This winter I’ve had cause to reflect that no amount of meditation, mindfulness apps or aphorisms about living in the now will encourage you to inhabit the present as much as walking down an icy, frosted street will. The council will occasionally scatter a handful of salt onto the roads, but the pavements, untreated, remained glazed with a hard carapace of frost. The slick streets require focus and calm. Your world reduces to only the crunchy grey pavement and each footstep you take in order to avoid a fall. It’s risky to distract yourself even with the extraction of a tissue to blow a wintery nose.
These are days to forego your 10,000 steps and spend as much time as possible snuggled beneath thick fleecy blankets, under a lamp throwing a pool of welcome, warming yellow light, with a stack of cookbooks to leaf through (or maybe Laurie Colwin’s always-soothing ‘Home Cooking’) and the TV on low. Of course you’ll need something warming and filling to drink, because nothing else sends much-needed heat pouring into you in quite the same way. And while I am perennially devoted to tea – truly, madly, deeply in love, always and forever, with a strong and malty Assam – I have more recently been making myself the occasional cup of turmeric milk, usually before bed.
Also known – in English – as golden milk (and sometimes even referenced as a ‘turmeric latte’ when available to purchase in coffee shops, presumably to push up the price), this drink, a favoured cold remedy of [some] grandmothers of the Indian subcontinent (a friend described it as ‘the kind of thing our granny forces us to drink every time we cough’), has recently become trendy as turmeric secures its status in the global pantheon of superfoods. The co-optation of golden milk and its celebration in Western diets has been noted as potentially problematic, which a thoughtful piece by Tara O’Brady (brought to my attention by my friend Mehrunnisa) outlines, as has its growing symbolism as a representation of an idea of a monolithic, singular ‘Indian’ culture. The parcelling out of one acceptable piece of a traditional culture, divorced from wider acceptance, appreciation or integration of that culture or its people, is an ongoing process and an ongoing, sometimes uncomfortable, conversation which surely finds echoes whenever a ‘host’ and ‘immigrant’ culture meet. (I don’t think ‘host’ and ‘immigrant’ are quite right here, but it’s difficult to find something equally expressive and concise. During my MA, I studied a unit on migration to London and we discussed there terms such as ‘third generation immigrants’ and their problematic application to people who are by definition not immigrants at all). Whenever I read pieces like this I find myself reflecting on those lines between cultural appropriation, cultural appreciation and, in the case of food, the culinary adventurousness which compels people who love to cook and eat to explore different cultures through mealtimes, picking and choosing without regard for context beyond one’s own taste and dinner table. I’m not quite clear what the answer is. I know that when I drink a cup of turmeric milk, it is indeed “removed from its thousands-of-years-old provenance”, albeit without the promise of anything beyond its delightful taste, just as I certainly don’t eat quinoa as a Peruvian person would do. I am reminded of Nigella Lawson’s oft-repeated phrase “I don’t know if it’s authentic, but it’s authentically good” – and am compelled to wondering if this is really enough, or even if I am the best person to reflect on these complex issues.
I know, however, that I’ve been intermittently drinking warm, spiced milk since I was a university student in an attempt to develop a good sleeping pattern, though the soporific effects of milk are debatable. With regular sleep eluding me and wanting to avoid the caffeine associated with tea straight before bed, I more recently returned to my occasional spiced milk habit in the evenings, albeit with a few twists; one of these is a dusting of bright turmeric. In addition to staining the milk a cheerful butter yellow, I admit it makes me feel good to ingest more of this spice, whose anti-inflammatory properties are increasingly subject to pharmacological scrutiny. I’m always sceptical of the claims that any food can cure dementia, arthritis or any other maladies, but evidence suggests a lot of foods (such as fish) have preventative, even if not curative, effects. And rest assured that I am as happy to drink my spiced turmeric milk for its mood-elevating properties, delivered by its soothing taste and pretty colour, as for any health reason (perhaps an example of ‘just eating’ and enjoying without thinking about and intellectualising the experience).
My spice mixture was always loosely based on the spices used in masala chai, albeit one brewed without tea leaves: I used cinnamon, black pepper, piney cloves, fragrant star anise and ginger (either the dried version, dusty and warm, or the spikey fresh root), maybe cardamom if I had it – but as a student my funds didn’t always stretch to all of these and sometimes it was just a short, sharp mixture of pepper, tooth-tingling cloves and cinnamon, which I tended to have in greater abundance. Over the Christmas break, I read a feature in Belgian (well, Flemish, anyway) newspaper De Standaard called ‘The favourite winter recipe of 25 foodies’ (‘het favoriete winterrecept van 25 foodies’), which did what it said on the tin and, in terms of combining food and personal stories, was pretty much my platonic ideal of a foodie magazine feature. It made for an incredibly absorbing and comforting reading on the Eurostar trip back home to London. A recipe from Dorien Knockaert – who is described as ‘without a doubt one of the most interesting culinary voices in Flanders’ – for masala chai was included and something about her voice caught my attention. I tried her recipe out and some elements from that crept into my own recipe. (I am fully aware – given the contours of the debate about cultural appropriation of food which I’ve tried to point to, albeit necessarily incompletely, above – of the many ironies of one white Belgian woman’s interpretation of a traditional drink from the Indian subcontinent inspiring another white Belgian woman’s interpretation of a traditional drink from the Indian subcontinent). Regardless of the politics of this cross-cultural exchange, the chief inheritance is the addition of a good sprinkle of fennel seeds; to me, the faint aniseed scent of fennel truly elevates the drink, and I now wouldn’t be without it.