Pappadum in Naples
I arrived searching for pizza, as you’re supposed to do in Naples. But by day five traveling through Campania, I’d had my fill of pasta, flatbreads, and variations of dough stretched, fried, baked and boiled, slathered with tomato and cheese. My tongue craved something spicy. I missed the curries and masalas of my youth. I had a reverse Proustian experience; with every charred piece of crust and tomato sauce baring its seeds, I craved the opposite: dosas with a rainbow assortment of chutney, butter chicken that made your eyes water, cardamom, coriander, cinnamon, and stews with as many spices as there were letters of the alphabet. And in that precise moment as my mouth salivated for those flavors I had but once a year (if I was lucky), the curvy typeface of a Dravidian script screamed at me, leaping from the peeling posters taped to the lampposts, garbage cans and walls of Napoli.
I’d spent my childhood in Madras, and left when I was eight years old. Over the years I’d forgotten the sounds of the city’s native Tamil and my rigorous instruction in Hindi. I Americanized myself, shed all vestiges of my Indian accent. The curly roundedness of Indian languages in my mind ceded territory to the pointed edges of a Latin script. My mother’s cooking (spice mixtures crushed in her palm, dough pounded by her fists) was my last visceral connection to the memories of my youth. And for reasons unexplained but all too clear to me, I never learned to cook her food.
So imagine my surprise, as I walked the streets of Napoli, staring at a script that looked like Tamil. Was it Tamil? I couldn’t even remember. I took a picture of a poster advertising something about Jesus. There was another for Euro Disney. I Googled “Dravidian languages” and pulled up a chart to compare the scripts. I held the screen close to the poster and tried to match the writing. It turned out to be Sinhalese.
I walked around the neighborhood some more: there was garbage, graffiti, and every so often a beautiful Baroque church, and a Madonna and a dying Jesus would silence my thoughts for a moment. Wandering, I spotted a grocery store with a sign reading N.D.K. Asien Food.
A steady stream of South Asian families went in and out. I saw massive bags of rice. The shelves were lined with cheese, boxes of pasta, bottles of olive oil, and packets of curry, instant dosa mixes, Chindian noodles and coconut oil. I live in Istanbul, where these goods were rarer than gold. I wanted to take everything back. Buy the lentils, the roasted Madras curry powder, the blocks of paneer, I said to myself. I paced about the shop, marveling at the packaging like a crazy person, and the families just browsed, as if it was so ordinary to find the foodstuffs of home in Napoli.
I settled on a packet of pappadum. As much as I wanted to get the biryani mix and the dosa batter, I realized that it would go to waste. I never learned how to feed myself with the things I craved. But pappadum was easy. I would fry it for three minutes, crunch the spiced lentil wafer, and be done with it.
Photo by: Biswarup Ganguly