The year was 2012. I had been away from home since August of 2009 and I missed my mother’s cooking dearly.
It was during this time that I had found an Ethiopian restaurant in Berlin that was serving up a spicy feast that I could not wait to dig into! One of the reasons I wanted to explore Ethiopian food was because of the closeness of their bread, ‘injera’ – a circular pancake which resembled ‘dosai’, a popular South Indian pancake that you eat with sambhar and chutney and one of my favourite dishes ever since I was a kid. I have also always been a curious eater and Ethiopian food, I believe, is perhaps one of the greatest culinary traditions that continues to thrive today – for not just how it is cooked but also for the traditions of sharing that the meal evokes. The excitement, no doubt, was palpable as I entered the restaurant.
We got to ordering the food quickly and as per Ethiopian tradition, a giant platter arrived with all the stews and dishes laid out over a bed of injeras. I was thrilled to find that a lot of the dishes were very similar to how we cook and eat in South India. The motherly chef, came over to our table since we couldn’t stop oohing and aahing over her food to thank us and introduce us to something that was very special to her, Awaze – a paste version of the famous Ethiopian spice mix – berbere mixed with oil and a bit of Ethiopian wine.
I knew not what this moment would mean to me, over the years. I took some of the awaze and smeared it on my injera.
The next minute, I had become a snivelling child, sobbing uncontrollably at the table. The chef came running back to check what had happened. I got up and gave her the biggest hug I could and in between my tears and my need to smack my lips over and over again, on having tasted what came from a continent and place so far away from mine and yet held in it a special part of my childhood. The awaze tasted exactly like a spicy pickle we used to eat at home called ‘vadumanga’ or ‘Maavadu’ – little baby mangoes soaked in a chili and fenugreek pickle. The pickle is so spicy that my mom used to allow only a few drops of the pickle water on to my plate of curd rice with the soaked, soft baby mango cut into half with only one half finding its place on plate. This usually led to negotiating episodes with my mother, where I would use all the ‘cunning plans’ available to a 10 year old to get just a little more than what was rationed out.
That moment at the restaurant when I ate the awaze smeared injera, all of my childhood and my love for food came rushing back in a way that was too overwhelming for two reasons.
One, because it made me believe that home could be found anywhere that triggers our earliest food memories. Two, because it made me realise that we are all so connected, that really, we are ‘one tribe’. A world split by manmade fault lines, where differences find voice more than similarities, this shared experience of food completely took down the boundaries of a nation state. I was in Berlin, eating Ethiopian food that took me to a part of South India that is hardly even known to the rest of India.
I have held this moment dearly over the years and today I feel like it’s found the perfect expression.
I wanted to get started with a post that captures the quintessence of food and culture through travel that I have had the amazing grace to experience over the last decade. I was discussing this over chai with a dear friend of mine, Ranjit who said that this reminded him of something called ‘Songline’.
It is a complex belief system and I’ll try my hardest to explain it here.
Within the belief system of Australian Aboriginals, a songline is part of the Dreaming. The Dreaming or Dreamtime tells “the story of the creation of both the earth’s topography and the continuous state of primeval time, as well as the code for human conduct within the cosmos. In short, all life is bound in the dreaming world.” (Read More)
A songline, also called a dreaming track, were created by their ancestors as paths across the land (or sometimes the sky) marking routes and recorded in traditional songs as well as stories, dance, and painting. By singing the songlines (essentially, maps written in songs) in a specific sequence, people were capable of navigating the land, often travelling across vast distances across all types of terrain and weather, without getting lost. The Dreaming is used to represent Aboriginal concepts of “time out of time” or “everywhen”.
Looking back at that moment in the Ethiopian restaurant, I can best articulate it as a feeling of being in ‘everywhen’.
It made me think of the arduous travels undertaken by our ancestors, the discovery of spices, fruits, vegetables and the new tastes and smells they brought with them. Every meal is a beautiful reminder of the history of humankind.
It made perfect sense, then, that I build what I call, Foodlines – a footprint of stories of places, people and food from around the world so that you can navigate the world, everywhen just as I do.