The gastronomic conjurer

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Meenakshi Ammal
Meenakshi Ammal

Meenakshi Ammal's "Samaithu Par" continues to be a popular guide to cooking

When relatives abroad, fed on a surfeit of bean burritos and seaweed kept gushing over the tamarind soaked, curry leaf garnished recipes contained in the culinary paradiso, "Samaithu Par", I decided to pay a visit to that part of the city, which housed one of India's first cookbook writers. Down the R. K. Mutt Road in Mylapore, Chennai, a quaint looking house carries a sign board, "Cook and See", Meenakshi Ammal. Upon entering it, I spot Priya Ramkumar, grand-daughter-in-law of the celebrated author."Meena akka didn't write the book for monetary reasons," says Priya. "Like all other women during her times, she was taught to keep a tight hold over the family expenses. But repeated requests for certain recipes would fly in from relatives. It was then that the author's uncle, K. V. Krishnaswami Aiyer, thought it a good idea to document her recipes."While one cannot but marvel at Meenakshi's (or `Meena akka' as she was known within the family) dishes, what provokes greater admiration is her venture into publishing, at a time when women strictly kept to the household. Meenakshi, widowed at an early age, rose against society's norms and literally `went public' by writing a cookbook, an act unprecedented for a woman in 1951. Incidentally, the Cosmopolitan-reviewed book stumbled its way into publication. The author sold her jewellery to buy paper for writing recipes, sacrilege in those times.One of the most distinguishing features of Meenakshi's books is the methodical listing of recipes for popular festivals and rituals like `Diwali' and `Valaikapu'. The different kinds of `payasams' and `poriyals' to be made on each occasion serves as a checkpoint for many households. Apart from an extensive English-Tamil glossary, there are illustrations of traditional vessels like `Thenkuzhal disc', `Jaarani', etc. Needless to say, this three-volume series has been of great help to both women living abroad, and those performing traditional rituals for the first time. A blogger on: writes, "... (She) knew that there would be a time when women would no longer be constantly preoccupied with food or involved solely in its preparation" and the book was probably intended for such women. Meenakshi's books, however, inspire loyalty among men who study abroad. Apart from books and woollen clothes, `Samaithu Par' often sneaks its way into most foreign-bound suitcases. Krishnamurthy Ramasubbu, a self-confessed foodaholic, who spent a year in the U.K., says, "When you emerge from one of those marathon project sessions, having lived 10 whole days on Pringles, there is a strong desire for steaming rasam. It's only then you realise you have forgotten to make a simple dish like rasam and you frantically reach out to the blessed `Samaithu Par'. This is the strong point of the book. It comprises simple dishes familiar to the homesick South Indian. Moreover, easy instructions and quick fixes like `If the dal is too salty, add jaggery to it' makes it a reliable book for beginners."LAKSHMY RAMANATHAN




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