Food is Life: 10 Foods That Changed Me
Originally published by Media Diversified on October 04, 2016. This piece has been updated to reflect recent developments.
In Twelfth Night, William Shakespeare wisely writes, “If music be the food of love, play on.” As a musician and foodie, I’d like to (blasphemously) adapt these hallowed words for my own appetite: “If food is the music of life, eat on.”
I love food. Maybe too much. Probably too much. I am grateful to have inherited this noble love from my very adventurous parents, whose courtship was assisted by, as my mother puts it, “eating their way through Mumbai.”
Bluntly speaking, my family is full of exceptional cooks, most of whom are women. That includes my own mother, who is just brilliant. Family is one reason I obsess over food. It’s a way for me to know those I didn’t have the chance to meet and remember those I did. I believe the choices involved in how we cook reveals a lot about our personality, values, and spirituality. Like, how a “daal” prepared by my moody and talkative paternal grandmother turned out intense and spicy whereas the same dish made by my uppity and strict maternal great-grandmother turned out balanced and soothing.
I’ve grown up hearing wondrous tales from my parents, particularly my storyteller father, about the amazing women in my family and their divine cooking. Upon hearing these stories about my foreparents, I have come to understand that cooking was an extension of their own parenting and teachings. What we eat, why we eat, and how we eat can enlighten us about ourselves and our worlds. In India, eating with one’s hands is understood as an act blessing oneself with food. The Hindu god Ganesh is also known as “Lambodar,” the “large-bellied one,” to signify the broader connection between material and spiritual nutrition.
This is how I justify my demanding appetite. That, and I have been able to learn a little more about the past, present, and future of my family, myself, and the world through food. Really good food has an uncanny way of defining us, as does our sense of taste. Do we challenge ourselves with food? Are we routinized? Are we ideological? How we eat is an extension of what we believe about and expect from the world.
I have the privilege of coming from four of the world’s great culinary cities; Los Angeles, where I was born; Seattle, where I grew up; London, where I studied; and Mumbai, my mother-city. My life is a consequence of my parents’ growing up in Mumbai and their journey as immigrants — and all the food along the way. For me, that means eating can open oneself up to the world and its possibilities.
With that in mind, I share this list of the ten dishes that have left the greatest impression on me; dishes that taught me the most about what food is capable of. I offer this list as an abbreviated memoir and fun collection of some dishes that have expanded my worldview, as well as my belly.
10. Butter Cake
The United States is blessed and cursed with an abundant legacy of desserts. While I don’t have a sweet-tooth (or so I tell myself), I admire the immense skill and precision involved in preparing baked foods, particularly desserts. I once went with an American friend to California Pizza Kitchen, one of his favorite restaurants. While I’m not particularly keen on this restaurant, my friend suggested we have their “butter cake.” It changed my life. This dish consists of a freshly-baked vanilla cake, topped with a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream, and garnished generously with whipped cream. This dessert is deadly in its embrace of all things caloric, sugary, and fatty. But that’s why it’s great. It’s unapologetically rich. Below the ice-cold, firm, too-sweet scoop of vanilla ice cream rests a shapely, hot brick of gooey, crumbly, and rich vanilla cakey-goodness. Taking a spoon of the cake and ice cream together makes this dish astounding. It marvelously contrasts warmth and coldness and combines richness and sweetness in a balanced, brilliant way. Butter cake taught me how precise opulent flavors can be harmonized through temperature. I’ve had this dish only three times in my life, but my goodness is it amazing! The only other pastry that has compared with such an experience is an aflatoon from Mumbai’s Usman Suleiman Mithaiwala.
9. Filtered Coffee
Being a Seattleite means knowing coffee is as important as water. While the greatest coffee I’ve ever enjoyed is Ritual Coffee’s Alexander Sabillon grind, it certainly has not taught me the most. I was once on a drive from Pune to Mumbai with my grand-uncle. After receiving a lecture about the correct times of the day to eat certain foods, he went against his own advice and spontaneously took us to enjoy a dosa in the late afternoon (dosa is usually eaten for breakfast) before reaching his home in Mumbai. The restaurant, Mani’s Lunch Home in Matunga, was a regular weekend spot for him and his friends growing up. After we sat down at a cramped table, he took charge of what to order, as an expert foodie does. Minutes later, a sizzling, perfect dosa appeared before us (the best dosa I’ve ever had). Also, a tall steel cup was delivered that had inside it what looked like boiling mud. Without speaking, he mixed the coffee, pouring it between two steel cups. After, he handed me half of the coffee and half the dosa. The dosa was unbelievable and I devoured it quickly. Then, I cautiously took a sip of the coffee.
