Usha

I am not a foodie . I will eat anything that is set before me at mealtimes. For me , it is too much effort to undertake a trip to the other side of town to check out the food in a restaurant even if it receives rave reviews from connoiseurs. On the rare occasion that I do get to dine in one of these places that come highly recommended, I still look forward to the conversation rather than the food. Last Friday I met my friend Asha at a nice restaurant in UB city and later when Akila asked me what we had for lunch, I struggled even to describe it to her leave alone remember the name of the dish.

I would have imagined that a non-complaining consumer like me should be the favorite of any cook. But that is not the case. Good cooks want their creations to be criticized, appreciated , evaluated. The older women in my family cooked sambar, rasam and vegetable on a daily basis but eagerly waited for feedback from those who ate it. “sambar sariya irukka?’ (‘is the sambar ok?’) my grandmom would ask as you took the first mouthful of sambar mixed with hot rice and ghee. That was your cue to savour the mouthful and tell her how good it tasted. To be fair to her and most of the ladies of her generation , they turned out delicious sambar and rasam with unfailing consistency. She would have been delighted with a response a la wine tasters about the full body and the delicious blend of the spices and the divine aroma. Or at the minimum, a comment about the balance of salt and spices in the dish. Naturally she would be disappointed with my insensitive treatment of her labor of love as just a means to whet my appetite -no more, no less. No wonder she preferred to seek the opinion of my sister who could say that one-eighth of a pinch of salt would make the dish perfect.

Looking back, what amazes me about the cooking of these women of earlier generations is the consistency in taste. My grandmother’s rasam tasted the same every time she made it. Not once have I seen her put a spoonful in her mouth to check for taste while cooking but the finished product always had the same taste. We called it “kai manam” or the taste of the hand that made the dish. And we ate the same dishes most of the days of the week – a sambar, a rasam and a curry or kootu and yet the meal was extremely satisfying to the palate and stomach. It was simple, tasty and healthy. In recent times I have watched several cookery shows – Indian and international– on the television and that is when I realized the amazing simplicity of our cooking both in terms of the ingredients and in terms of the processes. We just boil, steam or fry. The basic ingredients needed were coriander seeds, chillies and tamarind and a set of spices stored in a box with 5 containers (anjarai petti) for mustard, fenugreek, cumin, pepper and asafetida. This is all they needed to keep their family fed on happy meals most days of the year.

A few days ago, my cousin gave me a cookery book containing recipes of everyday dishes cooked in our family handed down the generations. Today I made a kootu (vegetable and lentils gravy) based on a recipe from the book and when I ate it, there were tears in my eyes as it tasted just like the kootu prepared by my mother. It brought back so many memories of her moving about the kitchen, making these dishes and serving us hot food at every meal whether she was sick or tired or sad. In my mind, the taste of the food that she used to make was so much a part of her - as much as everything else she was. As the author calls it in this article, that taste was a part of my ‘food ancestry’ and it moved me to tears.

This experience is probably something that the younger generation cannot relate to. With the demands and pressures their careers impose on them, there is very little cooking happening in many houses of younger couples these days. It is true that today we have an endless range of food options within our reach and so there is no reason to confine ourselves to the traditional recipes of our ancestors. And whether people want to cook their meals or not is a matter of individual preference. But when the hearth no longer symbolizes family togetherness, children of coming generations will not have memories of growing up intertwined with watching their mom/dad cooking and the medley of smells from a warm kitchen, the signature taste of the way mom used to make this dish or that. With the rise of take-out, eating-out culture, a lot of traditional recipes may soon be forgotten too.

