The Rewards of Eating With Intention
It was barely dawn when we mounted our many bags into the back of our Nissan X-Trail.The co-ordinates to the general location of an unmapped beach were keyed into the Sat Nav, and I queued-up The Lumineers while sliding back my seat to a practiced optimum.
Earlier that month, we had excitedly booked rooms in local AirBnBs and made whimsical itineraries on word documents. Closer to our departure date, I cracked open a new notebook and alongside, a grainy face scrub.
It was a usual for me, traveling every few months — whatever I could afford, with whatever time I had. This time it was a road trip down to The Great Southern region of Western Australia. It seemed to be the best way to make sense of my surroundings, traveling — using bare hands and feet to navigate somehow made me understand it all a bit better. To move without purpose, indulge naiveties, feed my many furious curiosities is liberating, educational and necessary to me. The only thing different this time around, was the intention to eat better while traveling. Eating out of routine and heavily on holidays not just gave me indigestion and migraine, it was also unnecessarily expensive.
I filled up my large canvas bag, the one with San Francisco written across the front, up to the brim. Although ugly, I still loved the bag, having bought it haphazardly at an airport in California to deal with excess baggage.I packed cooked beans, tomatoes, tuna, some bread, fruit, nuts and as a treat, a whole bag of chocolate chip cookies.
If I look back to when the love for picnics had gotten into me, I’m reminded of those late evenings of grocery shopping. I’m only 5, at the most 6 years old. We’d go to the local supermarket once a week after my dad would get back home, usually at 8 pm. After an exciting evening of picking juice cartons, chocolates and bags of shrimp-shaped cheese balls, i’d be given a steel box containing my dinner once we were on our way back. In the backseat of my dad’s second-hand sports Mazda, I’d eat my lentils, rice, and vegetables happily, content after my shopping jaunt, dreaming of all the things I would carry with me to school the next day. Then I would fall asleep, cocooned by the hushed voices of my parents conversing about things I couldn't quite make the shape of. Eventually, I was scooped up and placed in my own bed, fast asleep.
On our trip to the Great Southern, the first place we stopped at was Little Beach. A turquoise beach hidden in a thick natural reserve, it was like a secret discovery. The wind was cool, and apart from us, there was just another couple there. Living out a silver-haired romance, they were nursing hot coffees poured out of a well-worn flask and taking it all in — slow, content. City life had slowly dissolved in the course of the 5 hour drive, and evaporated from every pore in my body, replaced by a light air-like quality in my head and heart.
After a spot of yoga, taking my shoes off to feel the cold water on my feet, shutting my eyes and facing it towards the sun, it was time to eat. Sid spread a picnic blanket on the half-sunken boulders, and I unpacked the food containers in the wind, giggling to hold my hair out of my face.
I had packed rice with black beans and chicken, leftovers from dinner the previous night, and I had with me a ready avocado. Slicing it open and scooping it out — a big squeeze of lemon and a dash of salt — the creamy guacamole was ready. We ate our lunch looking out at the ocean, hungry like cavemen. Cocooned by a homemade meal and the thrill of exploration, I felt like Little Beach was my home, even if just for the moment. Especially, for the moment.
Early when we were just children, me and my cousin sister Sandy would go on long train journeys to see our grandmother. There was always steamed rice and a jar of Puliogre, a pickled spice paste made with tamarind, and tempered with mustard seeds and a handful of curry leaves. We would eat on our top bunks, excited by the prospect of seeing our hazel-eyed grandmother soon, the tartness of the tamarind paste making us wink and giggle. Then we’d take to playing games with other kids or counting passing trees at the window.
My friend Nish, who I share my food fetishes with, remembers that thepla and chundo (flatbread made with fenugreek leaves and sweet mango pickle) were staples on childhood train journeys with family. Thepla can last for days if the weather isn’t too hot and is nutritious and slow-burning, giving you ample energy to run along the bogies and play.
Others she remembers were spiced and stir-fried potatoes and cauliflower or vegetable-stuffed flat breads. There was always the variety of dry snacks to keep their long journeys exciting — homemade chivda (a savoury trail mix of puffed grains and lots of peanuts), chakri (a coil-shaped snack made with chickpea flour, a big favourite with children and adults both)and golpapdi (which is a mix of wheat flour, jaggery, ghee and sesame seeds).
There were plenty of food to choose from, all made at home. If more than one family traveled together, menus were shared beforehand so that there were no overlaps.Of more everyday things, Nish distinctly remembers waking up to the smell of chapatis (Indian flatbread) being prepared in the kitchen even before the sun was up. Her mum would wake up in the small hours, cook fresh, pack four lunch boxes and then be at work by 7am.
Their absolute favourite quick meals were fresh or stale wheat chapatis made into rolls with ghee and jaggery. “Every once in a while we’d find this ‘treat’ in our lunch boxes, and we loved it,” she remembers.
All of this seems like a Utopian world today, with fast food giants walking tall, dwarfing and defaming nutritious homemade foods.
Another friend, Smallie, remembers waking up early for the morning train and instantly smelled the poha (puffed and spiced rice with onions and potatoes) being prepared, and her mouth would water as it was being packed into aluminum containers. She and her sister would demand their mom’s the poha within 20 minutes of boarding the train.
She and her sister would always be made to eat chapatis rolls with ghee and groundnut chutney during long train journeys, a staple in Indian households. Ghee is known to take nutrients from your food and deliver them through fat permeable membranes like in the brain, and the protein and mineral dense groundnuts make for a great in-between snack and works as an appetite regulator.
Sid remembers looking forward to the first day of long train journeys, where the meal would be potatoes and puris (a deep-fried, delicious flat bread). Breakfast was hard-boiled eggs, shelled by him and his sister in the mornings. As the days went by, you had to be resourceful with your combinations — puris with eggs, potatoes with thepla. The later days would be stir fried Bitter Gourd and were not a favourite, but were still eaten. Perhaps that was a generational thing, having the space and tolerance for the less glorious necessities of nutrition.
Living in another country, far away from my mother ship, I try my best to retain a similar, simple lifestyle. Shop local, cook simple nutritious meals, minimize how many packets I buy and open. It gets tough when the day has been long or exceedingly demanding, and the body and mind want to give in to easily available food packets. Trying to be mindful, I think about the whole wheat jaggery rolls my mother would make me. But I settle somewhere mid-way and make myself a peanut butter toast, or eat a whole banana ravenously. Something about eating the right food, giving your body the right nutrition, can soothe your fatigue and equip you with the right tools to cope with homesickness.
On the last day of our road trip down south, Sid and I sat cross-legged by a lake in the middle of a forest, eating egg sandwiches and occasionally waving at pairs of kayakers. Every meal we had was amongst tall trees and open skies, or on beaches serenaded by the music of waves crashing. With almost every meal we shared childhood stories of journeys and food memories. It had been a good trip, and I felt accomplished with our food consumption. No migraines, an intact wallet, a steady flow of energy — the offhand benefits of good nutrition.
And strength — to pick up large bags, climb hills and preserve recipes in small notebooks and the back of postcards. Because whatever we lose sight of, it's best not to trade in substance in return for speed, and in response to slowly pervading inertia.