Usha
When I was growing up, meals at home entirely consisted of Tambrahm home food. For lunch (eaten around 9 a.mon working days and around 10 a.m on holidays) we had rice, sambar, vegetable and buttermilk; Dosas, idlis, upmas and adais were for evening tiffin and dinner menu was sambar or rasam with rice and curd rice. Variation was only in the vegetable and the type of Sambar. The menu varied on festival days with special dishes to mark the respective occasions. Chapatis were still not accepted as a substitute for rice and bread was only eaten if you were ill. This was the 1960s and 70s. Chaat counters were available in a few restaurants which also served north Indian food that tasted suspiciously like South Indian sambar and kootu disguised under North Indian Spices.

After marriage I moved to Calcutta and as a new bride, I was invited to meals by many of husband's friends and colleagues where I was introduced to dishes with fancy names like Alu mattar, Channa masala, Bhaingan Bhurtha,Palak paneer etc and the food at the Chinese reataurants of Calcutta. My sambar-ravaged taste buds woke up to hitherto unknown pleasures while tasting spices other than chilli and pepper. I loved them and craved them and began to eagerly wait for dinner invitations! Once they started dwindling, I armed myself with a few Tarla Dalal recipe books and quickly learnt to make a few of my favourites and decided to surprise the husband and the father-in-law with a lunch menu comprising entirely of these divinely delicious dishes.
Come lunch time and I made a production of it. I waited till they were seated at the table to unveil the dishes expecting a few audible signs of excitement and delight. All I got was a puzzled expression as the duo inspected the spread. And then the husband blurted out: "Looks very nice. but where is the food?"
"What, What do these look like -clay models of food?"
"No, I mean our food, like sambar, rice and all that."
I could have killed them with just a bit of poison in the Sambar next time but I resisted and simply said:
"Sambar does not go with this menu and yes, there is rice in the pulao and some plain rice."
There was ominous silence and the normally hearty eaters pecked politely at the food and fell with passion on the rice and curd.
The barbarians, philistines, Food fascists, Culinary Chauvinists - I could have gone on a la Captain Haddock but I was a new bride remember and rather young, and it was two against one. So I endured it all with a smile.
Anyway I lived on left over food for the next two days while cooking (no prizes for guessing) Sambar , Rasam and vegetables for the rest of the family.

I decided that the family I married into are culinary cowards who refuse to eat anything that their mothers did not recognise as food. But over a period of time, I have come to realise that almost everyone of my relatives brought up in Tamilnadu prefers the sambar, rasam, vegetable menu day after day after day without ever tiring of it. They actually think that it is the best kind of food in its taste, variety and nutrition! Last year I went on a holiday to the U.S to a cousin's place hoping to finally get away from the tyranny of sambar and rasam as this cousin has lived in the U.S. for over 20 years. I was secretly hoping to try out American and Mexican and whatever-else kind of food but imagine my dismay when my cousin assured us that we would get "our food" every single day. Her kitchen looked like a replica of her mother's in Bengaluru, well stocked with all the ingredients and when we went out to eat, we went to places serving Dosas and Puris! When my son comes back from his trips abroad, relatives of my generation are usually concerned about what he did for "food". I am tempted to tell them about the existence of "food" other than sambar, rasam, kootu, curry but then I do not want to offend their sensibilities so I tell them about the availability of our "food" almost everywhere in the world these days.

I read other blogs and people talk about experimenting with cuisine from all over the world and wonder how they got so adventurous. In my family people go to five star hotels and order Dosa from the menu (and that is what we have at home for breakfast about 3 days in a week.) They can claim to have eaten Dosa in Dubai, London, New York and San Francisco! Ask them about the local cuisine- they never tried it but mostly lived on salads and yoghurt and by the time they come back they exhibit serious symptoms of sambar withdrawal!

I sometimes think that to my family, food is not just a thing to tickle our tastebuds, satisfy our hunger and provide nutrition. It is much more than that - it is a relationship that links them to their roots and more specifically to their mothers. It reminds them of their mothers and childhood and gives them a sense of comfort and belonging.That is why it is important for them to be able to see it, feel it and taste it in a certain form so they can finally feel that they have come home. When I was newly married I noticed that even though the dishes were similar between ours and my in-laws', there were minor variations to the recipe and I was urged to follow them strictly. Being a bit of a rebel I once made Morkozhambu the way my mother makes it and was politely but firmly told that it tasted good but they preferred it the way my mother in law and her mother in law made it.
In the west they have one day to celebrate their mothers but for generations, men of our family have celebrated and honoured their mothers at every mealtime by recognising as "food" only what their mothers fed them. Everything else is just decoration on the table.