Since these recipes are so much a part of our tradition and culture we could probably make an effort to save them from total oblivion. Do you have any traditional recipe or cooking tip specific to your family that has already disappeared from most kitchens? Please do share as a comment or mail me at Usha.vaidyanathan@gmail.com

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39 Responses
  1. Garima Says:

    How very true..
    In my grand moms generations: Marwadi delicacies and spcialitieS like Papad, SUpaari, Namkeen, Mithai (4-5 traditiona ones) were always home made.
    My mom used to make papads,supari at home until I was about 8-9 years old and then Bikaji happened. It all got "outsourced" Mithai, the traditional ones were still home made.. and then by the time I was in college the neighborhood halwaii had perfected the art.
    And my generation.......the delicacies are all lost. The Papad, SUpari, Namkeen, Mithai are all made by professionals. We just go in to the store and buy it or mum/ granmom would hand make it and send it to us.
    Daily cooking, we can do.. we will try crazy concoctions, but traditional cookins is takinga back seat unless we talk about festivities.


  2. eve's lungs Says:

    Usha - I have been thinking about doing a post on the times food has tasted like manna and each time it has been the simplest of dishes cooked by my mother . I try to hold on to traditional Bengali food and recreate the food that we enjoyed as children and already I find myself failing where snacks are concerned , and sweets all of which were so commonplace when my mother was alive .


  3. Shankari Says:

    Very well written article, each line rings so true. I have always enjoyed cooking and try to replicate my mom's or my in-laws house taste in each dish I prepare. I hope that atleast one of my daughter's has inherited my love for cooking and carry it forward :)

    Can you please give me the name of the book?

    Thanks!


  4. Valli Says:

    A very nice post...I enjoyed reading each and every word of yours...As always you are the BEST


  5. Laksh Says:

    Usha, loved this post. Took me back decades back growing up to the smell of frying somaasi and puran poli. It is true that we are well on track to lose many of these timeless dishes. On one hand looking at the proliferation of food blogs, I feel hopeful they will remain in perpetuity.


  6. Praveen Says:

    I have a feeling cooking bakshanams during festivals will vanish with time and those available in the sweet stalls hardly taste like home made ones.


  7. Dr.Antony Says:

    You wrote about food,but it touched me somewhere.
    We had a maid at our home when I was young.But my amma did all the cooking,and at lunch time I would take the food to my father,who would be at the shop.One day,he was taking his lunch,suddenly paused and asked me.Who made the curry today? My amma had a cut on her finger and the maid had prepared a curry.
    Food had the signature of the cook.Our kitchen had only few old tins where she used to keep the spices.I am surprised how she cooked all those wonderful food,with so little things.These days, they have in their modern, almost smokeless kitchens home appliances that help dice, mix, blend and cook dishes in large quantities at the mere touch of a button. We save time and labour, no doubt, but no longer can we enjoy the taste of freshly cooked dishes at every meal as we once used to. Refrigerators have put paid to that joy.
    Excellent post.


  8. sandhya Says:

    Wonderful post, Usha! As usual!

    True- it does not matter how many recipe books one refers to. The only dishes which come out just like 'mother used to make' are those which have been learnt in a hands-on method, with instructions like-a pinch of this, a handful of that,- instead of in standard measures. There is a lemon pickle for children my mother used to make at home, which I too make for my daughter, that she loves. In fact every year I have to make lots more than what can be consumed at home because all her friends want to be sent bottles of it!


  9. AA_Mom Says:

    Usha,
    Hi, I have been lurking on your blog from a few days and cooking made me delurk :).

    If you were to check out the food blogs that exist across the net, you would not have to worry about an art lost.

    I frequent quite a few blogs and am amazed at how these bloggers are sharing recipes and traditions and at the same time trimming the traditions to fit the current lifestyle.

    A few blogs that I can think of are www.themahanandi.org, onehotstove.blogspot.com
    madteaparty.wordpress.com

    The one thing I would say is unlike in the generation of our grand mom's cooking is not forced, only people who like and enjoy it are continuing to do so


  10. apu Says:

    Lovely post, Ushaji. (regular reader but rare commentor here, so let me also say that I loved your previous post on your dogs too...)

    To me, what is vanishing is not just skills but the concept of food as linked to a community's lifestyle and routine. As you said, in a typical south indian vegetarian family, "food" meant rice, sambar, rasam, poriyal and curd - with extras thrown in for special occasions. This predictability, IMO also had some comfort to it.

