Food has the power to evoke memory, to bring people together, to transport you to other places — José Andrés Puerta
In the December of 2006 as I entered the campus of BITS Pilani from another academic campus, only this time not as a student but as a faculty, little did I apprehend that it would be a unique gastronomic experience.
Growing up, we never were coerced or rather allowed to cook as, according to the veterans of the kitchen, we would only slow down the process or hurt ourselves with our inexperienced hands. But we loved our homemade foods and their aroma and never really ate out except for festivals.
And then I left home for higher studies and my sustenance was met by hostel canteens, campus food stalls, and restaurants. All in all, I never needed to cook.
And then I joined BITS Pilani as a faculty and the ‘priviledge’ of ‘not having to cook’ but having food from student hostel messes got lost… So my cooking journey was born out of necessity rather than an interest…
I would call up my mother for recipes of the dishes I wanted to cook, or search the Internet and cook up a meal for myself. Eventually, it became easier and a stress buster for me. But with the job, the daily cooking and food preparations at times became a struggle. Struggle or otherwise, many a time I opted for alternative sources for my sustenance - the Redis, the canteen, sky lawn, C’Not market, SAC.
The ‘Idlis’, or the 'Aloo bondas' (potato fritters) or the 'Medu Vadas' (donut-shaped lentil fritters) at BITS Canteen, or the 'Kachoris', the 'papri chaat', or a fruit chaat at Nagarji Redi, or the burger at sky lawn along with a cup of tea and a friend as a company would often satiate my hunger after an early morning class, or before a late morning class.
The BITS Canteen would always bustle with the incoming and outgoing crowds of students, faculties, staff, visiting parents, etc. The chatter of students and sounds of utensils would fill the air of the Canteen premises with a canteen staff occasionally calling out the name of the prepared food or drink placed on the counter, for the person who ordered the same to come and collect it.
The canteen had seating provisions both indoor and outdoor. A small door opened up on the left side of the counter which would lead to the outdoor sitting area. Most of the time I preferred to sit outdoors unless it was completely occupied or too hot during the summer months.
I’d almost always have the company of a friend and we’d prattle away while gobbling up the food followed by tea.
At times, after a tiring lecture series in the morning, I’d often find myself famished and running to the nearby Redi to have a ‘Kela Rabdi’ (Banana Rabdi) or a fruit chaat or a ‘Mirchi Bhaji’ (Chilli fritters), or a Kachori. I don’t have a sweet tooth (but I love to have sweets occasionally) nor do I like milk but the taste of ‘Kela Rabdi’ was one thing that I couldn’t resist at times. While at other times I’d crave for ‘Dahi Vada’, or an Aloo Bonda with tea from the canteen.
Initially, the Redis used to be a food cart with a small oven, jars, small glass boxes, ice boxes (from which the chilled Rabris would come out), and other condiments. A tea pan would constantly sit on the oven making batches of tea for the students and faculty alike.
Now the Redis have been converted into immovable covered stalls which look more like a phone booth than an eatery. However, the quality of food and its taste remains unaltered.
Wooden benches are laid and plastic stools strewn around for students or faculty to sit.
One can always find a solitary student having his brunch or late breakfast on having missed his breakfast at the mess willingly or unwillingly, or a group of students discussing class lectures, or question papers, or grades, or projects, or personal, or calming down their nerves after a job interview, or other non-academic issues or ‘just chilling’ while having tea, or coffee, or juice, or fruit chaat, or samosa chaat, or any other personal favourite item. Also, faculty colleagues, sometimes in groups, sometimes on their own would come for a cuppa and/or to satisfy a craving for a certain dish.
There are lots of trees around the Redis to sit under their cool shade during the hot summer months while also enjoying the sun on one’s back during the cold winters…
While other snacks or breakfast had to be gulped down with a slight urgency as they had to be taken during the working hours, lunch was (most of the time) a relaxed affair. So when I wasn’t having lunch at my quarter (rather my home for a decade), I would love to sit under a tree in the beautiful lawns of the sky lawns while I waited for the egg Maggi, or the egg burger to be ready. Sky lawns food stall was the only one to serve non-veg (egg items) items in the vicinity of the institute. The uniqueness in their egg Maggi was that they never used scrambled eggs but boiled eggs cut into small pieces.
As I waited for the food to arrive, watching the greenery and the surroundings was always a pleasure - a squirrel munching on a nut or nibbling on the leftover food from a plate left on the lawn by a student, staff, or a visitor; a pair of Brahminy Starlings moving stealthily on the grass; parrots chattering on the branches above; Lapwings tiptoeing around; a cat crawling away; a group of students hastily completing their lab assignments before their lab classes post-lunch; a young lad (working in the food stall) collecting the empty plates, glasses left over by previous eaters; the musical psithurism of the trees swaying in the wind; a faculty or a group of departmental colleagues having their post-lunch tea. Many a time, I’d have the company of a friend and we’d chit-chat on topics ranging from personal to professional, from philosophical to the dreary life, or just sit in the quiet company of each other watching nature weaving its stories around us.
On some days when I could not spare much time for lunch, I’d often land up in the nearby Redi and have 'Aloo Tikki chaat', or have a 'Masala Dosa' from the canteen.
As the lull of the day sets in in the late afternoon, there's nothing better than a cup of tea to perk one up..
And so, be it after the lab classes or in between my other work, I’d often find myself at the mercy of the nearby Redi to serve me a fresh cup of tea or a glass of lemonade (on an especially hot summer day) to drive away my drowsiness or tiredness of the day.
During our initial years on the campus, on the way back to our quarters/homes at the end of the working day, a friend cum colleague of mine and me, we would both cycle through C’Not, buy any groceries or other stuff needed, enter the Annapurna restaurant and order tea and paneer Maggi (yes that was a constant evening snack for both of us for quite some time). While we gorged on the food served with another extra cup of ‘chai’, we would happily chatter away about the happenings on the campus, and/or about the feedbacks from students, or how dissatisfied we were with the way we conducted the day's lecture and encourage each other to do better, and so on…
At times, after returning from the institute, especially during the winter months, I would often go for a stroll within the campus enjoying the company of a friend and we would often buy roasted corns from corn sellers on a roadside. Our favourite spot was the gate in front of the stadium where a corn seller would often sell boiled corns mixed with masalas and lemon juice.
On summer evenings, a mango shake, a banana shake, or a milkshake with ice cream at the Sharma’s in C’Not market would refresh and cool us.
On winter evenings, the freshly made hot 'Gulaab Jamuns' at Sharma’s in C’Not market were also a veritable delight.
On some movie nights (at the auditorium), evening snacks (Maggi noodle-filled samosas, or golgappa), or dinner (the menu would be mostly Hakka noodles/fried rice and Veg Manchurian) with a senior colleague and a dear friend would be scheduled at Food King, SAC.
In most of these gastronomic adventures, I’d have the company of a colleague or colleagues who eventually became close friends and have remained so even today. So many stories and unadulterated laughters would be shared, problems discussed, or even the quiet company would make us content.
I think I have written a major part of my Pilani life through food but this does not cover even half of it. I have not talked about the foods at get-togethers, the invitations at all the friends/colleagues' places, the parties, or professional gatherings. Let's keep them for later...
Please share your gastronomical journeys, Pilani or otherwise..... We'd love to know...