An ode to pizza, a dish that never leaves you through the great joys and greater heartbreaks.
For the better part of my childhood, spent in the Dehradun of the ‘90s, I thought pizza was something only my mother knew how to make! This was back when I was oblivious to the multinational chains, and pizza was not a global phenomenon – it was a household joy! Oh, the simpler times.
At our place, pizza was usually made on rare days as a treat – when I had eaten my share of lauki or tori, and was rewarded for being a ‘good girl’. It was not easy, mind you – I was a fussy eater with a bird’s appetite, and my mother waged a constant battle to make me eat, weaving techniques and tales like the deft touch of Hermione Granger’s Wingardium Leviosa.
Some of my earliest memories of pizza are the smell of freshly kneaded dough, and adding dollops of tomato ketchup (and not any fancy pizza sauce), along with loads of cheese, bell peppers and onions. If you were a ‘90s kid growing up in a small town, you can imagine my pride on the following day, when I would open my lunch box containing slices of pizza, and would be treated instantly as royalty by my friends. Back in my day, if you got pizza to school, you were the queen of the anthill.
On one of the summer holidays, I visited my mama in Delhi – a far cry from what life in sleepy, misty Dehradun was like. I was taken to Nirulas for their chocolate fudge, which incidentally is near-legendary. More importantly, though, this is where I found out that pizzas actually existed outside my tiny, self-sufficient world. You can imagine my surprise – I almost felt cheated! How could something, which only I had at home, be on a restaurant’s menu? To make peace for the day, I concluded that my mother taught the restaurant to make pizza, so that I’d eat properly when I’m outside. Life and its problems, evidently, were much easier to deal with.
Fast forward nearly 15 years, and I found myself digging into a slice of pizza at The Leela Mumbai. The restaurant was kind enough, albeit, I’m sure, with a few perplexed reactions (who goes to a fine dining restaurant and orders one of the most basic dishes ever possible?). It was made to order – a thin crust, topped with a whole lotta cheese, onions and bell pepper. The taste, funnily enough, was as different and yet as similar as it could be to the pizza-lore of my childhood. This not only brought back memories and a deep smile, but reminded me of the simplicity, innocence and pure, unconditional love I had for something that does not have any true semblance to my favourite flavour palate.
You see, the pizza that I knew and fell in love with as a sassy, annoying child was my first step towards world cuisine, unbeknownst to me. It was good enough to make an Italian gasp for breath, and a fussy child with no appetite fall in love with eating. They were bright, colourful, cheery and everything happy, all at once. Made on thick pizza bases (pizza breads were one of the only readymade indulgences back then) purchased from a local bakery, smeared with tomato ketchup, loaded with onion, tomato and bell pepper, and of course, grated, processed cheese – there could be no better way to party (cue: the essential ‘90s Bollywood playlist) than with pizza. There were no thin crusts or wood-fire aftertastes, Scooby Doo was one of the most viral television programmes, and the rupee was about ₹40 to a dollar.
A whole lot of things happened in the years in between. With the advent of globalisation came in brands like Pizza Hut and Dominos, who more than anything else, showed us the sheer variety that this humble slice of bread with myriad toppings could come with. But this was only the beginning, and pepperonis and margheritas were nowhere close to their respective cult statuses in India, today.
Today, Pizza Hut and Dominos are everyday names, and even almost passé in the prime metropolitans. Brands like California Pizza Kitchen, Jamie’s and Pizza Express have successfully made a mark in the Indian markets. We have all been introduced to finer tastes and better quality, and it is safe to say that no nine-year-old will think of pizza as her mother’s ingenuity. Once you’ve had a taste of these, there’s no going back. Standalone restaurants like Pi Pizzeria and Playlist Pizzeria in Mumbai have introduced quality pizzas and are budget friendly as well, taking the concept of the pizza to a new height. It is the almost-staple food of today, one which is not occasional or celebrated, and is yet an ever-present in every celebration.
Today, I may not get the most excited upon hearing of pizza being made at home. I do, however, make the occasional trip down to Shiv Sagar, and order a pizza. There’s no made-to-order fine dining wizardry there, and yet, the taste still harks back to the sleepy, misty valley of Dehradun, from almost two decades ago.
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