    Today, I thrown in noodles, pasta, north indian food all into a week's menu. There is nothing wrong with it per se, but I feel like something is lost all the same.


  11. Phoenixritu Says:

    I miss my mother's besan barfi and gulab jamuns. She used to make her garam masala and sambhar powder at home, and her dishes were so tasty, and tasted so different and unique.


  12. Kaveri Says:

    Wonderful post Ushaji. Its true that we should make an effort not to lose our traditional recipies.


  13. Anonymous Says:

    Usha - its just not you, it brought back too many memories to me too .... your mom sitting on that high stool, making dosas after dosas, her special dish koora with drumstick ( I have never eaten this anywhere except from your house), serving your paati on her thaiyal elai, her voice in the night calling someone from our house to share the excess food (at times made for us too - with her expression ungalukkum sethu than panninen) .. more than anything it is her lack of fuss about cooking that made it so special ... Chitra


  14. RGB Says:

    My mom is such a wonderful cook. she bakes yummy cakes, biscuits...makes murukku, mysore-pa...sadly, I haven't taken after her. I make every excuse to stay out of the kitchen. Just hope my daughters take after my mom & not me, as far as this dept is concerned!


  15. That was a lovely post!Ten years ago, I was newly married and had absolutely no idea what cooking entailed. I could do fairly complicated experiments in my lab but I just COULD NOT distinguish between kadala paruppu and tauram paruppu.My mother gave me an old note book that belonged to one of her former students (a biology notebook with pencil sketches of various insects no less -she could not abide the thought of wasting paper:))and I began to write down recipes. You can imagine the phone bills I managed to rake up!The very first recipe was for inji pacha molaha yelimchampazaham rasam. Lots of recipes followed. The book is tattered beyond belief but 10 years later I still look into it everyday. I sort of know the recipes now but when I look in there I remember my mother and my childhood. What I cook though never tastes as good as what she made- I haven't got that kai manam!
    Gosh, this is a long, long comment but your post brought back such happy memories.


  16. Usha Says:

    Hi all: I wrote the post on an impulse while the taste of the kootu still lingered in my mouth bringing to mind vivid images of my childhood home and its kitchen. I didnt think so many of you would be able to relate to the sentiments. Thank you.


  17. artnavy Says:

    great post

    kai manam/ kai vaaku/ food ancestory- all familiar words

    i love to cook but hardly do so of late...maybe once the baby is a bit grown up...

    am very sure i want to pass on this food ancestory legacy to the kids!!


  18. One of the biggest gift my amma has given me is a hand written "recipe" book. I had no clue about this book until she handed the same to me. Apparently she had been writing simple / complex recipes in it since my wedding got fixed.
    Its been 10 years ... and I must say, it has helped me immensely. From a person who didn't know how to prepare tea, to a person who can cook for 50 people now ... I have come a long way...
    But just as every one is saying, the food I cook never matches up my mom's. (even simple rasam).


  19. Raam Pyari Says:

    wow...very well written bit...


  20. Parvathi Says:

    During my Thailand trip the tour guide told us that most women in Bangkok don't cook and called them as plastic mothers,, humorously.I do not know how appropriate is the word plastic, today many urban children are missing mother's cooking.For most of the kids of bygone era mothers were walking kitchens and their appetite gives them a call when they see their mother. Call it a bonding or just a physical reaction whatever the memories associated with mother's recipes are invaluable.


  21. Hip Grandma Says:

    I think the arisi uppuma and uppuma kozhukkattai need to be propped up among tambrahm recipes.I think it is nearly 20 years since i made it.Priya ofcourse makes a modern version with veggies thrown in and it seems megha likes to take it to school.


