Food and Memories: The Powerful Connection Of Flavours

There's a certain bond between food and memories that can't be broken, no matter how far apart you are. The sights, sounds, and tastes of food may transport us back in time, reminding us of happy times spent with loved ones, the excitement of a special occasion, or the ease of a home-cooked dinner. Every bite, whether it be one of Grandma's specialties or a tasty treat savoured on the road, leaves an emotional imprint. The echoes of food cooking, drinks being poured, and friends and family chatting and laughing around the table all come together to form a tapestry of fond recollections.  

Many millions of years ago, it was far more difficult to find food. There were no convenient stores or eateries available to prehistoric people. They lived off the land as foragers, eating things like berries, wild plants, and nuts. It was all purely instinctive at first. The subconscious realization that, without food, they wouldn't last long forced them to eat. And so, they ate and lived. 

However, as their minds and bodies progressed, so did their approaches to eating.  It is estimated that around 2.6 million years ago, humans first tasted meat, whereas the cultivation of cereals is thought to have begun in various parts of the world around 12,000 years ago. Agriculture only emerged as a significant factor about 10,000 years ago.  And it was the curiosity of the human mind that drove all that transformation. Because of our imagination. Indeed, we can't survive without a sense of belonging.   

We've really progressed a lot. Modern cooking relies on blending spices and herbs to get new and exciting tastes. We alter the molecular structure of the meal. And it's not uncommon for meals to be treated like celebrations. That's because our mental process goes beyond simple survival. Eating is more than just a means to an end for humans; it's also an act of planning, experimentation, and exploration. The emphasis is on happiness, love, and togetherness. We're just beginning to understand the manner in which those connections affect memory. 

We asked Supriya Agarwal, a Trauma-informed Therapist and Inner Child Coach, how does the brain associate taste and smell with memories from the past? She explains, “In our brain, there is a part called thalamus which acts like a relay station. Whenever we taste something, the sensory information from the taste buds reaches the thalamus. The thalamus then processes that information and sends it to different brain areas. The information related to memory goes to the hippocampus and any emotions related to that experience reach the amygdala as it is responsible for emotional response. With smells, it’s a little different. The scents bypass the thalamus and go straight to the brain's smell center, known as the olfactory bulb which is directly connected to the amygdala and hippocampus. These two parts of the brain together create our responses. So, whenever we smell or taste something which is similar to something in the past, these brain centers get activated and trigger a detailed memory and sometimes an intense emotion as well. For example, someone might get really emotional while eating a dish which tastes exactly how it tasted when their parent or grandparent prepared it.”   

Shubra Chatterji, founder of Tons Valley Shop recalls how her mother cooked dishes that reminded the family of their Indian culture after they relocated from Delhi to a little town called Owerri in Nigeria, West Africa, in 1991. She explains that, in those days, things were not as easily accessible as they are now. "We were kind of like, cut off from Indian culture, so to speak. The ways of communicating were limited, ISD calls were an occasional thing in contrast to today's internet connectivity. As I said earlier, it was a small town, and that's where we were living. As a result, we rarely saw more than three or four other Indian families and had little access to authentic Indian cuisine. My parents always pushed us to adopt Indian customs and traditions, such as celebrating Indian festivals and eating Indian food daily. Because these are the things that allowed you to maintain a connection to your culture even when we were physically separated from it. Food played a crucial role.” 

Since food was so important, “we started making approximately a 200-kilometer trip once a month to Port Harcourt, a larger city with a larger Indian population and a better selection of Indian staples. We'd stock up on rice, dals, or atta (flour) for a month at a time and eat from those sacks.” 

Her mother used to add aromatic spices like clove, bay leaf, and star anise to make the rice taste as near as possible to their chosen rice kind, which may not always be readily accessible. She says that she adopted these methods from her mom and uses them in all of her future kitchens. 

“I picked up my mom's cookbook collection, including Tarla Dalal's The Delights of Vegetarian Cooking, because I wanted to maintain my connection to my Indian roots, and it was there that I first learned how to cook. When I was around seven and a half, or eight years old, I started trying my hand at making traditional Indian dishes. So, that's how I remember trying to recreate the tastes of home while living abroad as a kid,” says Shubra from HistoryOnAPlate. Also, this is how our sense of taste became associated with the foods we ate, she adds.  

HomeChef Parinita Salian shares “Basale or Malabar Spinach is a favourite in my husband’s home and mine too. My husband chooses this Kodhel over any other Mangalorean curry. It’s a comfort food for all the senses. I remember Mom preparing this so often that it brings me memories of weekday lunches which she sometimes served with fried fish or papad. And it became more special once I knew that my mom in law prepares it almost in the same style as my mom did, and my husband enjoys it equally. Seeing him eat this with so much joy makes my heart content. When I moved to Canada, I missed eating a bowlful of this curry. That’s when I discovered a Chinese leafy veg that is available easily at most grocery stores and supermarkets here. Gai Lan. The texture and flavour of the Gai Lan is so similar to Malabar Spinach that it took me straight home.”  

She adds “Like the Gai Lan, I have experimented with seasonal veg here for Upkaris or Mangalorean style Stir fry’s and so much more. It’s all about adapting to the local produce available easily and making it your own.” 

Are there any psychological reasons why we often crave comfort foods from our childhood? Supriya says, “Of course, foods from our childhood are linked directly to the memories of time spent with our family, bonding with them, sharing laughter and conversations, and the feeling of being cared. It’s possible, on a psychological level, when we are overstressed by work or anxious by the day-to-day workings of life, we crave the foods from our childhood as they bring a sense of comfort and an illusion of safety of home giving us some relief. Sometimes, certain festivals and events may make us crave for comfort foods as that is how we identify with that occasion on a psychological level.”  

Chef Vaibhav Bhargava, Partner chef at CHO and Director of ABV hospitalities private limited reminisces about his childhood with admiration for jamuns. He explains that when he lived in Gol Market, New Delhi, a big Jamun tree was just next to his house, and every morning, they would pick jamun from the tree and enjoy the fruit's fresh seasonal flavours. He saiys, "Every season we used to wait for the tree to bear fruits, and we collected them in a bowl and savoured them during the summers and it used to be our vacation time as May- June is the time when the tree bears fruits in abundance. This aspect of my life is so near and dear to me that in my most recent business venture, CHO, a Vietnamese special restaurant in Mehrauli, I have created a selection of jamun-themed specialties, ranging from cheesecakes to mocktails.” Here is a recipe for Nasheela Jamun drink. 


60 ml Jamun Pulp  

10 ml lime juice 

60 ml gin  

1 tsp black salt 

3ml agave syrup 

Tonic water 

Few ice cubes 

Method: Take a chilled glass add ice into it and then jamun Pulp, lime juice, kala namak, agave syrup and top with tonic water and garnish with orange peel with logo on it. 

The food we eat leaves an indelible mark on our minds. It's easy to understand how flavour serves as a direct link between the food we eat and the memories we build since we put so much of ourselves into the dishes we prepare and the company we keep while we eat.