Happy mother's day!
48 Responses
  1. Nandita Says:

    Honestly I got goosebumps while reading this...a minute ago on chat, my friend was asking me what's special for Mother's Day, so I said we Tambrams do see the point in doing anything different for such 'days' and my mom doesn't believe in this concept :)
    You know while growing up, i have eaten the 'same variety' of sambhar, kootu, avails, rasams and everything with rice, so much so that i used to tell my granny, when i grow up and have my choice, i wont touch rice...and today when i am truly grown up, having the freedom to cook what i please in my house, both me and hubby both crave for a Sunday meal - araicha sambar, some nice kootu with snake gourd or cabbage, thair pachidi and curd rice with some mangai...this for us is bliss, comfort and sense of being totally loved:)
    Hapy Mother's Day to you.
    Today eating my mom's own Keerai Kootan for lunch (at 10 am )
    :)


  2. dipali Says:

    Lovely post! Made me crave for a good South Indian meal:)


  3. Raj Says:

    What a lovely post, Usha. But, don't be under the illusion that only South Indians have the sambhar fetish. The North Indian craving for this delicacy was captured beautifully, in the film Sholay, with the antagonist constantly calling out, "Arre o Sambar".


  4. Nita Says:

    Hi Usha, came over from Paul's blog. He's given you and E for Excellence award and I had to come here and check out your blog. Right now being a sunday didn't have much time but have bookmarked you and will visit again.


  5. Usha Says:

    Nandita: I am pretty sure now that you are from extended wing of my family. :)
    Actually that sunday lunch is quite mouth watering. In our house it was arichu vitta sambar prefereably with sambar vengayam, urulai kizhangu curry and rasam with poricha aplam.

    Dipali: walk into our home any time - that is all you'll get.

    raj:hahahaha..This reminds me of another thing. You know we lived near T.Nagar club and there used to be a Geeta Cafe there in the 70s. A lot of saits (marwaris) who lived around that area would come and eat there - Idlis and vada soaked in litres of sambar and then drink up the sambar like soup. But these saits are naturalised Tamilians no? - Nambalku sarya terlai, nimbal solrana?

    Nita: Thank you for dropping by. Paul is too generous but yes please do come again


  6. Nandita Says:

    You know it is not funny how many common threads there still are among even the most unrelated of Tambram people that it is easy to be called 'a family'!

    Your menu is just what perfect SUndays are made of - the chinna vengaya sambhar is something ambrosial - that too with poricha vethal ( i get some from my mom and co. who make a batch each year in summers) is the gateway t o nirvana... i shall keep coming back to your post, tis such a delightful read...BTW have linked this as Read of the Day on my blog :)
    Just woke up from a nearly comatose sleep after a mom-made sunday lunch!


  7. Altoid Says:

    Happy mother's day Usha :)

    -altoid


  8. harini calamur Says:

    :)
    it is scary & reassuring to see how many families in blogdom are similar...
    the first time i made pasta and its accompaniments i was asked where the curd rice was !
    and, when i wished my mother this morning she reminded me of the other 364 days :)


  9. Hip Grandma Says:

    it could have been me writing this post.I share your agony with the mamma's boy in my house wanting me to prepare idlys the traditional way in an idly paanai spreading the batter on a piece of white linen.

    Happy mother's day Usha.

    If these men don't appreciate recipes other than their mother's won't our sons also do the same?


  10. Hip Grandma Says:

    North Indaians relish idly vada alright.But for regular meals it is dal,bhat sabzi any day.


  11. Dhanya Says:

    Happy mothers day to you :)


  12. Gardenia Says:

    Thank you for having written this piece. I've nothing to say here. I shall print out this piece and paste it above the dining table.


