Global Food Distribution, Mark Cawood

Biryani and Other Love Stories

I have made a lot of mistakes falling in love, and regretted most of them, but never the potatoes that went with them. ― Nora Ephron

When you grow up in the sweltering heat of India, sitting in a brick-clad classroom stewing in your own sweat, listening to your professors drone on about Structural Design, there is very little motivation for you to even like summer, let alone love it.

After your nineteenth birthday, you decide that it is time to fall in love. And the right candidate comes along very soon. A senior at the University and although his arms are a little thinner and danglier than you would have liked, he seems perfect. Tall, dark, almost handsome with a carved beard that makes him look like one of the Bee Gees. He also likes to dress in black from head to toe.

But the clincher? He owns a motorcycle — a ratty Yamaha RX-100 that champions at sputtering. That machine splits through the silent night air, every night and wakes up everyone at the girls’ hostel. He has the faultless makings of a “bad boy”.

It starts with phone calls that last through the night while your classmates cram for annuals. It quickly escalates to midnight motorcycle rides to the river bank. You spend almost the entire summer of 2005 riding pillion, trying to catch the wind with your outstretched arms while the RX-100 rattles through the rough-and-tumble roads of rural Gujarat. The jasmine trees do their bit to restore the dawn. During those rides, every few minutes you lean in to smell the back of his brown neck. He smells like sweat, dirt and talcum powder. And petrol.

On weekends you have lunch at a local biryani place. You find it weird that he always craves biryani during the sun-breathing-down-your-back afternoons, given that a biryani is essentially a one-pot dish with layers of fragrant rice, spicy meat and dried-fruits to be eaten steaming hot. Not something you imagine hogging on, while the seat of your pants moisten up in the heat.

You have never been fond of it. Sub-standard Indian eateries tend to be heavy-handed with the saffron and rose-water in their biryani renditions and that always turns you off. But you watch him in wonder every Saturday, when he orders for a full balti of it, upturn the pot over his plate, drizzle a generous amount of raita on the masala mix and tuck in. He gulps down the first bite, scrunches up his eyes and nose and exhales in pleasure while shaking his head.

At that moment he is not a bad boy. He is just a boy. Who might have just been kissed on the nose by his mum. You tuck into your meal too. With caution, at first. With enthusiasm, four weekends later.

Biryani in summer can do things to your heart. The spice has a way to slide down your esophagus leaving a tingling sensation and somehow make you crave for more. The meat succulent, flavorful and hot makes you go in for multiple helpings.

Kolkata Biryani with a smattering of saffron on top

And when you have a gorgeous boy sitting opposite to you with the promise of rose-water flavored kisses and breezy bike rides, summer somehow replaces spring as the season of love. The heat already makes you burn from the inside and you mistake it for desire. The sun is suddenly aware that you’re making eyes at each other and decides to beam brighter on just the two of you. The beads of sweat that trickle down your escort’s forehead, suddenly makes you blush for no reason at all.

. . .

You spend two full months together. Your fingers now permanently smell of spices and gear oil. Your roommates comment on your ever-growing gut and your saffron-heavy breath. Love, you decide, is not a journey only for you. You drag along everyone and anyone who has made the mistake of commenting on your blurry, focus-less gaze and the yellow stains down the front of your hoodie.

Lovers on a bench, Dominique Amendola

At the end of the two months, you pack a trolley-bag and take a train home for the holidays. You glance at your co-passengers on the journey and wonder if they know how magical biryani can be. You think of the dirty clothes in your trolley-bag — your mother will get them cleaned and pressed. You wonder if, this time that you’re home, you’ll like the local version of biryani your hometown serves up. You think of the boy in black too. Once.

You settle in for a long monsoon break. The raincoats come out and the cook makes your favorite chili chicken.

“Can we get some mutton biryani home-delivered tonight?” You ask your mother. She says yes.

The next four weeks are spent meeting old friends, new friends and traipsing up to every eatery in town that’s known for their biryani. You notice how some are greasier than others. The better ones are fragrant and delicate. The badly made ones assault your senses. You like how, in Kolkata, biryani is more about the rice and aloo (potatoes) than the chunks of meat. You now know all the kinds of biryani there are in India. The Hyderabadi one comes with smaller chunks of meat. The Lucknowi one comes with gorgeously sweet fried onions on top. The Sindhi version has peas in it. The Malabar version has kokam in it.

You think back to the first plate you shared with the love of your life. It was all dry yellow rice, with spicy chicken and a wet-cooked masala paste at the bottom of the haandi. You hadn’t enjoyed that. And yet how you had nodded approvingly when he questioned you after his first bite. You think of how much your taste has changed in a matter of months and throughout the mad food expedition that you have been on. You think of how this is the first time you’re thinking of the boy since you’ve been on holiday.

. . .

When you return to the University at the end of monsoon, you find yourself wanting to run to him and tell him all about the biryanis you’ve stuffed yourself with over the holidays. You change your mind. You tell your friends instead, and they’re just as excited as you’d expected he’d be.

A day later, you hear the RX-100 wailing through the afternoon. You see him. And another girl. Riding pillion. You watch in silence as she raises her arms to catch the wind. You wonder if she has yellow saffron stains down her T-shirt.

You allow yourself to think and cry for a week. Friends offer soothing words and hugs. They bring you assorted chocolates and perspective. In the end, you decide that you’re not in love with him. Maybe it was the motorcycle. Or that heady mix of talcum powder and petrol. Or the jasmine trees. You decide to stop thinking. You haul yourself out of bed and to go find food. It’s going to be a biryani.

The steaming plate is piled high with lamb that threatens to wreck havoc on your taste buds. Your mouth waters and it will not be distracted by your big show of squeezing fresh juice from a lime all over the rice. You dip your fingers and pop a palm-ful of it in your mouth.

“Maybe it was biryani,” you think to yourself.

Your friend spots the expression on your face and says, “Maybe you’re in love with biryani…”

Maybe it was always biryani.

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