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.firstname.lastname@example.org