Before nostalgia became fashionable, we only had pictures and inside jokes as triggers for a dive into the past. The sepia-tinted frames of our collective childhoods stood out during family gatherings, as they offered us a landscape we yearned to go back to, a multi-sensory experience board where, at just the snap of a finger, we could smell, touch and taste the various delicacies that made those golden growing-up years fun and memorable.
Those were the days of simple joys: eating fresh fruits like gooseberry and cashew apples right off the tree, chewing on rose petals and tulsi leaves while walking barefoot in the garden, and drinking the nectar off little flower clusters spared by the butterflies and the bees.
My mother had a unique way of jazzing up even the simplest of offerings from her kitchen. She drew inspiration for her culinary experiments from the garden, her multicultural friendships, and the cookery club that met once a week at the Officer’s Colony club near where we lived.
To this day, I can picture her in the garden, rediscovering the plants and trees she had lovingly tended to after the household chores had been done, her Madras plaid Chettinad cotton saree complementing the red and green of the bushes, and the diamonds on her nosepin twinkling like stars in the twilight.
She was the happiest in her garden, and she’d get excited about the littlest things: a ripe papaya on the tree, a handful of flat beans on the creeper, ripe guavas and star fruit, green chillies and pumpkin flowers, the first sighting of coriander sprouts or tomatoes and even just the dew on the countless blades of grass.
She would use up whatever gifts the garden offered, preserving entire seasons in little bottles lined up on the pantry shelves. I don’t remember a time when we didn’t have homemade preserves or pickles in stock, not to mention a variety of condiments and concentrates.
Papaya jam and guava jelly, mango pickle and tomato thokku, a down-home version of gulkand and mango pulp concentrate and, my favourite, a hot and sweet tomato juice, which was the highlight of our summers and winters alike, and which we’d lap up to the last drop.
The story of how this recipe came about was always a thrill to hear from mom, a master storyteller, who knew just how to keep us in rapt attention. As always, this story too was never the same with each re-telling — it gathered more salt and spice as it flowed on, giving us the thrill of a shared secret, the highs of a backyard adventure, and the contentment of a happy daydream, all at once.
One day, when a bunch of guests comprising cousins and second generation aunts and uncles showed up unexpectedly, mom concocted the recipe for this ripper of a mocktail. She didn’t have enough lemons to make lemonade, so she ran into the garden and plucked out some plump, juicy naati tomatoes (the home-grown Indian variety), a bunch of mint leaves, and the rest, as they say, is history. The one thing I vividly remember about the juice — called a virgin Masala Mary in our books — is that it tasted like the garden itself — fresh, zippy and lush.
This delicious drink that quenched the thirst of family and friends from near and far has been a Rao family favourite for over 50 years. To this day, when I see the yellow flowers sprouting on the tomato plants in my little garden patch, I get excited about the fruits to come, and the possibility of turning them into juice. I am instantly transported to the holidays of my childhood, spent indoors riffling through Archie’s comics, playing board games with my friends, and reaching for that bottomless bowl of potato chips, to be washed down with mom’s magic drink.
This Masala Mary is an ode to that memory and apart from tasting lip-smacking good, it’s also brimming with healthful lycopene. It’s a great party drink, and goes with pretty much anything, from a typical desi spread with chaat and biryani to a slightly more elaborate TexMex menu, replete with nachos and salsa, arroz rojo and fajita!
Mom’s Masala Mary
4 naati tomatoes, chopped
¼ tsp red chilli powder
¼ tsp black pepper powder
¼ tsp kaala namak (black salt)
¼ tsp cumin powder
3 tbsp sugar or jaggery powder
Handful of mint leaves
Juice of 1 lemon
3-4 ice cubes or cold water
Blend all the ingredients together in your mixie just before serving. You can also make this ahead of time, but be sure to refrigerate immediately after blending, and squeeze in the lemon juice just before serving.
Note: For the holiday season, you can also serve a cocktail version of this Masala Mary. Simply tip in 60-90 ml of gin or vodka to the mix, just before serving!
The writer is a true blue Bangalorean, lover of all things related to food and culture.