Food for thought and emotion in five morsels

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In this conversation with an electronics engineer and Tishani, you will find brewing a profound connection between cuisine, the mindful activity of cooking, memory, and nostalgia.

Anyone CAN cook, believes Archana Pidathala, author of 'Five Morsels of Love', and self-made expert in Andhra cuisine. | Image courtesy flickr / dennis.pope85

Archana Pidathala is the author of Five Morsels of Love, a collection of heirloom recipes from her grandmother’s Andhra kitchen. She holds a bachelor’s degree in electronics engineering from NIT Warangal and an MBA from the Indian School of Business, and spent over a decade in the technology world before quitting her Product Management job to recreate her grandmother’s recipes. She lives in Bangalore with her husband and five-year-old son.

 

Five Morsels of Love was shortlisted for the 2017 Art of Eating prize awarded to the year’s best book about food.

 

Using grandma to flog food is a universal practice, whether it’s pasta sauce, cookies or pickles. How would you convince us that your grandmother was the real deal?

 

My grandma (or 'ammama' as I called her) was a very special woman. She was a self-taught and ingenious cook and was so much ahead of her times. She could make lemon tarts and biryani with equal ease. She self-published her first cookbook in Telugu when she was 37 and sold 15,000 copies over three print runs. (The Telugu cookbook has quite a charming little baking section in English!) She put my mother through medical school with the proceeds from her book. She went on to write a second Telugu cookbook; the unpublished draft of over 300 recipes rests on my study table. In addition to being a passionate cook ammama was also a great teacher. She was willing to share her knowledge, patiently explaining recipes to anyone who asked. She also was an avid documenter writing down everything she knew and thus bequeathing to us boxes and boxes of heirloom recipes. Culinary experts of Indian food including Begum Bilkees Latif, Camellia Panjabi and Chandri Bhat still remember her warmly for her knowledge and passion for food.

 

How old were you when you learned to cook?

 

I was 32.

 

Why did it take so long?

 

I was always curious about food as a child and spent many memorable hours at my grandmother's knee watching her cook, being her little taster, and just soaking in the sounds, aromas and flavours of her kitchen. My grandmother would always tell me stories of what a great little eater I was. I never learnt to cook from her though. My grandmother and mother played a significant role in helping me develop a passion for food but they consciously kept me out of the process of cooking itself. They wanted me to excel in school, get out of the home (and kitchen), be financially independent and seize opportunities their generation(s) perhaps had limited access to. So I got busy with that part of life.

I was 27 when ammama suddenly succumbed to cancer and her loss hit me hard. Months earlier I had promised to help her publish an English version of her Telugu cookbook "Vanitha Vantakalu". I picked the project up to complete what she had left unfinished but quickly shelved it as I found myself in unfamiliar territory. Having never cooked before, terms like 'dry roast', 'salt to taste', 'cook till done' were alien to me. I couldn't even make a simple tadka, nor did I know how to use tamarind. It took me another five years to start cooking my way through my grandmother's book.

 

For women of a certain generation, the kitchen has been seen as an avoidable space, a space of enslavement. How can we reclaim this space without conceding the gains that freedom from the kitchen has undoubtedly allowed?

 

I think one of the first things that needs to happen is to stop framing cooking as a woman’s responsibility. Everybody needs to be empowered to be comfortable in the kitchen. My five-year-old son amazes me everyday with his capacity to learn and help around in the kitchen. At home, cooking is the single-most fun and collaborative thing we do as a family. From a personal standpoint I reclaimed that “avoidable” space in the kitchen not because I had to but because I wanted to.

 

Unfortunately, as a generation we spend less time in the kitchen than our parents and much less time than our grandparents. There is no denying the fact that shopping for ingredients, maintaining a well-stocked larder and cooking and putting food on the table takes time. But the whole process of cooking is such a creative, mindful and pleasurable act. More importantly cooking allows us to nourish and take care of ourselves and to live healthy. And that is reason enough to get back into the kitchen.

 

We have all experienced Proustian moments, when the biting into a particular food item unleashes a string of childhood memories. What’s your madeleine?

 

Has to be ulava charu (a slow-cooked thick rasam or soup made with horse gram).

We stopped making and eating ulava charu at home after ammama passed away. Sometime in 2010 I ate a morsel of ulava charu mixed with rice at a wedding in Hyderabad. The minute I tasted that intense earthy flavour I was transported back in time to the backyard of my parents’ home where amamma would stir a huge earthen pot of horse gram broth set on wood fire for hours. This process of slow cooking allows for some really compelling flavours to develop. The resulting broth is dark and complex with a very distinctive umami taste. The last memory I have of this dish is of ammama feeding me a bowl of hot rice and ulava charu laced with fresh homemade butter on my wedding day. I always had a jar of ammama’s ulava charu with me all through my growing up years and even today a bowl of ulava charu and rice is what (surely) takes me back home.

Recently, I chanced upon research that stated that the taste of food rich in umami has strong Proustian echoes. It was such a reinforcement of what I had experienced with that bite of ulava charu.

 

Could you talk more about your relationship between food, cooking and memory?

 

I started cooking as a way to honour my grandmother's memory and keep the food that formed me in childhood alive. Each dish I cooked out of my grandmother's book filled my kitchen with the smells of my grandmother's triggering memories that I did not even know were archived within me. What was interesting is the fact that I wasn't summoning these memories consciously. It also made me realise what a powerful memory trigger the sense of smell is. For instance the smell, crackle and sizzle of a freshly made tadka in ghee took me to my grandmother's dining room where the five of us grandchildren would sit down on the floor cross-legged, knees bumping, eagerly waiting for ammama to feed us lunch. The whiff of a spice-infused tamarind sauce bubbling away for a pulusu evoked memories of countless summer afternoons spent with my grandmother always impeccably dressed in a crisp cotton sari wearing green glass bangles and a big red bindi. These recovered memories also helped words flow effortlessly, filling the pages of Five Morsels of Love.

 

There’s a grey area of cooking which is “just enough” … How much salt? Just enough. How much to stir before adding the next item? Just enough. There are approximations in cooking that are learned only through experience. How did you deal with this while compiling the recipes for the book?

 

Demystifying “just enough” at all levels was such an interesting and fun challenge. I wanted to observe somebody cook before setting out on my own to test ammama’s recipes. Our home cook of over thirty years, Vali, who learnt a lot of cooking from ammama, seemed like the ideal person I should learn from. So, I went and spent a few weeks at my mother’s home spending hours in the kitchen watching Vali cook. He is a magician in the kitchen. It is also a nightmare to document or measure anything he cooks as he is making four dishes at the same time and that too at the speed of light!

Once back in my own kitchen, one of the first things I bought myself was a digital kitchen scale and a set of measuring cups. As I tested the recipes I measured every ingredient in grams, cups and tablespoons. I quickly learnt from my editor Sonya Balasubramanyam (who is an expert baker and a former journalist) to have the right questions in my head and to be observant of every step of the cooking process. So I began recording accurate cooking times and heat levels at each stage along with concise easy-to-follow directions. And I tested each recipe at least three times to ensure everything was accurately captured.

Having said that, the recipes in Five Morsels also have enough sensory cues packed into them — a colour, a texture or an indicative smell to look out for. With experience we begin to trust our senses and hands over all else.

 

If you are stuck on an island or a jail cell and could only eat one meal for the rest of your life, what would that meal be?

 

Annamu, pappu and avakaya. Steamed rice, mashed yellow lentils and mango pickle. With plenty of ghee, of course!

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