Sanasi Kelkar (Sanasi Kelkar is a writer, curator and designer at Iconiq India.)
What's your earliest food memory? Mine is sticking a hand deep into a sack of sugar at my grandparents’ house. The details are lost, but the sensation of those prickly granules scratching the skin on the way down is as etched in mind as those sweet crystals that clung to the arm like tiny diamonds. Surely you have a lot of childhood memories about food. Mine are these: watching rust-coloured flakes flying off roasted groundnuts as my grandmother tossed them over and over with a thwack thwack thwack. Shelling peas at a rate far slower than the speed at which they were being popped into the mouth. Churning buttermilk and seeing blobs of Nivea cream forming at the top (could you imagine it?). Fruits plucked off trees in the backyard: sitaphal, ramphal, guavas and chickoos with skin as rough as sandpaper. And one special one from the summers: when grandpa ingeniously tied a cloth bag to a long pole and plucked raw mangoes from the gigantic tree.
That useful bag would be stained purple by June, after being used to unload the jamun tree too. The jamuns would then be packed into hundreds of milk bags (saved round the year) and packed off to friends, relatives and kids from neighbourhood huts, who otherwise could only forage them off the ground.
My enthusiastic grandfather often cooked dal, rice and potatoes in a solar cooker (his proud discovery). Though it tasted all wrong, untouched by fire or flame, it was enthralling to climb the three storeys to the terrace to see if the raw grains and vegetables kept in black dabbas and water had magically turned to cooked food. Grandpa had even gone to the extent of keeping chickens in the house so the family could eat fresh eggs everyday. (Once I had thrown what I thought was a table-tennis ball only to realise it was a freshly-collected perfectly-white egg.)
Fresh produce was usually plucked off trees or uprooted from the garden, or bought in season from a government market miles away. Dry staples were bought in bulk and stored: the dark, musty-smelling, ‘store-room’ always see-sawing your fear-curiosity scale. Once in a while, grandpa’s friend Bapu Kanchan would make the trip from his farm outside Pune (now in Pune) and hand me a cloth bag filled to the brim with tender maize (not sweet corn), thorny brinjals, dark green drumsticks, humongous pomegranates and on rare occasions, what we called “cheek” (cow’s milk after she has recently calved), which was cooked with saffron, cardamom and sugar to make kharwas.
Not more than 20 years have passed, yet there are memories of foods, curries, and kitchen equipment that Google doesn’t have a translator for. Weird kitchen hacks that Buzzfeed will never list. Preserving and cooking procedures that Youtube will never capture.
I often wonder what my grandparents would say if they saw how I buy half-kilogram of stuff from the corner grocer everytime I run out. Or buy curd in a plastic box. Or eat grapes in the winter. Food cultures are changing shockingly fast. And everytime you forgo something your parents did, most likely your children will never experience it again.
We cannot replace our grandma’s tales. Or recreate our childhood memories. But we can capture slices of these endangered experiences and give them as a teaser for our children. Whether they want to explore them further, is their call. That’s the essence with which we designed Iconiq India, a first-of-its-kind online course for children that unearths India’s curious artefacts. We begin with food, and we will touch upon many others. But more than ‘topics’, we mean them as route-markers for a journey of a child and a curious grown-up, that takes them to stories and memories they can share for a lifetime.