  13. eve's lungs Says:

    You seem to be picturing my angst albeit from a Bong point of view. nothing but maachh (fish) cooked the way my mil does will satisfy AG. culinary adventures are restricted to me, my daughters and the maid. sigh


  14. rambodoc Says:

    A post that blends semialessly with my own thoughts.
    These culinazis are the bane of any educated palate.
    I never eat Indian food abroad. Just never!


  15. Shefaly Says:

    Usha:

    I think there are two kinds of people - the curiously epicurious and the incurious. The latter may account for some of the lack of food adventures amongst people.

    But not being able to cook a different kind of cuisine perfectly may be why some stick to tried and tested recipes while cooking at home. My experiments with French cooking for instance stopped at confit du canard and tarte tatin (which because I messed with the butter in the recipe was a bit watery). My experiments with Thai cooking however have covered vast ground and I make my own sauces from scratch..

    So if you are coming to London, I can take you around to the best idli vada place, best steak frites, best whatever you like. I can also introduce you to 10 friends who never eat anything but mughlai rubbish as served by "Indian" restaurants run by Bangaldeshis.. :-)


  16. You said it all.....We always go back to the comfort food of our childhood after screaming ourselves hoarse for variety.
    I saw it in my children - they resented it that we only had the regular Tambram food all the time. Once they left home, they couldn't wait to get back to it - arachu vitta sambar and paruppu usuli and the rest of it! :)


  17. indosungod Says:

    Usha, Happy Mother's Day! Loveluy writeup. How very true, however fancy the food may be, going without sambhar and rasam for a week leads to withdrawl symptoms. We were travelling for a week and it was difficult even to get plain white rice. The minute we stepped off the plane we ran into a South Indian restaurant serving rasam and finally felt at peace .


  18. Akhila Says:

    Happy Mother's Day Usha!
    Lovely post.Reflects the sentiments of every wife(until their sons get married of course!).
    I could not cook before marriage. My husband told his friend " You see it is a good advantage. Now she can learn cooking in my mother's style." !!!!!!


  19. Usha Says:

    Nandita: mm yummmm. I am tempted to make that combination soon. Keerai kootu and vathal kozhambu with keerai kootu is equally ambrosial, no?
    Thanks for the mention at Saffron trail.

    alto: Thank you.

    Harini: haha, absolutely!

    Hipgran: And does he want the kallule araicha mavu also? Once my husband tried mentioning it and I said I'd gladly make it for him if he can provide the batter. apram chup!
    Oh yes there are culinary cowards everywhere or may be because that is THEIR comfort food.

    Dhanya: Thanks girl.

    Gardenia: Hahahha and don't forget to report the reactions.

    Eve's lungs: I guess you substitute the local dish in place of sambar, rasam and vegetable and this could have been written by a wife from anywhere in india.

    Doc: semialessly lol. hehehe

    Shefaly: This generation seems far more adventurous about food than ours - I guess that may also have to do with the culinary skills of a lot of us. Cooking is more a matter of nutrition for me that a passion unlike my mom or mom-in-law.
    Another reason might also be that this generation travels far more on work and this is a necessary adjustment.

    Raji Muthukrishnan: I have seen that around here too. Just the other day I chanced on your mom's blog and visited yours and it is a surprise that 3 days later you are here. :)

    Indosungod:hahahaha. Sambar/ Rasam and curd rice seem the comfort foods for most tambrahms. And I also noticed that it is the women who seem to miss rasam while men are more sambar addicted. Wonder why! Anything about Mars and Venus?

    Akhila: hahaha and chitra is sucha wonderful cook too - it is tough to live up to her standards!


  20. ~nm Says:

    I just shudder at the thought of eating the same things day after day! Although our everyday meal consists of daal roti and subzi but there are days when I don't even want to look at it. But yes, there are days when we want to have 'our' food only!

    So how is the trend now at your place now? Still the same sambar, rice nad veggies or it is more experimentative?

    I've always been the experimentative kinds. An I'm famous for that especially when I host parties! And I just love it when people tell me they have always had a new dish at each of the dinners I've hosted and they kind of look forward to it everytime now! Makes me feel very happy! :)


  21. Let me tell you Usha- this phenomenon is not restricted to TamBrahms alone. My totally Lucknowi hubby - living in N America for 6 years very bluntly told me - "there is no need to experiment with food - better you stick to food like my mamma makes it" Hmmpff!!!
    Now that does give me the added impetus to ensure that my son does not turn out that way too


  22. Unmana Says:

    Happy Mothers' Day!

