When she was little, my daughter wrote an essay in Hindi about her grandmother and what she meant to her. Addressing the big themes of human existence – love, divinity, greed—she wrote, “Meri dadi apple pie aur cheesecake ki devi hai.” Through a combination of dessert-love and a child’s unflinching gaze, she managed to pinpoint one of the most critical factors underpinning the entire grandparent-grandchild relationship. Food.
Not just any food, but grandparent food, which is a completely different genus altogether from regular food. So yummy things, things only nani can make in “that” particular way, things only dadu knows where to go to buy, forbidden things, pleasurable things, sweet sticky things, hot spicy things, forgotten things, things that can scour off teeth enamel permanently, things parents would have a conniption if they knew were being gobbled up things—that’s what’s generally on the menu in a grandparents’ house.
Grandchildren everywhere know instinctively that with grandparents, deliciousness doesn’t always arrive in fancy shmancy packaging. For every perfectly turned out pineapple upside-down cake that a nani makes there will be a kadhai black on the outside and slick on the inside, groaning with the most delicious kheer in the universe and a cloudy glass jar with a rusty lid that has the most teeth-puckeringly delicious churan golis and ram laddoos. The dozens of martabans in every grandparental pantry may have as many fine veins on their glazed surface as granny does on her hands, but will still dispense the most heart stoppingly yummy achaars in the world. My own grandmother had an entire shelf in her kitchen lined up with tiny bottles of Quink, the ink my grandfather loved to use. Meticulously cleaned and recycled, each bottle contained a different type of salt she had concocted: salt with roasted red chillies and cumin, basil salt, dried amla and green chilli salt, herby dhania salt, mint salt, roasted sesame salt. The Quink Batallion alone was enough to turn any stolen fruit into a full-on feast.
The truth is that as with anything else in life, so in food preparation and appreciation: practice makes perfect. From the grandmother who can make melt-in-the-mouth kababs in her sleep, to the dadu who knows exactly which budhiya ka baal vendor with the glass box mounted on his cycle has the stickiest feather-iest candy floss, to the one who unveils from a ratty paper bag, guavas of the exact ripeness to be cut with a penknife and then doused with a fiery masala, grandparents have had their whole lives to discover, polish and curate the choicest culinary treasures to delight their grandchildren with.
This comes at a cost (there is literally no such thing as a free lunch): Kids who have their grandparents babysitting them are 70% more likely to be overweight than the unlucky sods who don’t. This is true in diverse cultures across the world, which just goes to prove that “Grandparents Give Goodies” translates as fluently in Chinese as it does in Finnish. Some of the fattening up is to do with the deprivation mentality of people above a certain age in most countries: Those who lived through times of food shortages are more likely to see fats, sweets and meat as desirable sources of nutrition. However, good old-fashioned grandparental love (that typically finds its purest expression in ghee-laden besan laddoos, or leathery aam papad and tapioca chips from THAT one shop) may also have a microscopic role to play in this.
The fact is that grandparents are cannier than most when it comes to food allocation quotas. The squishy vegetables and multigrain rotis that the doctor typically prescribes for them are never offered to the squeamish grandchildren. Instead, the grandkids are often used as an excuse to offer and partake of things that may be otherwise off limits to both parties: jalebis, chaat, ice-cream, buckets of mangoes, baskets of litchis. The list of yummies for both generations to delight in is endless.
Actually, grandparents all over the world have their own list of yummies to share with their beloved grandkids. Armed with exactly this confidence, Gabriele Galimberti went on a couchsurfing holiday around the world and became a temporary hungry grandson for grannies everywhere he went. The photographs and profiles of the grandmothers he visited and recipes of the food they cooked for him on his travels led to a fascinating cookbook (In her Kitchen) that showcases granny delights the world over: moose steak in Alaska, caterpillars in Malawi, ferociously hot, ten-spice-chicken curry in India, shark soup in the Philippines, Argentinian hand-stuffed empanadas, twice-fried pork and vegetables from a Chinese grandmother and, best of all, a decadent roasted iguana from a Honduran granny.
This. In an ever-changing world, with throwaway attention spans and flavour of the month appetite appeals, this, then, is joy. That no matter who you are and whether you are 12 or 32, your grandparents will always remember your favourite food from when you were 5 years old (be it thick cut bacon or indeed roasted iguana) and their pantry will never ever run out of it. And also this. That no matter how sophisticated your palate and how discerning your tastes have since become, there will never be a more perfect version of happiness than to sit at their table and tuck right in.
Vatsala Mamgain is a glutton, cook, runner, tree lover, shopper, reader, and talker. Desperately seeking a trust fund. Applications welcome.