The Shape of a Mango Seed: Memories, Food, and History


From the Konkan Coast of India to the working class neighborhood of Noailles in Marseille, Chef Zuri Camille de Souza generously shares with us some personal experiences and reflections on how food embodies “cultural symbols, markers of heritage, and intimate personal memory.”

Article published in The Funambulist 31 (September-October 2020) Politics of Food. Click here to access the rest of the issue.

Leaving the south of India to the U.S. for college, and then shifting to Marseille, I find myself seeing my culinary history, and perhaps myself, from the outside, discovering a fertile, granulous sediment of my past that has slowly settled with distance and time, a flavorful blend of thoughts, instances and feelings. I see my memories served to me in ways that I do not expect, through smells that I didn’t realize meant so much to me — like the salty, fatty fragrance of a grilled sausage that reminds me of sunday mornings at the family table, or the pungent aroma of fenugreek that I associate with metal lunchboxes and tamarind chutney. I found myself touched with joy by the scalding, oil-soaked vadda on the metal plate that I shared with a friend in Gare du Nord last winter, its spongy white crumb and crunchy, golden crust just fermented enough to remind of Eat Out in Malleshwaram, the udupi restaurant my family often went to for breakfast on the weekend. 

De Souza Funambulist (1)
Wild Mangoes (Ratnagiri, Maharashtra). / Photo by Zuri Camille de Souza (2019).

I often think of my late paternal grandmother Dora Alicia de Souza, whose potato chops will never again grace my table and whose three tall clear plastic jars of besan chips, neureos and crunchy, spicy namkeen will not accompany the sweet milky tea that we drink after our afternoon naps in the hot sun as three sunburned cousins and our grandmother around a big wooden table, listening to the calls of hornbills and other jungle birds, bleary-eyed. I yearn for the soft white rice that my maternal grandmother Prabhavati Samarth serves for lunch, in a steel bowl that shrinks as my grandparents’ appetites grow smaller each year.

It is through travelling that I truly feel the immense pleasure food can bring forth; the soft and gentle beauty of meals shared with others, discovering new flavors, ingredients and ways of hosting and being hosted. However, distance also carries with it nostalgia — the souvenirs of a summer holiday 10 years ago come back as I am eating a plate of chicken curry and rice in a small indian restaurant, aptly named Mumbai to Marseille, on a fresh winter day. As I revel in the delightful coming together of spices that are roasted, ground and blended with grated coconut, their aromatic notes blooming in the mouth with every bite, the hints of cardamom and star anise warming the thick curry already heavy with green chilly, garlic and ginger, I am taken me back the Konkan coast. I think of the heavy stone mortar and pestle on the kitchen steps of my grandmother’s house in Goa, where she would grind fire-red masalas in the cool, early morning as my brother and I collected manila tamarind pods scattered around the courtyard. I remember a day at work when my colleague Vrushali shared her lunchbox with me and I realized that she came from the region as me because the way she cooked the tiny black kabuli chickpeas was just like my grandmother in Pune.