As a young bride, married to a man who was very particular about his food, Sabita Radhakrishna appealed to her mother for help. “I didn’t even know the basics; my mother regularly sent recipes to me via post, and I would faithfully follow the instructions. They were traditional recipes, and I got many tips on how to cook good food. Even simple things, like how to cook rice properly, go a long way,” she says.
It was that collection of handwritten recipes of traditional Mudaliar cuisine that prompted Sabita to collate heritage cuisine from six different communities in Tamil Nadu apart from her own: Vellalar Christians, Anglo Indians, Tamil Muslims, Nattukottai Chettiars, Naidus and Kongunadus. The result — Annapurni, a cookbook that draws directly from the kitchens of those who have been cooking these dishes for decades, from recipes that have been passed down generations.
It took Sabita a year and a half to put together the book, as she not only collected the recipes, but also cooked each of them along with the contributor to make sure that it came out right. A fair bit of research has also gone into it, as she has included a brief history of each community, how they came to settle in Tamil Nadu, and how the different cultures influenced each other over the years. The book itself is a charming reproduction of what a diary of collected recipes might look like, right down to the masala-stained pages, inserts of photos (shot by Abhay Kumar) and Air Mail covers.
While contemporary and modern cooking has been all the rage for a few years now, Sabita finds it heartening that there is a return to traditional food. Speaking at the Crowne Plaza Chennai Adyar Park after the book’s launch, she says, “It’s a good thing, because once heritage is lost, it is lost to us forever. These recipes were created according to the lay of the land and in a way that is good for our bodies. Holding on to such tradition is good in all things, not just in food.” So while she does cook Italian, Thai and Greek food at home, it is the Mudaliar dishes that are her comfort food, both to cook and to eat.
“It’s true that some of those cuisines are easier to cook, and traditional cooking does take a lot of preparation and time. These wonderful traditions foster family bonding: just sitting around a table together while preparing dishes can help,” says Sabita. And the memories that go with it are as enduring, as Sabita’s mother, Leela Chander, recalls cooking for her father-in-law when he stayed at her home for a week, and asked for perattal for lunch every day. “It’s one of the easiest dishes, made with vendhaiya keerai and dill, so I was quite relieved,” she laughs.
Merlyn Suares, who contributed the Anglo Indian recipes, says that making dhol dhol (puttu rice halwa) during Christmas was a family affair, with everyone pitching in. On Tamil Muslim cuisine, S. Anwar (who provided the photographs for the section on his community) says jokingly, “Please don’t ask us for biryani all the time! There’s a lot more to it than that. Our cooking has been influenced by the spice trade, giving rise to dishes like thikkadi and thenga choru.”
Other contributors include Srivalli Krishnaswami, Rajani Sarathchander and Padma Rajamanickam for the Naidu recipes, Nithila Masilamani for the Vellalar recipes, Kausalya Thirupavanam for the Ramalingam Mudaliar recipes, Chef Pradeep Krishna for the Kongunadu recipes, Sahida and Fatima Anwar for the Tamil Muslim recipes and Seetha Muthiah and Jagadeeshwari Lakshminarayanan for the Chettinad recipes.
Most of the recipes in the book are unabashedly non-vegetarian, with a few scattered vegetarian recipes and desserts as well. Through these recipes, most of which are much easier to prepare with modern-day gadgets than it might have been with the ammi and aatu kallu , there’s an instant connection with our shared histories, linked by the comforting and familiar taste of home.