    And congrats on the award over at http://cafephilos.wordpress.com/2008/05/10/825/

    Bloggy party? :)


  23. Mama - Mia Says:

    usha!!

    trust YOU to have a completely different take on Mother's Day! :)

    this post was just awesome! my kitchen also resembles a lot like my moms! i even insisted ons ame sized little spoons for my maslas and salt!! similar plates!

    and ofcos Mayunk from time to time, requests food the way his mom does! Ma-in-law thankfully is an exceptional cook! and asking for recipes makes her feel better too!! :D

    ofcos both of us are very very open in terms of tickling our tastebuds!! M even more than me!!

    yet every now and then the craving for mooli paratha" like MiLs will just be really strong!! :)

    belated happy mum's day!!

    cheers!

    abha


  24. Suma Says:

    ha..hah...

    came here from hipgranma's and love teh way you've written this :)

    i serve pasta etc, because te kids love it but make sure there is at least some rice left for the starving hubby


  25. Shefaly Says:

    Usha: You were the first person I tagged for a foodie meme. Looking forward to reading your response :-)


  26. Interesting!

    Though born a Tambrahm, moving to different parts of the country and then in to NZ, we have experimented and enjoyed a wide variety of food from the Gujju Papda to Mexican Nachos.

    You seem to have been less fortunate.


  27. GuNs Says:

    LOL, that was a super funny post. I totally agree with some (in fact, most) people from India who never try different cuisines. I get an urge to slap people when they come here to the UK and go on and on about how crap the food is here. I generally tell them that if its such a problem, they ought to go back where they can get their kind of food.

    Sad, isn't it? There is so much variety in the world and people just close their eyes to it because they have a superiority complex over things.

    I think Indian food is the best in the world but that's only because I've grown up eating that kind of food and that is merely my own choice and not really a consensus. I've tried a large number of cuisines since I came to the UK in 2006. I've tried Thai, Vietnamese, Portuguese, Chinese (absolutely authentic Chinese where the waitress wrote down our orders in Chinese). I could eat a full English breakfast sans the meat any day now. Baked beans, fried eggs, toast and hash-browns. Yummy!

    My mom faced a similar problem when she moved to Gujrat after marriage. All she had ever eaten or cooked was traditional coastal Karnataka dishes which included rice, various kinds of fish curry, various types of dosas, idli etc. All credit to her though because she learnt a lot of Gujju dishes while we lived there and then she also cooks tons of Marathi dishes now that we've been living in Maharashtra for close on 18 years.

    -PeAcE
    --WiTh
    ---GuNs


  28. Anonymous Says:

    Usha,

    First time commenter, I think! Your post made me LOL at work, and hungry too! I sympathise heartily - my parents and ILs all prefer to stick to Tambram food anywhere in the worload (and they've travelled pretty extensively) - I felt the same way you do, and decided to be sure my kids did not grow up with such narrow tastes in food. We cook a variety of cuisines at home - but guess what - age ages 8 and 6, the kids, after a couple of days of pasta or noodles, demand sambar/rasam etc. My son has gone as far as stating that he wants only "green thogaiyal" (his term for corainder thuvaiyal) - must be embedded in the genes!

    M


  29. Reva Says:

    Hi Usha,

    I have been a regular reader, delurking for the first time..

    I am almost half your age and I could have very well written this post. I love to try new cuisines and after labouring for hours in the kitchen to make stuff from scratch, the husband asks, 'didn't u keep rice for curd rice?'. Bah! nowadays all I cook is tambram food..

    But the araichu vitta chinna vengaya sambar, potato fry n appalam do sound like the perfect stuff for sunday lunch! :)

    Amazing blog you have here..
    Reva


  30. awesome post..I am not adventouous with food. I think as I gorw older, it is becoming increasingly difficult to try new food and restaurants..why fix something that's not broken :) I eat the same old "ghaati" food everyday and love it!!! But now my tastebuds are craving the sambar you mention. you totally need to throw a sambhar party for your humble readers whi read (and commented on this post) :D


  31. Paul Says:

    In my latest effort to annoy you, Usha, I have come up with a new award.


