would eventually wipe out this cuisine and replace it with its cheaper, readily-accessible Western counterparts.

My vegetarian, onion-and-egg-evading diet sometimes felt restrictive growing up. As my classmates flocked around boxes of chicken biryani, I used to ponder the ways religion had imposed rules on me. 

Nobody in my community was permitted to skip eating prasaadam from the temple, to have food on Ekadashi, or touch meat. Truth be told, I harboured some resentment at these regulations. While my religious faith remained unshaken, I was confused about how it translated itself into other aspects of my lifestyle. 

The groundbreaking moment came soon enough, however, which cemented the marriage between my Hindu beliefs and the food I eat or abstain from. 

And so it happened that a chance camping trip to the hills without my family became a religiously defining moment. Stranded in the wild with only ramen and jerky (which I could not eat) seems a dramatic way to realise how much your gastronomic roots mean, but that was precisely the case.

Only a lack of variety (and sodium) seemed to stem from the fast food I had so recently craved. Gone were the toasty, home-cooked dishes created under the watchful eyes of my Gods. After a point, I could not stomach the foreign articles and began feeling queasy. Returning home and eating some good old thayir sadam brought me joy and made me feel a little closer to my faith.

Although I still believe in incorporating flexibility into religious practices, I have given up my condescension. Food, and any other lifestyle change associated with faith, often acts as a place of solace. That is why traditional nourishment will continue to thrive.

Some cultures embrace veganism, while others consume specific meats at particular times. There is a distinction in plating and utensils, and a diversity in the spices used in cuisines across the world. Every person, whether religious, atheistic, or agnostic, has some food that makes the memories flood back. 

Sometimes, problems can be solved with simple sustenance as the solution.

A Glossary; alternatively, the menu at any South-Indian wedding:

  • Biryani—spicy rice which tastes heavenly. Yes, vegetarian versions exist. Don’t let the majority of people tell you otherwise!
  • Ekadashi—an auspicious day in the Hindu calendar associated with fasting.
  • Payasam—a flavoured milk dessert, served warm and comforting. Frequently associated with ‘prasaadam,’ meaning that it was blessed before God.
  • Sabji—vegetables, sliced, diced and cooked in an array of spices.
  • Sambar—a flavorful lentil curry the colour of sunset.
  • Thayir Sadam—curd rice; a Desi staple.