I was in my early 20s when I bade a tearful goodbye to my parents in Hyderabad and took the long train journey to Lucknow. Straight out of college, I did not have the wherewithal to walk into ‘my man’s heart through his stomach,’ particularly when I found my ‘man’ swearing by his mother’s cooking! My mother-in-law’s cooking prowess was known to twitch many a nose and tingle many a palate.
She could have patented her brand of rasam. Being thrust into the role of her assistant, I was like one of those headless chickens running from grating board to grinding unit. At the end of any meal, I felt I had been wrung dry in the washing machine. To make matters worse, our home always had hungry souls traipsing in, as my mother-in-law was ever ready to feed anyone and everyone who came by.
Those were the days where it was not uncommon to hear the snarky, ‘Is this what your mother taught you?’ line. To avoid that, I would find out the menu planned for the following day, and then I would stealthily consult the grand old lady who had travelled with me, neatly packed in my suitcase.
S. Meenakshi Ammal spoke to me, as she has to countless others across generations, from the pages of that most unimaginatively titled book, Samaithu Paar or Cook and See. She helped me stay one step ahead of my mother-in-law. I had the coconut grated and ready before the coriander seeds and bengal gram dal could be roasted to the reddish hue for the famous arachuvitta sambar. Soon, I was gratified to hear my mother-in-law proudly announce that she and I made a great team.
When I moved to Indonesia, old Meenakshi Ammal even provided the monthly grocery list for my family of four, and considering Indian groceries were supplied only twice a month, this was a great boon. The remarkable woman had the foresight to include recipes that encompassed everything from brewing basic coffee decoction to complex pickle-making. Even young men carried the book when they went abroad to help them cook for the first time in their lives.
More than 30 years on, I still consult it, despite the innumerable online platforms. Meenakshi Ammal’s mulagai podi is unsurpassed. She never fails to let me know what I should be making for festivals like Krishna Janmashtami and Diwali. The best part of the book are her handy tips. For example, she will tell you that polis can be fried the previous day and stored in an airtight container. Or if you are making Karthigai pori urundai (beaten rice balls), drop a bit of jaggery syrup into water; if it can be rolled into a ball, the syrup is ready.
Last month, Thiruvathirai (the day to remember Nataraja) came around and I looked forward to making the special kali. Nothing supports and enhances this mildly sweet dish made of broken rice and pulses as the ezhukari kuzhambu (stew of seven vegetables). Of course, seven is the minimum number of vegetables, but depending on availability, 11 or 13 (only odd numbers) can be thrown in.
And Meenakshi Ammal had it all. From which veggies had to be scraped or cut or cooked in jackets or peeled, to which needed to be sautéed before adding. How the cut vegetables were to be cooked in tamarind water. And the quantity of spices to be roasted, and just when the cooked dal had to be added to bring it all together. A dash of seasoning completed the dish.
Her language and the conversational tone make it sound as if my mother were standing at my shoulder giving me instructions as I cook. She repeats instructions, just like my mother. She caters to slow learners with footnotes at the end of certain recipes. My turmeric-stained, dog-eared copy carries with it the flavours of my kitchen. This old lady has been witness to the trials and discoveries I made during my journey from nervous young bride to seasoned cook. It’s little wonder that I haven’t replaced her with any of the snazzy recipes so readily available online.
Needless to add, my kali and ezhukari did not go wrong this year either.
2 cups rice
1 handful green gram dal
1/2 handful bengal gram dal
Jaggery or sugar 2 3/4 cup
Half of a fresh coconut – grated and kept aside
Cashew nuts to taste
Ghee 1/4 to 1/2 cup
1. Dry roast the rice and dals to a reddish colour. Pound them to make a rough flour. When using a mixie, just run it once or twice in short spells. (Note: You can do this the previous day and keep aside.)
The flour will measure 2 1/2 cups. Two-and-a-half times as much water should be used; that is, 6 1/4 cups of water is required for 2 1/2 cups of flour.
2. Add the sugar/ jaggery to
the water and boil, while turning well.
3. Add grated (raw) coconut. Cover and boil.
4. When it boils vigorously, add 2 tsps of ghee.
5. Mix the flour in, stirring all the while.
6. Cover and cook over a slow fire, turning frequently with a flat ladle.
7. When completely cooked, fry cashew nuts in ghee and add.
8. Mix the remaining ghee and cardamom powder.
9. Remove from fire. Keep covered.
10. Turn it with aflat ladle four to five times to break it up.
11. Pachaikarpooram (natural camphor) may be added if sugar is used.
Rule of thumb: For new rice, use twice as much water as the rice. For old rice, use 2.5 times the amount.
The independent writer is based in Bengaluru.