  32. S! Says:

    I did not see that mother's day bit coming at all; very well written, Usha


    Though I'd have to say that I am not really a stickler for any kind food. I consume wursts, & ilish maachh with equal gusto.

    Souvik.


  33. Jane Turley Says:

    Well what a mixture Usha! I am now convinced you like your food as much as I do! (Unfortunately it sounds like you are a much better cook though.) You know I think you're probably right about the attachment to certain foods being a mother/childhood related thing.. Mr T was always enamoured with his mother's cooking. Whereas he has often said to me "That was nice but let's not have it again for a while." (Yes, that is his subtle way of saying it wasn't that great.)
    My mother hated cooking..there were 4 children and little money so I suppose there wasn't much room for creativity even if she had been that way inclined. I dont know if you have seen a UK show called "Butterflies"... the leading lady's cooking skills were apalling and we always to joke this was my mother! Hey, it is probably why I've inherited a severe lack of interest in cooking myself and will happily eat anything. (Well apart from of those horrendous french things!)
    Do you know I think curry is now the no 1 dish in the UK or if not, very close. We Brits are very eclectic and do you know those cucumber sandwiches are really rather boring!
    PS, None of those dishes sounded like they had much chocolate in them which must be very, very depressing for you!


  34. Swati Says:

    You always look at things differently ..loved the post :)


  35. maami Says:

    I'm told by culinary experts that it's called 'comfort food' by those who are not adventurous with food. A friend who grew up with a working mum says, all she needs on mother's day is a packet of biriyani bought near park street dabba. But I've grown so indifferent to food that it frightens me, apart from the rare excitement i get while doing some fine dining.
    But why are Indian mothers tied to cooking? Gimme a break on mother's Day phuleese.


  36. WhatsInAName Says:

    ROFL at... north Indian food that tasted suspiciously like South Indian sambar
    I remember one of my friends mouthing these very words for the chole I made once...hehehe... blame it on the genes!
    And this post was like my kitchen-story as well! Sighs! Where art thou, the continental baked dishes!


  37. hillgrandmom Says:

    Well, my poor husband puts up with whatever he gets to eat! He loves North Indian food too. But I remember my MIL telling me once that her husband (FIL) complained about her 'moru' and how it wasn't like his mother's. She tells me she told him, 'If you want food like your mother's, you're welcome to go there and eat'! (btw, they remained married till death and had 8 children besides)


  38. Usha Says:

    nm: Of course still the same husband - so still the same situation! :)
    Son likes to try out other cuisine so once in a while when Husband is travelling we freak out.

    STS: I am sure it isn't. But I could not speak authentically about others. I hoped some of you might throw some light.

    Unmana: Thanks and why not?
    Menu? Sambar, Rasam, Vegie? :)

    Abha: mmm. Mooli Paratha. Yum! I can understand the craving for comfort food if you have been eating other things rest of the time but to want it day after day? meal after meal...hm..

    Suma: Pasta with curd rice - sounds like my kind of menu. :)

    Shefaly: Loved the meme as well as your responses. Mine in the next post.

    Bala: Less fortunate - what an understatement! Deprived, terrorised, oppressed is more like it!

    Guns: Interesting points. I think there is some kind of logic behind the food choices of different regions and I suspect it might even be healthier to eat local food. But of course we are all slaves to our taste buds and they dictate our preferences.

    M: Their taste buds are quite sensitised to spicy Tamil food already. One of my cousins had a theory - don't know if it is true. She says if the mother follows a strict diet (pathyam)after child birth, the child never gets used to other kind of food. So she recommends that the mom should include everything in her diet even when she is feeding the baby. Don't know where she heard THAT one!

    Reva: Thank you.
    So you know exactly how I feel don't you!

    Dotmom: Just walk in - no notice needed. You will get Sambar, rasam Vegie withy rice! And rememebr to get me some Ghati food O - I am sure I'd love it. YOu know when I went to work in Delhi there was a colleague at the bank from U.P - at every lunch time we would exchange lunch boxes - she relishing my idlis and dosas and me going ecstatic over her rotis and bhurtas and channa and alu sabzi.

    Paul: Thank you. Have displayed the badge proudly and prominently and what a beauty she is!

    Souvik: Don't I know that which is precisely why you have been tagged!