I cannot recount my experience of this marvelous elixir because I nearly blacked out from how amazing it was. Unbearably hot, dark, and unconscionably sweet. This one drink humbled my Seattleite ego which thought it understood a lot about coffee. No, this was real coffee; as if an Americano had ordered an Americano for itself. This was another dish that was hyperbolic in all ways but profoundly balanced, tasty, and energizing. The South Indian filtered coffee is prepared fundamentally different than coffee in the Western world. This version is more airy, darker, creamier, sweeter, and perplexingly tastier. I have had this coffee only twice in my life (my last two visits to India). Mani’s in Matunga will be the first place I go on my next trip to India, which will hopefully be soon.
A great friend is someone who you love, support, and confide in through the uncertainty of life. A best friend is someone who shows you great food you didn’t know about. Such was the case with one of my older friends who is more like a sibling. Throughout one summer, we would venture to some parts of Seattle to try new restaurants. His mother and my mother have been best friends since the eighth grade; a friendship that was sealed over a chutney sandwich during lunchtime. So, it was only appropriate that we enjoy our friendship through food.
He had heard of this place that supposedly had a great burger, so we decided try it out. To be an American and not like burgers is like being a cow who doesn’t make milk. It’s your job, and you need to be on top of it. The burger (which only has a beef patty— everything else is a “sandwich”) has been highly theorized about and is a technically very intense dish. This is one of the great dishes of the world simply because of how importantly “composition” plays a role. My brother argues that all a burger really needs is bread, a patty, and cheese. I generally agree with this. The idea of a “gourmet” burger is questionable. The burger is not, and should not be, known as a gourmet dish. You don’t need truffle sauces, exotic aiolis, and fingerling potato fries to make a great burger. But, there is that rare place between gourmet and fast-food that can mark a really great burger. Such was my experience.
As someone who had accepted Red Mill Burgers as the best in Seattle, I went with my share of skepticism. As we entered Local 360, I fell in love. This diehard Pacific Northwest restaurant features only local food and drink sourced within 360 miles of the restaurant. So, we sat down, ordered, and had our usual chat about life, the future, and politics. As the burgers arrived, I scrutinized: the buns looked deflated, there were far too many vegetables — was that arugula?! Yes, this seemed like an hipster’s hopeless attempt at a “gourmet burger.” The fries looked overcooked and stale. I took a bite.
My world changed. This burger was the most deliberately crafted dish I had ever eaten. Instead of tomato slices, a tomato relish perfectly sweet and sour. Instead of mayonnaise, a garlic aioli that was sweet and nutty. The buns were perfect pillows that generously soaked up the burger juices. The greens were peppery, fresh, and crisp — ah, the arugula! The grilled onions were slightly sweet and very subdued, complementing the acidity of the tomatoes well. The bacon was like salty butter and crispy at all the right points with a hint of mapley spiciness that made the aioli sing lustfully. And finally, the patty was just divine; a thoughtful concoction of various beef cuts and sized decisively to bring the vegetables, buns, and bacon together in perfect proportion. An exact coating of crispiness on the outside with a juicy interior that was beautifully pink. Each gradient of the patty could be distinctly tasted and was warmly flavorful. The patty was blanketed with a slice of cheese that was gooey, funky, sharp, and creamy. The fries were also excellent, sized between steak and skinny, crispy on the outside, creamy on the inside, and full of potatoey goodness.
This was, undeniably, a perfect burger. The preparation was not advanced, but the ingredients were deliberate. This burger was treading that line between gourmet and fast-food, having the sophistication of the former and the pleasures of the latter. By God’s grace, a branch of this restaurant opened less than a mile from my house a year afterwards. Needless to say, all of my friends got hooked on the “local burger.” This dish taught me how fresh ingredients can take an orthodox dish to another level.
Due to COVID-19 and other factors, Local 360 closed its doors in March 2020 and the Local Burger has become a thing of history. Now a fond memory, this burger is a reminder that good things don’t always last and good food is a real achievement that will test and mark time.
In elementary school, my brother became friends with a boy from Mexico and my mom became friends with his mother. One of his birthday parties was held at Family Fun Center in Tukwila. As kids busied themselves with games, arcades, and go-karting, I stayed with the adults. They were seated in a conference room at a long table topped with Mexican delicacies. When I saw tortilla chips and salsa among the selection, I shyly but quickly moved to enjoy some. It was spectacular, completely different from the overly sweet salsas I had come to know through Picante, Taco Bell, and convenient Mexican restaurants. This preparation was a revelation; it was fresh, alive, sweet, sour, spicy, and comforting. I learned that it was my mother’s friend who had prepared it. Later, my mom would learn this recipe from her and I now make it myself (quite well, if I may say so).
