Hema Nataraju

Creative Nonfiction


Tempering


Only a month after I move to London, my colleague, who is also Indian, is assaulted by three random men on her way home from work. She is slapped, kicked, and called racist slurs. The next day when I visit her, I see that she’s bandaged the bruises by herself. I don’t want to get the police involved, she says, before telling me that she’s going back to India for good.

After that incident, I start rushing home from work with my keys studded between my fingers like wolverine claws, even though home is just a five-minute walk from my office on Fleet Street.

On our usual Sunday call, my mother asks if I’m okay, if I’m warm enough, if I love London, if my colleagues are nice. I say I’m fine, I’ve bought a wool coat and gloves, yes, my colleagues are really nice; they’ve helped me get an Oyster card and explained the Tube map, and yes, London is great—so different from India, but great!

I don’t tell her that my colleagues have worked together for a long time. Some of them eye me like I don’t belong here, but some include me—invite me for drinks at the pub after work. Even so, they have their inside jokes, movie references which I don’t always get. I feel alien.

I don’t tell her that I haven’t been sleeping well. It’s so quiet after India, it scares me. And I don’t tell her about that colleague, that it could have been me, or that I could be next. I’ve stopped meandering in Boots and Waterstones after work. I don’t sit on the steps outside St. Paul’s eating my Pret sandwich while wondering what time it is in India. I go straight home— to my empty apartment above that greasy chippy that I’ve come to associate with London.

Dinner is usually something that requires minimal effort—instant Maggi noodles or a couple of frozen pizza slices thrown in the microwave.

The office is busy and most days I have to work late. On one such evening, while I’m hurrying home, I see a group of seemingly drunk men heading in my direction. That familiar pit in my stomach is back.

I look around. A few steps ahead, Tesco shines like a beacon, a savior.

I rush inside, and instantly, the heat thaws my face. I amble towards the Asian section without a plan. Next to all the Patak’s spice paste jars is a little unassuming plastic tub of tamarind concentrate.

I’m seized by an overwhelming craving for rasam—for sour and spice. In a fever, I scour the aisle for dal and rasam powder. My mother’s homemade rasam powder is the best, but I have to make do with whatever I can find, and I only find garam masala.

Then I look for rice—the sona masoori variety. It’s all about texture—the rice shouldn’t be too dry when cooked, the grains shouldn’t be too separate like basmati or too creamy like arborio.
I pick up tomatoes, mustard seeds, ghee, and coriander leaves, and when I’ve made sure the men aren’t anywhere around, I lug my precious groceries home.

I place the rice and dal one after the other in my little pressure cooker, which my mother had insisted I bring with me to London.

“Rasam should be made with your senses,” my mother always said. “Don’t look at the clock—you have to smell it to know if it’s done.”

I hum as I chop tomatoes and transfer them into a pot with some water. In goes garam masala instead of rasam powder. I let it boil until the raw spicy smell disappears, and then I add the tamarind and a bit of sugar (instead of jaggery) to cut through the sourness.

Then the cooked, mashed dal to give the rasam its body and chopped coriander for that fresh, herby flavor. For the final tempering, I use a frying pan instead of the long iron spoon my mother uses. I couldn’t find asafoetida, so only mustard seeds splutter in hot ghee.

With a loud, satisfying hiss, the tempering goes into the rasam.

For the first time since I’ve been here, I sit at the dining table by the window, serve myself a mound of pillowy rice, top it with a spoonful of ghee, pour a couple of ladlefuls of thin, soupy rasam and mix it with my fingers.

And just for a moment, curls of heat from my rasam cut through the darkness outside and meld with the steam from the chippy downstairs.


Contributor Note

I’ve always loved food, as far back as I can remember. Growing up, my sister and I spent a lot of time in a second-hand bookstore, which was really a dusty, musty, dimly lit room under a coconut vendor’s shop stall. You could get four slightly damaged books for one rupee! We read a ton of Enid Blyton, and I remember stopping and savoring all the scenes in which the kids ate scones, clotted cream, and fresh jam!

Years later, when I moved to London, the first thing I went looking for was clotted cream and scones—my first foodie pilgrimage!

Since then, I have called a few different cities and countries home and speak a mishmash of languages and accents. My food repertoire has definitely grown beyond Indian food. I want to say it’s my longing for home that makes me write about food, and that wouldn’t be completely inaccurate.

But the real truth is I think about food a lot. Thanks to the kids’ lunchboxes I pack, breakfasts, dinners, weekly meal plans, groceries I order, and snacks I hand out, I feel like elements of food seep into my writing in an organic, unplanned sort of way.

When I go into the kitchen to cook, I know I’ve got it. If I follow a recipe, I’ll have a tangible and probably delicious end product. Unlike writing! No matter how much I plan, my story always ends up in an unexpected place. I don’t always know where my characters will take me. As a hardcore Taurus, I find ambiguity and change very disconcerting (and yet I’m a writer!)

So, to counter this unpredictability, I sprinkle food elements into my stories. It’s like seeing one familiar face at a party where you don’t know anybody.

Such a relief, such a delight!


Hema Nataraju is a Singapore-based writer, foodie, and mom of two humans. Rasam with rice is still her #1 comfort food. Her work has most recently appeared in Wigleaf, Janus Literary, Nurture Literary, Atlas + Alice, and Best MicroFiction 2021. She tweets as m_ixedbag.


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Issue One