We are Keralites.

My father, who came to Mumbai first, came here because he was transferred from the British company he worked to the government of India enterprise it turned itself into. However it was my mother, who cajoled him to taking up the offer to save herself from the joint family nightmare she would have found herself in, who suffered perpetual gnawing homesickness.

My father who had been reluctant to leave his homeland, learnt to be calm about the city. We, who were born in Bombay, loved this place with passion. My mother looked for her naadu in every nook and naka and re-lived her home by telling us stories of her childhood. So, in many ways we lived in Kerala, as much as we lived in Bombay.

If you are not a Malayali and if you ever try booking a flight or a berth on a train to Kerala, you will usually find that this is one sector that is always almost booked. Like all migrants, Malayalis love their land and are heart-broken to leave. They find ways to return—and as often as possible—or even if it is just for that one vacation a year.

My mother too. I know now that my mom looked at Mumbai with eyes of a migrant—with sadness and a constant need to escape. She looked forward to going back fiercely. What were vacations for us must have been for her the equivalent of a fish being thrown back into water, after it had been hooked and pulled out.

So we visited Kerala once a year for three weeks. At least. And every trip to Kerala was a mini carnival. Our train journeys were meticulously planned and prepared for over a month. There were the six of us. Do the math.

Two whole days and two whole nights of a train journey, meant carrying food for six, vacationing (read, hungrier) mouths; food that had to stay fresh and edible, despite staying unrefrigerated (and in a hot second class bogey) for two whole days.

For the longest time ever idli batter in my home was ground by hand. I still remember the stone hand-grinder with its border, the heavy boulder-like pestle that sat in the bowl-like dent at the centre of the giant crucible-like stone and how we would take turns to grind the super-sticky urad daal and then the soaked, wet rice. This was way before the motorised stone grinder was devised. In the cool stone grinder, the batter would be light and fluffy, and the idlis my mother made were like clouds that melted in our mouth.

We were the kings of long-distance-travel-cuisine. I think I still am. My mother knew the kinds of food that would stay, and those that could be made enduring by simply tweaking the preparatory method.

The idlis we took for our train journey would scooped out from the idli steamer by spoon and untouched by hand, would be cooled under the fan. These, fan-cooled, untouched-by-hand idlis would then be dusted with molgapodi, and then wrapped in banana leaf. Everything was wrapped in a thin, moist, supple banana leaves. I have no idea what it is—there must be a proper, scientific reason—but food wrapped in banana leaves retain all the flavours for longer than any aluminum foil can ever possibly do so.

Along with the molgapodi-dusted-idlis came garlic-coconut-chutney made from desiccated coconut that would be further roasted in order to ensure that it remained. Fiery enough to make you tear up, the dry coconut chutney was scarlet with the dry whole red chilies that were roasted and ground with peanuts and tamarind and garlic–the alternative to the wet chutney. The Malayalis that we were, we also carried jam jars filled with morekachi (Kerala’s version of dahikadi), rice (again cooled and wrapped in banana leaf pouches) and well-fried raawas (Indian Salmon).

Everything was cooled (food sweating inside packages always makes the food susceptible to spoiling; ditto for any moisture in the food and ingredients that brought in moisture, such as onions) and packed, first in the most tender of banana leaves (pale green), then wrapped in newspaper and finally ensnared with two rubber bands. Outside of the newspaper our names were written. Each of us got our package which were planned and named and doled according to our appetite.

Packing would happen two days in advance and there was always feverish excitement as my mother cooked our regular food as well as food for our train journey. Fried fish, boiled eggs, idlis, rice and curry that went with it; and then my dad would pack light snacks, along with pouches of salt, pepper and sugar. I think the only thing my parents chose to pay for in the train, was for tea.

I’d been a part of this from ever since I could remember and thus even when most kids did not know I knew that one should never shell boiled eggs if you wanted them to last longer (or skin the potatoes) and never carry cooked daals and potatoes as they tend to spoil faster. Inconsequential things like that have been part of my knowledge base for a while.

There were six of us, which meant if we booked well in advance, one compartment was ours. Lunch time meant we could draw the curtains of our compartment and my dad would stand up, open the food bag and call out names and allocate perfectly wrapped packages. It was a marvel of organisation that everything was packed backwards; the last meal first and the first meal at the top. So we never had to scramble for anything. He must have micro-managed and done mental recces of it because he knew when we would need a dash of salt or a pinch of pepper.

Yet. Yet, because we ate only home food, every bit of food that was vended, was glamorous to me. Me who hated morekachi with all my breath, and who still found it mouthwateringly delicious with rice and fried fish in the train, would clamber to the last berth and look down into the next compartment and feel wistful when I saw other travellers order their meals at stations and eat chewy railway ahaar rotis with watery egg curry. Like I felt wistful in school when I opened my dabba that my mother had filled with scrambled eggs and coconut chutney and idlis and saw others with dabbas that had strawberry cream-filled wafer biscuits and potato chips.

Why, why why did God give me this kind of mother!?

Without my mother knowing I would trade my dabba for all those shop-bought snacks. It was a win-win situation; both parties feeling happy.

And so, perched up in my compartment, steadily demolishing all the packed food, I would sit looking at the ice lolly vendor, or the parpuvada seller and hope that one day I would be able to eat street food. My mother, who would have flung herself length-wise on one berth, exhausted with the marathon cooking, would be asleep; the train rocking her gently to the promised land.