A few years later, a Mexican restaurant had opened nearby us which had reminded my parents of the world-class Mexican food they enjoyed in Los Angeles. This restaurant had a dozen varieties of salsa, all of which were just delicious. This second experience taught me how diverse salsa can be prepared in complex proportions and combinations. How grilling tomatoes and onions changes the sweetness, how certain chilies, whether fresh or smoked, change the heat, and how cutting or blending the vegetables changes the body. Salsa taught me how acidity, spice, and sweetness can subtly come together in infinite ways and do wondrous things. Moreover, it taught that really great food doesn’t come in a bottle.
My mother’s friend passed away prematurely over a decade ago from an illness. I fondly remember her dignity, grace, and intelligence every time I think about and make her salsa recipe. We are gifted the memory of souls through food.
6. Balsamic Strawberry Ice cream
About twelve years ago, my father and I had visited my maternal uncle who lives in San Francisco. This particular uncle is a passionate foodie, which makes sense as to why he settled down in one of the great food cities in the world. After enjoying a Mughlai lunch, he and his two young children took us on a long walk to a long line which led to an ice cream parlor. He had mentioned how this was considered one of the great ice cream shops in the world. Needless to say, I was intrigued, unlike my father, who does not cope well with lines, especially food-related lines.
This was one of those places that listed specialty flavors ahead of traditional ones; spiced this, curried that, emulsified whatever. I was confused. My uncle recommended I have “balsamic strawberry ice cream.” I hated strawberry ice cream which, in my experience, had been a syrupy disaster. And, what was “balsamic”? But, I heeded his advice just to relieve my confusion. As the cup arrived, I found a frozen pinkish-grey globe with blackish veins before me. It was unconventionally pretty. I took a cautious scoop.
It was just amazing. The mild sweetness and sourness of fresh strawberries filled my senses. Against that was an intense bitterness and sweetness of balsamic honey, trace enough that it harmonized inspiringly with the cream. This was simultaneously creamy and tart, balanced yet volatile, and very refreshing. I never expected ice cream to be so adventurous and various. Since, I have been on the lookout to find this flavor in Seattle. Luckily, Molly Moon’s does a great balsamic strawberry (which I would have with a scoop of Stumptown Coffee ice cream), but is not quite the same as my San Francisco experience. This dish taught me how ice cream can be warming in how it uses clashing flavors and textures. This flavor of ice cream has become my favorite.
The average Seattleite has a stronger literacy of Japanese culture than the average American. This is largely because of Seattle’s old, prominent, and diverse Japanese community. You will find some of the finest Japanese and neo-Japanese cuisine in the world in Seattle because of the mutual appreciation Seattle and Japan enjoy. I found myself a victim of this affection and was deeply immersed in Japanese culture throughout my childhood. First, I had become obsessed with Japanese arts like bonsai, ikebana, chanoyu, and shodo during elementary school. Then, following in my brother’s steps and having discovered Dragon Ball Z and a variety of other anime and manga, I learned Japanese throughout middle school and high school. At home, Japanese delicacies were frequented, especially teriyaki. Seattle is known for having a special kind of teriyaki. My mom, who shares my worship of seafood, was keen about sushi, as am I. But, the first Japanese dish I remember eating regularly was ramen.
Now, by “ramen,” I mean the varieties of packaged Top Ramen one finds at supermarkets. My mom used to prepare these for us regularly, especially during elementary school. But, like everything she makes, created something astounding with it. She would chop up fresh vegetables, cut slices of meat, and add different sauces to elevate these packaged ramen dishes. Soon, my brother and I learned this preparation and added ingredients according to our liking (which meant meatier and spicier dishes).
This is what “ramen” meant to me until about a five years ago. My mom, brother, and I had somehow decided to visit a new ramen bar that had opened up nearby us, Hokkaido Ramen. I ordered the kara-miso ramen (spicy fermented soy bean broth). The presentation was beauteous, as most Japanese dishes are. But, that first slurp of ramen broth was like going from elementary school to college in one overwhelming moment. The concoction of flavors, textures, and consistencies were composed just brilliantly, and made the “ramen” I had come to love seem like water. The sweet, thick kara-miso balanced beautifully with the rich, creamy broth. The bean sprouts cut through this rich soup with freshness. Then, the juicy pork slices melted like butter, brimming with the soothing broth. Finally, the perfectly al dente noodles were deliciously nutty, unlike the noodles I now found to be bland and chewy. After inhaling this inspiring potion, I sighed out as if I had just finished exams. Ramen is the entirety of Japanese cuisine in symphonic form. To see how a dish can be elevated in such bold ways was breathtaking.
