Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Sensory Deprivation

When my mother cooked fish, a stray cat would materialize out of nowhere on the kitchen window sill meowing plaintively. Soon thereafter some crows would gather in the courtyard outside interspersing meows with their raucous cawing. Until medical researchers wised up to the many ills of mustard oil, it was the favored cooking medium for frying fish. The other thing used in liberal portions was turmeric .

The smell was overpowering and definitely an acquired taste. After all was done, the maid would mop the kitchen with with soapy water and all the windows would be opened to let sunlight in. A combination of Dettol, sunlight, water and cross ventilation took care of all kitchen odors. We never had to deny ourselves the pleasure of a favorite food because of the odor it produced.

In the last seven years, I have never cooked fish in my mother’s style. It would take professional cleaners to get rid of the smell. My recipes are modified to work in an apartment kitchen. The end product is not nearly the soul food that my mother served. When I first came to America I wondered why it made sense to have wall to wall carpeting instead of flooring that could be mopped with soap and water as I had seen done back home. Or why no apartment had cross ventilation – so you could stay cool on a summer day without air conditioning. Or why natural light was not used more inside homes.

Maybe I was bringing a tropical sensibility into a colder climate. Not to mention my world view of thrift where conspicuous waste and consumption are the norm. As a transplant to a foreign country you make so many adjustments to fit in, denying your palate the tastes you loved and grew up with seems a small sacrifice in the grand scheme of things. Yet the primacy of food is undeniable – it soothes the body and soul. It has much to do with feelings of well being and happiness. Why else would we congregate at our ethnic grocery stores and pay ungodly prices for a taste of home.

It is ironic that I strive as hard as I do to keep the air around me sterile and odorless while longing so much for the full blooded smells of home. This is sensory deprivation created by artificial barriers between nature and my living space – something that did not exist back home so many years ago. The summer heat, yowling cat and the dust from the courtyard made their presence equally known indoors.

1 comment:

ggop said...

Ugh the one thing which makes me sick after frying or heavy duty spices is the lingering food smell even on the next day.

That's why I resort to candles while cooking.

It seems like even with hardwood floors, these walls absorb the odors :-)