    Jane: I throw myself heart and soul into cooking if I have to try out new recipes - I don't pay so much attention to the usual fare. So that should give you an idea of how great a cook I am!
    I do love Cucumber sandwiches at tea time. And yes, I heard that curry is very popular in the U.K. Do you like it too?
    It is terribly depressing that our daily menu has no chocolate in it - that is why I supplement my diet with large quantities of the dark on the outside, gooey inside ambrosia.

    Maami: Make that plea "on all days, puhlees"

    WIAN: Hugs. I know, that's how I feel too. come on, take a tissue. :)

    Hillgran: Wow! Now, that is a line I am going to use regularly henceforward!

    Swati: Thank you Ma'm. :)


  39. Laksh Says:

    Came here through the google reader recommendation. Fantastic post!


  40. Praveen G K Says:

    What a fantastic post!!! Had a hearty laugh, but to be honest with you, you are spot on!!! I just cannot live without sambhar and rasam, and curry!!! :-)

    In fact, just last week, I made Mor Kuzhambu and Poruchcha kuzhambu at home, since I was craving for it for a long time. It is not that I do not try different kinds of cuisine, but it is just the fact that we have become so used to the conventional food!!! And I like, all your reasoning!!!!!!


  41. Sumana Says:

    Nice one Usha. I had a hearty laugh at "serious symptoms of sambar withdrawal". Very heart warming post.


  42. Jane Turley Says:

    I do like curry Usha..but I prefer milder dishes. Mr T likes them a little stronger. We are fortunate that in the next village there is an extremely good Indian resturant... and I might add the most handsome Indian gentleman owner. I think his English needs a little assistance though Usha and thus I have taken it upon myself to visit as frequently as possible......

    I must also persuade him to add a little chocolate to the menu....


  43. Usha Says:

    Sumana: hehe and it is true though!

    Jane: I strongly suggest that you wait until his English improves to make that suggestion about adding chocolate to the menu.
    Now we don't want him adding it to the curry, do we? Now that would be a waste of good chocolate and good curry! :)


  44. Mahadevan Says:

    With my wife away in US to spend some time with our children, I lord it over in my kitchen and have absolute freedom to make mistakes of all varieties. In fact I was working on a blog on the subject, when I saw yours.

    Very often we read through eight pages of 'Menu' and order Idli Vada Sambar in any restaurant.
    The three tiffins ( Idli, Adai and Dosai) and three meals ( Sambar, Rasam and Thayir sadam) make up our culinary kingdom and the rest are subalterns for us. But we have some of the finest enchanting coquets like Vengaya Sambar, Vettakuzambu and Molagapodi which everybody would eye stealthily. I enjoy Molagapodi with Pizza Bread (does it sounds like Sonia Gandhi's Hindi?) Thengai Chutney goes well with Thayir Sadam.
    Morkuzambhu and Potato Karakari can be ideal marital partners.
    I am certainly proud of Tambram kitchens and their brand equity.


  45. Inexplicably Says:

    Sigh ! And here I am breaking my head over the Gits Rava Idli mix which churns out Idlis which either require a hammer to break them or when made in a cooker turn out to be more fried eggs than idlis !!!!!

    Some one please tell me how to make proper south indian Idlis !

    Wannabe idli eater from the Roti heartland of India !


  46. Akila Says:

    Oh dont take my saturday evening and sunday morning and rest of the days dosa away from me!!!!!!!:)!


  47. Usha Says:

    Laksh: Thank you. Sorry I had not responded to this earlier. blogger did not deliver this comemnt to my inbox.

    Praveen gk: I guess I'd do that too if I had to go without them for a certain period.But I'd never know with having to cook them all the time!

    Mahadevan: Molagapodi with Pizza bread... come on, you are insulting both.Absolutely like SG's hindi or laloo's English. True, we have some great dishes but it is this nazism that I protest.

    Inexplicably: For rava idli make sure you add really sour curd so that it ferments and gives you a soft Idli. Soft idlis, it is the proportion of rice to urad dal that makes all the difference. If you are getting ready made batter try adding a pinch of eno salt to the batter. That gives you soft idlis.

    Akilas: Dosas, you'll get them by the dozen any time. don't worry. :)


  48. Anonymous Says:

    very well written..couldn't stop smiling thru out:))