4. Mutton Biryani
There are few dishes that analogize “globalization” and “multiculturalism” better than biryani, which is largely believed to be a consequence of multicultural integration in the Indian subcontinent. The exact origins of biryani are a subject of debate (everyone wants credit for it). But, I believe biryani should be understood as a Persian dish that was imported to South Asia and adapted based on regional tastes (and prejudices). While each region, like Mumbai, Hyderabad, Lucknow, Calcutta, and Mysore, has their distinct preparations of biryani, you will find countless versions in just one city, depending on the neighborhood and communities which occupy that part.
Biryani was a dish that I did not used to like. My mom used to cook it often when we were young and I had found the flavor a bit strong. Fourteen years ago, my family had visited India. We would stay in my grandfather’s flat in Walkeshwar. He was also a major foodie, carnivore, and hunter. Eating with him had been a profound education. During this visit, my father was slated for a business trip to Hyderabad. My grandfather requested that he bring back some Hyderabadi biryani for us all to enjoy; an idea that my father loved. A few days later, he returned with this biryani that arrived in a most pungent plastic bag (which my brother and I jokingly referred to as “Hyderabadi stink”). My mom, took the bag and began serving us this curious dish. Reluctantly, I took a bite of what looked like overcooked dark rice with unidentifiable fragments of something scattered throughout.
It was astonishing. While a vague memory, I remember how various layers of heat filled my senses; the warmth of the rice, the spice of the masala, the sumptuousness of the melting mutton, the aroma of the steam. There were meat, potatoes, and vegetables throughout this meadow of delicious rice. That’s all I really remember; how a cool night in Mumbai was brightened by the charisma of warm, spicy, and fragrant mutton biryani. Luckily, I have come to appreciate how brilliantly my mom cooks biryani, and I have enjoyed many since. While not first on this list, biryani is certainly the greatest non-vegetarian dish I have ever enjoyed.
3. Pani Puri
There are some dishes that make me wonder how weird and innovative its creator must have been to have made it. Pani puri is one of these dishes. Inflated, deep-fried crackers filled with various tangy, sweet, and spicy vegetables and dolloped with a spiced liquid that will render you unconscious? Genius, pure genius! There is no sensation quite like enjoying a pani puri marathon, which simultaneously cools and heats you, on a sweltering Mumbai evening. There are many instances I can share about how this dish enlightened me about how extreme tastes, textures, and timing can quench a daring appetite. Pani puri is usually enjoyed standing near a chaat stall where a server asks for your preferences (spicy, sweet, or plain) and fills puris accordingly. The server will quickly keep making puris until you expressly indicate that you are done. My music teacher’s wife, herself a foodie, once made pani puri completely from scratch just for me. This was by far the tastiest pani puri I’ve ever had.
But, I’d like to recount my first pani puri memory. During a visit to Mumbai almost fourteen years ago, my family had spent an evening with my father’s childhood friends. A few had then decided to indulge in some pani puri. Like the mindless children we were, my brother and I tagged along. My father’s friend, who herself is a brilliant cook, had taken us to a nearby stall in Vile Parle. Without asking, I was served pani puri, one after the other.
Good food will always embrace you, but great food slaps you, both of which pani puri had accomplished that evening. Testing my spice limitations, the pani puri simultaneously cooled my throat and burned my tongue. The fresh and crunchy mung beans danced with the masala potatoes in my mouth, creating a waltz of textures. The sweetness of the tamarind chutney and heat of the coriander chutney both woke me up and put me to sleep. This was a delightfully overwhelming experience! After over-eating, I gave up, and we returned to my family-friend’s flat. Since this experience, I have wanted to visit that same stall to enjoy pani puri, but haven’t had the chance. Pani puri is undoubtedly the greatest vegetarian dish on the planet.
