It is a small book that has travelled all over the world. No young Tamil bride would be without a copy. It is a publishing miracle in its own way that appeared in 1951 in a small paperback edition with a two-colour line drawing on the cover and a grainy picture of the granny who wrote it, on the back. It was priced at Rs3.
Since then, S. Meenakshi Ammal has become something of a legend. When she was included in Cosmopolitan magazine as one of the important persons of the 20th century in India, her family felt that she would have been shocked had she lived long enough to look at the cover of the magazine.
“Not at all, she was a feisty lady who created a revolution in the art of cooking in her time,” say her admirers. When her husband died, her son P.S. Sankaran was just two years old. She had to support her brother-in-law, who was very young—seven years old—and her mother-in-law. Her culinary skills made her so well-known within the Brahmin community around the Mylapore temple area, where the family lived in a small house, that she was continually asked to provide recipes and advice. Her uncle encouraged her to put her recipes into writing. He was the late Rao Bahadur K.V. Krishnaswami Aiyer, popularly known as the Father of the Library Movement in Madras state. With his encouragement, the first two volumes of Samaithu Paar appeared in Tamil and the English translations of the books, Cook & See, followed, with a third volume that extended the advice on how to conduct weddings, what to cook on fasting days and even recipes for soups and snacks.
Since those early days, the Samaithu Paar has been translated into other main South Indian languages. There is a Hindi edition and one that was brought out by Penguin to mark the 50th year of the book’s first appearance. Her granddaughter-in-law, Priya Ramkumar, now carries on the legacy. As she writes in her introduction to the l995 edition: “…more and more men are taking to cooking. This is especially true of our young men who are going abroad in search of learning and employment but would still like to have a taste of traditional Indian cuisine. This book has come as a boon to these men, for with its very simple instructions, it has removed a lot of the mystery from cooking.”
One of the highlights of Chennai Heritage Week was a re-creation of Meenankshi Ammal’s best dishes at the Taj Coromandel’s Southern Spice by chef Nabonit Ghosh, with the help of Ramkumar. Besides fritters made from banana flowers dipped in batter, there was a delectable white coconut milk and almond-based soup, with tiny diced fragments of carrots and green beans and mango rice with an accompaniment of pickles and rasams.