A Whiff of Nostalgia: What Memories of Food Do We Carry From Home?

Food is powerful – it reminds you of home, of your mother’s cooking and an idyllic childhood.

5 min read
Food reminds us of a number of things – our home, our mom’s cooking and our grandmother’s dishes. (Photo: iStock)

Picture this – a food room where you pack in a bunch of people.

Now you release a whisper of saffron as you lift the lid of a mutton biryani, a whiff of freshly baked Oreo cookies, the laden smell of samosas being fried, a heady waft of just-ground coffee beans brewing, the smoke rising from tikkas over glowing charcoal, a warm hug of a cinnamon apple cake, the swirling, earthy smell of wheat and jaggery halwa... and you’ll probably have them humming The Sound of Music’s ‘These are a few of my favourite things’.

A whiff of mutton biryani could do the trick for you. (Photo: iStock)
A whiff of mutton biryani could do the trick for you. (Photo: iStock)

Researchers have found that we equate food with memories of home, mom’s cooking, meals with friends, discoveries of new tastes, and so on – all building to a sense of food nostalgia.

What Food Do Our Celebs Come Home to?

Jerry Pinto’s favourite come-back-home food is “rice, dal, boiled egg, papad and mango achaar” – while Urvashi Butalia wants her “chapatis and bharta.”

Author Jerry Pinto rejoices in rice, dal, boiled egg, papad and mango achaar. (Photo Courtesy: <a href="https://www.facebook.com/jerry.pinto.94/photos">Facebook/Jerry Pinto</a>)
Author Jerry Pinto rejoices in rice, dal, boiled egg, papad and mango achaar. (Photo Courtesy: Facebook/Jerry Pinto)

Richa Gupta, a food blogger, roots for khichdi, while her favourite childhood dish is her mom’s jalebis.

They are the crispest, thinnest jalebis I’ve ever eaten. They are so good that I never eat the fat, sticky, full-of-chashni stuff that you get outside! She’s pretty much spoilt me for life.

Richa Gupta, food blogger

When it comes to food nostalgia, geography can’t be ignored. A region and its culture spawn food traditions and leave indelible marks on our sub-conscious, which for many years may lay dormant – but will eventually resurface.

Dom Hastings, director of Bloody Scotland (Scotland’s International Crime Writing Festival), says he likes returning to “poached eggs on toast or a traditional Scottish breakfast of eggs, bacon, sausage, potato scone, beans, black pudding and maybe a wee bit of haggis.”

Dom Hastings
Dom Hastings

I come from a large family and childhood was about a Sunday roast at my grandmother’s house, shared with around 20 aunts, uncles and cousins (every week to this day). I like to go to the market and get the best quality ingredients I can find and then cook slowly. Monkfish is a favourite at the moment.

Dom Hastings, director of Bloody Scotland

Of Food and Memories of Home

That’s the thing – food that lives in your heart spoils you.

Whether it’s Richa’s favourite street food – chole tikki – or her own way of making fish curry, some things don’t change at all. Food philosophies generate a belief system within the large food-ecology that we surround ourselves with, and Richa agrees: “mine is to try everything once and be adventurous with what I eat.”

My favourite food memories involve scouring the streets of Raipur (my hometown) every weekend to find the best chaat thhela.

Richa Gupta, food blogger

Director Imtiaz Ali finds his high in “green chillies, coriander, ‘gandha’ lemon of Assam, dill, basil, rosemary and the white butter of Punjab.”

Fried fish is deeply associated with Jerry Pinto’s Goan memories. (Photo: iStock)
Fried fish is deeply associated with Jerry Pinto’s Goan memories. (Photo: iStock)

Talking of food philosophies, Jerry’s is an instinctive deconstruct, “bring it on!” He loves going back home to “fried fish, reichado bangda, the taste of Goa.” Instead of cooking for himself, “I love anything anyone else will cook for me.” He finds solace in “Dodol, a Goan blanc mange. Made right, it is heaven!”

Food Stereotypes From Different Parts of India

There are generic responses to food from different regions that get built up over time, and it’s never a fair picture.

South Indian food is idli sambhar and all Gujarati food is sweet! Popular misconceptions can lead to quirky beliefs and assume a cultural construct that surely needs some dismantling. Richa has heard foreigners say “we don’t look forward to pooping after eating curry” and that “they love a dish called ‘Madras Chicken’, a dish completely made up in the west and something I’m sure none of us in India has ever heard of.”

Curry is the most popular dish in Britain. (Photo: iStock)
Curry is the most popular dish in Britain. (Photo: iStock)

While Kathryn feels that the Brits take Indian food rather seriously,

“Curry is the most popular dish here. We think we are eating authentic Indian food when we are, in fact, in love with a very Westernised version of it.”

Director Imtiaz Ali
Director Imtiaz Ali

Urvashi has had similar experiences where most foreigners feel that Indian food “smells like curry.” Imtiaz Ali, film director laughs, “Now I know why Indians wash instead of using toilet paper!”

While Jerry Pinto puts it across poetically:

“It’s all about curry, innit?”

“They put chillies in their sweets, right?”

“You can’t eat with your left hand in public, right?”

Food for me, personally, is an engagement with flavours, textures, and scents. In my first book The F-Word, I tried to navigate my own relationship with food, the people I love, and meals shared with them.

Cover of Mita Kapur’s book <i>Chillies and Porridge</i>.
Cover of Mita Kapur’s book Chillies and Porridge.

With Chillies and Porridge, I’ve tried to explore how people engage with food, the nostalgia associated with childhood memories, food trends, traditions and cultures.

Imtiaz echoes my food philosophy too, “Go local. My food is related to travel. Eat what they eat, where they eat, how they eat.”

(Mita Kapur is the CEO of Siyahi, author of ‘The F-Word’, and editor of ‘Chillies and Porridge: Writing Food’.)

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