  22. Vandana Says:

    Nice write up... there are no words to express the satisfaction that I had when I had the best vathakuzhambu by my mom or grandma... which was often every week :) I would say "this beats the last vathakuzhambu ma" ...Missing my mom so much. I started my blog so as to put all those recipes online so it can be passed on....
    Best Regards
    Vandana


  23. Sangi Says:

    Hi, Usha!
    Didnt' learn to cook until I went abroad to study. And my first meal was to 15 others I had invited over to make friends. And my mom's signature pudina pulav burned. Because I had the recipe, I thought I could make it. Several intl calls later, made lemon rice, coconut rice and curd rice with potato curry and saved myself a heart attack. Since then, have got better but give me more kozhambu and parrupu usili and I will be your slave for life. Or mulagu rasam after an oil bath....hmm, might need to bathe and then eat now, rightaway after this post! :-D


  24. muse Says:

    Hi Usha,
    I would like to agree with AA_Mom. If you look at the multiple food blogs on the internet, there's definitely no need to worry about traditional food dying. There are so many passionate young cooks today and those who cook do so because they enjoy cooking and choose to cook rather than use the multiple options available today.

    on a different note:
    i lived in japan for a few months and ate thai rice when i was there.. when i came back to India I was surprised to find how tast just plain steam ponni rice can be!


  25. hillgrandmom Says:

    I'm really not a foodie and so there are just a very few foods I remember from childhood and, as you said, the conversation was more important than the food I ate. Anyway, one of my sons has turned out to love cooking and is a good cook and he seems to be carrying on home recipes :-)


  26. Jane Turley Says:

    What a lovely, sentimental post:) I agree; memories brought on by taste and smell can be very potent:)

    I like eating out for the company like you, rather than the food. Eating together, sharing conversation and being "a family" is very important too - today my eldest has gone to university so we are down to four... But then, on the plus side, I'm optimistic when he comes home at Christmas he'll think my cooking is wonderful. Once he's had baked beans on toast for 3 months in his student accomodation my burnt offerings will seem like luxury! As they say; every cloud has a silver lining:)

    Good to see you up and running again Usha:)


  27. radha Says:

    First time here. Came over from Eves Lungs. Lovely post. Food cooked the way it was by the elders can take one back in time. And can be so comforting.


  28. bala rao Says:

    Its my belief that to do good to oneself and others is something not everybody is capable of - so is cooking good food; it requires a lot of love at heart.. a surplus that spills out.. women of the older generation were capable of such love.. it came naturally to them.

    In the current times when narrow identities lead to work sharing in the kitchen there is no love involved at all.. we are just trying to "finish it off". Perhaps it is our destiny that we will never get to experience such things again... the coming generations will not even know such times existed.


  29. mona Says:

    Hi Usha,

    Loved this post. More than the cooking I think the amount of heart the cooks put in it that evokes such feelings in us.

    Since we do everything on the run now a days, I guess it will be interesting what the kids tell about us.

    Mona


  30. Prati Says:

    I could echo with every word in this post. I'm an ardent foodie, love cooking, which is my way of switching the mind off from work every evening. Living in Europe I'm in a way not very tempted to going to restaurants so this has helped me increase my culinary skills.
    Also thanks to my mother who is such a wonderful cook who adds an extra ingredient to every dish - love! She cooks with passion and now her three daughters (including my self) are carrying on the tradition :-)


  31. Usha Says:

    Garima: I am quite ok with outsourcing snacks etc that used to be very time and labor intensive. But I miss the way we have forgotten some of our simple, tasty recipes.

    Mrs.G a.k.a eve's: Waiting for the post.

    Shankari:I truly hope so. The books are called "samaippadhu eppadi' and another called 'samayal kalai" compiled by my father under the name of my mother "sarojini shankar'. It is totally out of print. My father distributed the last copies he had to some of his nieces. Most of the recipes there were given by my aunts and grandmother.

    Valli;Thank you.

    Laksh:I have tried many recipes from the food blogs and while they turned out well, they lacked something I had tasted as a child.you know those little tricks that moms had and those little customisations? Thats what I miss.

