[This article was published in the Times of India under a different title: A Miss as Good As A Mile.]
Every week or two, depending on my busyness, I visit "Kashmir".
Not the heaven on the earth crowning India's map, which triggers daily skirmishes across the LoC, with steady casualties on both sides of the border. But the "Kashmir Supermarket", which is a provision store closer home.
As its name claims, the warehouse-cum-retail outlet is a mini bazaar - minus the hawking noises, squalid patches and powerful scents one associates with an Asian marketplace. It is colourfully over-stuffed: a butchery section in the farthest end and a fresh vegetables' stall lining the entire opposite wall, the space between is divided into aisles heaving with every food item conceivably Asian. In popular food chains, I wouldn't find chilli, or fenugreek greens, or plump radish with stalk intact, pebble size sour mangoes.
As I pick my choice of brinjal from the three varieties available, decide between the pumpkin or butter squash for the week, delightedly swoop over the packet of semi-dried curry leaves, skip the carton of galangal for ginger, bypass the prickly durian for lush papaya, my heart swells.
I am a glutton - foodie is too genteel a term - and thoughts of missing familiar dishes had counterbalanced more sombre decisions about leaving. Years earlier, when planning a study programme to the US, I was saddened by the imminent farewell to posto. An anecdote retold had warned me of a loving mother's attempt to carry poppy seeds for her son trashed in the airport bin.
Homesickness was lurching deep in my stomach, till my fiance assured me, the considerable South East Asian population in Britain wasn't exactly starving for lack of paw bhaji masala, sambar daal or paanch phoron in their machher jhol. "UK has the highest food mile in Europe", he proudly proclaimed, having read so somewhere.
The first time I set foot in Kashmir, there sat a box of my favourite lau saag, the leafy tendrils of gourd, gently wilting. This was the one item, I had been caveated, was very rare to find. Newly uprooted, I snatched that boxful, counting it as an omen of my adopted country's goodwill.
For Sunday lunch, I slathered them in a generous paste of poppy seeds from the stock in the kitchen cupboard - I need no longer risk sneaking a stash past airport security - filled my family's collective belly and happily snoozed. That early afternoon of approaching British winter all was as 'normal' as ever in Calcutta.
So bori, sun-baked lentil paste dollops, still proves illusive. Small adjustments we're agreeable with, like that crate of hapush in place of the better loved but unavailable himsagar. We've exchanged easy access to misti doi for bigger life choices, but in acute moments of melancholic longing, slow spoonfuls of that lemon-flavoured Greek yogurt will have to do.
My preoccupation with sustainable living tells me a long food mile is no good thing. But English cherry doesn't weaken my saliva glands and resolve like African watermelon. As an aspiring vegan, I know how convenient it is to denigrate abattoirs...while killing that plant, equally living. Weak fleshed, my 'miss' takes stronger hold of the shopping list than the unseen mile.
In the taxi ride afterwards, the driver from Peshawar and I outdo one another in condemning our own home governments.
Bantering in Hindi, each effusively praises the other's birth city. Complete strangers, we ask about the new acquaintance's family. Saying goodbye at my doorstep, wishing aman for all Kashmiris, we agree: all politicians are buffoons.