Food, perhaps more than anything, gives us a sense of who we are. In this series, regular blogger Victoria Brown interviews traders about the foods that are important to them, and how their experiences of food have shaped their identity. This month: Urvesh Parvais of Gujarati Rasoi
Words: Victoria Brown
Eating is a sensory experience that has the power to evoke memories and emotions. In my first post for this series I suggested that smell and taste can transport you back to another time and place. In his book, Remembrance of Repasts, David Sutton explains some of the science behind this.
First and foremost, taste and smell are interrelated senses that sit in the part of the brain that controls our emotions. Interestingly, both can evoke vivid and distant memories when a stimulus is present, but they are difficult to recall on their own.
If I ask you to imagine the colour orange, you will have no trouble visualising it, but if I ask you to recall the flavour of a peach, you can’t experience the taste without actually eating one. Instead you might call on your other senses to visualise the last time you ate one. In doing so, you might also picture where you were, who you were with and what time of year it was.
I start by asking Urvesh Parvais about the foods that he grew up with; the foods that are important to him. This is the concept behind his family business, Gujarati Rasoi, so it’s a topic that he’s given a lot of thought.
Eyes light up
“The idea is that everything we serve is representative of what we eat at home, at our own dinner table,” he explains. At Borough Market, he and his mother offer a thali with rice, mugg (mung bean dal), potato and fenugreek and a cauliflower curry served with condiments, such as raita, onion and coriander. When I get Urvesh talking about food, his eyes light up and he talks thoughtfully and at length. Food is his passion.
Urvesh was born in Leicester, but he tells me that his ancestral home is a rural area in Gujarat, India. Although Urvesh has only spent four or five months of his life there, it has had a big impact on him culturally.
Urvesh’s grandparents migrated first to Kenya, where his mother was born, then to the UK. Food was an integral part of their culture and religion, and cooking was a way for them to maintain their Gujarati identity in diaspora.
Continuing to pass the family recipes down the generations “intact” was important to them and it is a tradition that Urvesh is keen to keep alive. “The recipes are precious and the taste is something very important because it’s reminiscent of a place which we call home.”
Memories of scents and tastes
Sutton highlights that smells and tastes are associated with our episodic memory, that is, our memory of autobiographical events and attendant emotions. When we are encoding memories of scents and tastes, we make associations with particular events, times and places. For this reason, smells and tastes can cue, involuntarily, a whole host of related, and often emotionally charged, memories.
As I speak with him, Urvesh demonstrates these connections in a number of ways. For his mother, this was learning to make Gujurati dishes with his grandmother in Kenya; for him “it’s the feeling of saris in the kitchen and watching all the aunties and mummies cooking, and taking in all the scents.” Home for him is a feeling rather than a place and is connected with visual images and smells.
On several occasions Urvesh uses a vivid example, which highlights the visceral and sensory nature of his food memories. When he pictures his grandmother cooking, he says: “I can still see her hands in my mind. She’d be making some rotla out of millet flower, perhaps”, clapping his hands together to demonstrate. “As a child I knew when my mother was making chapatis because I could hear her rings knocking against the wooden rolling pin as she rolled them.”
He highlights the anticipation he felt as a small child knowing that “what they’re doing now is the thing that’s going to be in my tummy very shortly” and the feeling of comfort and warmth that he still feels when he eats chapatis with a mugg, rice and a simple potato curry.
Element of love
For Urvesh, food “is a very sensual thing. It’s the smells, the anticipation, the gratification of this fabulous food arriving. It’s connected to warmth, home; to some element of love.”
Food does so much more than satisfy a carnal appetite. By association with our memories and emotions, it can also satisfy, at least partially, our appetites for distant times or places. This is why food becomes so important for migrants in reconstructing their identities and recreating their homes abroad. “Eating the foods from home is like time travel for me. It evokes that feeling every time I cook.”