noshtalgia Food

What would be your last meal request on death row?

The creamy white butter was melted into ghee. The day this happened, the aroma filled the house

I typed on a WhatsApp group recently, “What would your last meal request be on death row?” Strange question I know, but we friends are a strange bunch. As I saw one of them start to type an answer, I thought of mine. My mind ticked off drumstick puli kozhambu, coconut thogaiyal, double beans in any form, then paused. What I would really, really want is hot rice with a big dollop of ghee mixed with paruppu (dal) cooked with a hint of turmeric and salt. Preferably mixed by my mother’s hands. With any green vegetable on the side, steamed and seasoned with mustard seeds, urad dal, and a pinch of asafoetida. Maybe garnished with grated coconut? I’m on death row okay!

Paruppu sadham, Tamil for dal-rice, is baby food, fed to toothless babies, a quick mix of protein, carbs and fat, in today’s jargon. Packs a punch for a growing baby’s nutritional needs. The small balls of rice fed to me on my mother’s hip as I watched the birds on the tree or looked avidly at life going by in our street will forever be my comfort food. If you give me a taste of it this instant, my eyes will close like the grumpy Ego’s in Ratatouille and my face will transform into a sigh and a smile. It will take me to my happy place.

Slandered staples

Two of the three ingredients in my choice of dish for death row are highly debated upon these days. Rice and ghee. I cannot fathom life without either. Ghee has been tainted, bad-mouthed and dismissed. Dieticians really know how to ruin reputations. But it made a comeback recently, a star in the making. A spoon of ghee a day keeps joint pains away. Desi ghee and organic ghee have all come back, fragrantly alive again. Maybe to grace the cover of Time magazine someday soon as a miracle health food? Who knows?

Then there’s rice. The big villain. White has turned brown. Unbroken beaten polished. It has even been rudely replaced by quinoa. Something that’s grown a million miles away in Peru. Go local, grow local went out the window with that one. Rice will make you grow fat, they say. I’m not an expert but it depends on how much of it you eat, I say. These battles are fought every day without any triumph on either side. Rice, especially white rice, remains a staple all over the south. Rice and south Indians go hand in hand. Literally.

Grandfather’s nursery

When I was little, at my grandfather’s house, there was a cow shed with four or five cows. The shed was a regular hide-and-seek spot for us kids. The person with the highest tolerance for the smell of cowdung would hide there. I have hidden there too, huddled behind the cement basins of water, the cows’ feet shuffling, and the afternoon Madras heat seemingly stopping time.

Summer always felt like the last bus had left forever and we were stranded in my grandfather’s house, but in the best way. It was a haven of beautiful flowers, trees and greenery. My grandfather’s nursery spilled over into the house. There were butterflies to be chased and mangoes to be plucked. Drumsticks from the tree simmered in the kitchen.

Sounds in the kitchen at 5 a.m. woke me up sometimes, when I would walk in half-asleep and sit on a stool at one end of the kitchen. My grandmother and grand-aunt would be in the middle of cooking a large five-course meal. Me, in a white cotton chemise, legs dangling off the stool, in the half-dawn-lit kitchen, with all the familiar smells of the day’s cooking blending with the smell of freshly-brewed filter coffee and slowly waking my senses.

Vital ingredient

The cows in the shed would also be stirring. They were milked; the milk was used for coffee mainly and the rest was made into curd. The whey was churned patiently in the evenings just outside the kitchen, in a big cauldron with ropes and a wooden churn, turning it into creamy white butter.

The butter was melted into ghee. The day this happened, the aroma filled the house. At lunchtime, we cousins would sit around my grandmother as she mixed a large steel plate of rice and dal with oodles of ghee, made small balls of it, gently dented the centre to add vegetables and some kozhambu, and then we would take it eagerly in our cupped hands. Like we did with the pani puri vendor handing out puchkas, we would wait our turn, sitting close to her sari, and wolf each handful down.

Coincidentally, hot paruppu sadham is what my father feeds the crows every day. A custom he diligently follows for a very uncustomary man. It is believed that some food should be kept for the crows every day just before a meal as they represent our ancestors. A practice that brings the birds to any house we live in. The other day, I watched the birds eat the last morsels of rice on the ledge of our window. And contemplated the feeding birds, my ancestors, and how we all shared the love for paruppu sadham.


Paruppu sadham

What would be your last meal request on death row?


1/4 cup toor dal (or moong dal)

1/4 teaspoon turmeric powder

1/2 cup rice

1 tablespoon ghee

salt to taste

a pinch of asafoetida (optional)


1. Cook the dal to soft consistency with salt and turmeric.

2. Cook the rice.

3. Mix cooked rice and dal. Add a dollop of ghee (many dollops if you want). Mix thoroughly with hands (a skill mothers seem to have mastered despite the rice being very hot).

4. If you want, add an additional seasoning of mustard seeds or jeera with a pinch of asafoetida crackled in ghee. Pour over the mixed rice.

5. Serve with a choice of vegetables on the side — although carrot or beans poriyal goes best with it.

6. For the real experience, stand on your balcony and savour it while watching the birds or street life go by.

The writer is a cinematographer, the non-bearded variety, and is called ‘Cameraman Madam’ on the sets.

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Printable version | Jun 6, 2020 5:39:39 PM |

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