2. Xiao Long Bao
Outside of my family, my best friend is the greatest foodie and most well-traveled person I know. He often frequents Singapore, where he has some family members. After one such visit, he returned to Seattle, regaling me with stories about how he had these amazing dumplings at one restaurant. I would vicariously listen to his glorious accounts. Several years later, he had mentioned how the same restaurant had just opened a branch near Seattle. I rallied my family to visit this restaurant, Din Tai Fung, as soon as possible. Planning to go there for lunch, we reached the restaurant much later than planned and found a large line of people. As the runt of the family, I went to check the wait time and placed our names in the queue. Those forty-five minutes of waiting for a table were miserable. My father and brother tend to be more impatient, especially in matters food-related. I distinctly remember how these two assumed a bad attitude and my father intermittently announced to us, “I can’t believe this is happening to me.” This was depressing, but now I remember it with great hilarity. We had unfilled bellies and high tempers!
Finally, we were seated and the servers immediately took our order. My family ordered what they had wanted and I had ordered those “soup-filled dumplings” that my friend had recommended. Hungry and moody, our table was silent and introspective. Quickly, the food arrived, and we started digging in. All of the dishes were beautiful and tasted better than they looked, and they looked like works of art. Then, the dumplings arrived and I proceeded with my friend’s recommended instructions: Wait thirty seconds, take one dumpling with your chopsticks, dunk it in the chili sauce, place it in the soup spoon and eat whole. And so, I did.
This was a miraculous experience; the thin lining of the dumpling burst open, filling my mouth with a bright, almost buttery, broth and succulent, tender pork. How was it this tasty? This was heaven wrapped up in a cute parcel. Xiao long bao is a brilliant dish because of its delicate construction; the proportion of soup and filling, the thickness of the dough, the tightness of the wrap, the length of the steam. Everything has to come together in a balanced precision. After this first bite, I had to sit back for a moment just to collect myself.
I looked around the table and saw my family eating quietly, focused. I dared to speak up and had asked, “How is it?” My father peered up at me, looked back down, and muttered, shaking his head, “Unbelievable.”
There is one food I cannot live without: seafood. You can take chicken, mutton, potatoes, whatever away from me. But, I must have seafood. My ancestors consist of Gaud Saraswat Brahmins and Chandraseniya Kayastha Prabhus, which means two things: fish (among other meats) and chillies. My paternal grandmother used to say, “It is the duty of Saraswats to eat fish,” a custom that is not typical of Brahmins. Beyond these customs and philosophies, and just as a foodie, I love fish. I don’t know why, I always have. Pomfret will always be my favorite food in the world. I consider eating fish a puja and the stench of a Mumbai fish market as incense. This is serious stuff. I need fish and I will have fish. In the 1998 remake of Godzilla, there is a scene where the beast is lured to a pile of fish. My brother has remarked the similarity in how Godzilla ferociously at those fish and how I eat pomfret. I used to regard this remark as snide hyperbole, but in fact it was nothing but the truth.
There is one fish that is so good, and weird, that many shy away from it. This is known as “Bombay duck,” or by non-muggles as “bombil.” This is a reptilian-like fish that is almost watery, enticingly sweet, and has unusually frail bones. This fish is only eaten in Mumbai but can be found along the Konkan coast. Outside of Mumbai, the fisherpeople actually throw this fish back in the water if they catch it because they find it so strange. For me, it is proves divinity.
My grandfather was a big seafood connoisseur, and used to enjoy fish like bombil which most people shy away from. Through him, I was educated about the intricacies of Indian seafood and how to eat fish, like working your way through bones, and how to discern freshness and taste.
Eight years ago, I had stayed with my maternal grand-uncle on a visit to Mumbai. He himself is a great lover of seafood. One day, he decided to make bombil, which had been marinating for a little while in the fridge. He took them out, and took out a frying pan. To my astonishment, he placed this pan at an angle to the stove and used a towel to tie it down. The corner of the pan was directly above the flame. After adding a healthy dollop of red chili powder, turmeric, and semolina to the fish, he fired up the stove, added oil and began frying. Done cooking, he brought the food to the dining table and we sat to eat. He ate quietly while I was having a life-changing experience.
This was indescribably sweet, succulent, spicy, juicy, buttery, fishy, crunchy, slap-in-the-face, can’t-get-this-anywhere goodness. Bombil is a dish that should not work. In fact, most restaurants dehydrate bombil using towels to lessen its wateriness and, in doing so, lose that sweet taste signature of fresh fish. Some people debone it, most people overcook it. But, my grand-uncle’s version was an unadulterated, simple, purist conception that was undeniably god-gifted. Bombil is great because it shouldn’t work but does — it defies the conventions of deliciousness. Most people will struggle with it and manipulate it to make it work. But, when you let its weirdness be, Mother Mary will come to ye.
Aarshin Karande is an Indian-American scholar of technology, beliefs, and policy, who studied at the London School of Economics, Oxford University, and the University of Washington Bothell.