Chapter One First Foods The first foods that I ate were rice and ghee. I know this because my mother told me so. I was six months old, and as was traditional, my parents conducted a formal choru-unnal ceremony at the famous Guruvayur temple in Kerala. Choru-unnal literally means "rice-eating," and the ceremony marks the first meal of a child. Typically, this is done in the presence of a priest who recites Sanskrit mantras while the parents, grandparents, and relatives tease morsels of mashed rice into the child's mouth. Few Indians speak Sanskrit anymore, and most don't understand what the mantras mean. Since the mantras are considered sacred, it is presumed that they will nudge the baby into a lifetime of healthful eating. This particular presumption must be wrong, for I know of no Indian child with good eating habits. Indian mothers are obsessed with feeding their children, and perhaps as a result Indian kids don't eat well. When I attend parties with American families, mealtimes seem so civilized and quiet. The mothers cut up a piece of meat or a pizza into small pieces, and the kids obligingly fork it in. Compare that with an Indian party. Mothers follow their kids around, hands outstretched with food, entreating them to eat. Fathers balance plates of food in one hand and, with the other, try to grasp crawling babies intent on escaping. Clearly, the sacred mantras have not made one iota of difference in the children's attitude toward food. Still, having a chanting priest at any Hindu rite of passage is de rigueur, and my family, traditional as it was, complied. My parents had chosen the Krishna temple at Guruvayur for reasons both practical and sentimental. They each had had their own rice-eating ceremony there. The temple's central location made it convenient for my grandparents, aunts, and uncles to attend. More important, my parents liked the "pure" ambience of the temple, which admitted only Hindus into its portals, and only those that followed its strict dress code. The women had to wear saris, and the men had to remove their shirts as a mark of respect for the deity. My parents were especially delighted by the fact that the temple kept out all foreigners, even those camera-toting tourists who thought they could gain admission into ancient temples by waving a few dollars. While such bribes may have worked in other temples, not so in Guruvayur, they remarked approvingly. On the practical side, my father had vowed to conduct a thula bharam at the temple to give thanks for my safe delivery. My parents thought that they could accomplish both events-the choru-unnal and the thula bharam-with one trip. The thula bharam is an offering to God. In a corner of the temple was a giant scale (thula), behind which was a blackboard that listed various offerings: bananas, jaggery (unprocessed raw sugar), gold, silver, coconuts, and even water. Devotees could pick any one of the offerings, weigh themselves against it, and pay by the kilo for their choice. Corrupt politicians would sit on one scale, while the temple staff loaded up the other with silver. When the scales were balanced, the politician would pay for his weight in silver and hope to wash away his sins. Corpulent gold merchants from Bombay-and they were almost always corpulent-would sit placidly on one scale and pay for the equivalent weight of gold with "black money" that didn't make it to their tax books. Poor people who could afford little else would weigh themselves against water and pay their pittance to God, who, we children were told, viewed every offering with a benevolent eye. My father, a college professor just embarking on his career, sensibly chose bananas, which were in the middle of the price chart, above water, jaggery, and coconuts but much below gold and silver. He weighed himself against a bunch of bananas and paid for his bharam (weight). The choru-unNarayan, Shoba is the author of 'Monsoon Diary A Memoir With Recipes', published 2004 under ISBN 9780812971071 and ISBN 0812971078.