    Praveen: You get tasty bakshanams in grand sweets, surya and adyar ananda bhavan. I am told that there are shops in chennai that seel kozhukkatai, sevai etc. But I know what you mean - the kai bagam is different.

    Dr.antony:wow and I understand precisely what you mean.

    Sandhya:mm...so when is the next batch of pickles due? heheheh

    AA mom: I hear what you are saying. These food blogs are great for getting the right measurements and the method but I miss some of those traditional recipes that were unique to each family. Like my grandmom made a whole lot of things for me when I had delivered my son and I have never tasted anything so divine in my life.a molagu kozhambu with drumstick that tasted of ghee, a snakegourd fry with pepper etc..

    apu::) Thanks. Ya the simplicity, the consistency etc.- I am glad you understood what I meant.

    Phoenixritu: homemade garam masala - mm, reminds me of the smell from my Punjabi colleague's lunch box. Divine! It had a way of transforming the simplest vegetable into something so delectable.

    Kaveri: Do write to me if you have any traditional recipes. Perhaps if there are enough number of recipes we could post them in a separate blog?

    Chitra: Yes, akila was stumped by that koora too when lalli made it for her when she visited her. Do you remember the ericha kozhambu at pongal?
    I know that you and mom mom shared a special rapport.

    RGB:heheh. let's hope so.


  32. Usha Says:

    The inquisitive akka:Thanks for the comment. mm, even a mention of that inji pachamolaga elumichampazha rasam made me salivate. Hey don't let that notebook go to tatters. let me know if you need any help copying it to a fresh note book or better still put it on a website so all of us can refer.

    artnavy: You are lucky to have your paternal paati and mom's expertise to draw upon. Make the most of it.

    CA: How thoughtful of your mom. and thanks for the recipes you mailed. I haven't received any others. But in a while I intend to collect some. Will definitely pass them to you.

    Raam Pyari: Thanks.

    Parvathi:Plastic moms eh. mm, interesting.

    Hipgran: I am sure arisi uppuma and upma kozhukkattai are still very safe in TN. Infact you get the kurunai readymade in most shops there to make it even easier!
    Arisi upma with veggies eh? interesting. Here in Bangalore I have seen them use mochaikottai ( called avaraikaalu) in uppuma.

    Vandana: i am a frequent visitor to your blog. Your recipes are great.

    Sangi: Molagu rasam after a bath- Yes,this is precisely the essence of what I felt when I made that kootu. These are very special memories. I rememebr the paruppu thogayal and molagu kozhambu combination on the days we were given castor oil for cleansing the system.

    Muse: I am not afraid that our kind of food will be lost. I was talking about some simple traditional dishes that we don't use anymore.

    Sue::)

    Jane: How have you been? I have been out of the blogworld for a while now thanks largely due to my middle age(or old age) problems. I feel about a 100 already.
    I remember your delightful posts on cooking. I am pretty confident that your son will be looking forward to your special recipes at Christmas.

    Radha - comforting - ya, that is the right word!

    Bala Rao, Mona: That is an interesting thought! I can recollect how lovingly those generations cooked for their family!!

    Prati:It is wonderful how you are carrying forward your family's recipes. Do share some with us - especially the unique ones.


  33. Anonymous Says:

    last few days our group held a similar talk about this topic and you illustrate something we have not covered yet, thanks.

    - Laura


  34. callezee Says:

    Very well written article,i am not cooking but anyhow i enjoyed my mom cooking a lot..


  35. Sujatha Says:

    I try my hardest to make every meal, although our (at home in the US) cuisine spans a lot of countries. Eating out is limited to the weekends for us. I totally get what you say about the food our moms, aunts and grandmas make. As for the last part, I'm sending you an e-mail. :)


  36. Bindhu Says:

    Though we have a choice of takeaways and dine-ins today, they can't match the simple homemade food - the ones we grew up eating. :)


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  38. Sanchiti Says:

    nice:)


  39. Sanchiti Says:

    nice:)