It was at the age of 18, when I started student life in the US, that I first turned to reading poetry regularly—or, to be more honest, what seemed to me like poetry. On Sundays, or in the long, cold evenings of Pennsylvania, far away from my home in Chennai, I’d curl up on a couch with the first volume of Samaithu Parand simply read. I quote a particularly moving excerpt below:
Kitchen confidential: (from top) Priya Ramkumar, Meenakshi Ammal’s granddaughter-in-law, carries on the Samaithu Par radition; Ammal’s home; the original, hand-written book. Hemant Mishra / Mint
“Beat the softly cooked dhal with a spoon, mixing well with water. Add to boiling rasam. Boil for a minute or two. Add either water or dhal.-cooked water to make 4 cups of rasam. Wait till rasam bubbles up. Remove from fire. Season with mustard and chillies. Garnish with curry leaves and coriander leaves.”
Like the best of poetry, Samaithu Par’s recipes are simple, direct and instantly evocative. On a couple of occasions, I have fallen asleep with the imagined smell of bubbling rasam in my nostrils. For close to 50 years now, the three volumes of Samaithu Par (Cook and See) have been manufacturing such phantom aromas in generations of south Indians exiled from their home kitchens—and then guiding them painlessly into manufacturing the actual dishes behind those aromas.
Samaithu Par, which grandly bills itself as “A comprehensive treatise on traditional South Indian vegetarian cooking”, was written and published in Tamil in 1961, by a housewife called S. Meenakshi Ammal. Her ovoid, sepia photograph still adorns the books’ jackets, and four-and-a-half decades after she passed away, the books continue to be faithfully updated, improved and published (in six languages) by her family.
S. Meenakshi Ammal Publications operates out of an antique house in Mylapore, a house that Ammal bought in the early 1960s for Rs10,000 with the proceeds from her books. “She exhausted all her funds in that one purchase,” says Priya Ramkumar. “Then she had to save more money to buy things like fans and lights, one by one.”
Ramkumar is Ammal’s granddaughter-in-law—the wife of her grandson, Ramkumar Shankar. As the de facto manager of S. Meenakshi Ammal Publications, she is a repository of information on the doyenne of south Indian cooking. When the books’ old Tamil volume measurements such as azhakku and padi had to be brought into the modern metric world, it was Ramkumar who sat in her kitchen to patiently work out the equivalents. In the godown at Samaithu Par House—holding “Rs5-6 lakh worth of books at the moment”—Ramkumar narrates the story of Samaithu Par.
When Ammal was 18—already a mother, having been married for four years—her husband died of an anaesthesia overdose during a routine tonsillitis surgery. She and her young son lived on in Madurai with her mother-in-law and brother-in-law. “You’ll see that all her servings are for four people—those were the four people,” Ramkumar says. “Only later, when her son had to come to Madras for college and then work, did she move to this city.”
Ammal was always a skilled cook, and her mother-in-law rapidly became her fortunate guinea pig. “When her relatives got married and went off to Bombay or other places, they would write to her, asking whether to add this to sambar or that to vada,” Ramkumar says. “She would write back detailed inland letters, even including disaster management tips—what to do if a gravy was too watery, and so on.”
As these letters grew in volume, Ammal began to transcribe her recipes into a thick notebook, which Ramkumar still possesses. The notebook is now tattered and many of its pages are withering with age, but the impeccably lettered Tamil, in blue fountain-pen ink, is still perfectly legible.
Handed down: In their 15th edition now, the books sell for Rs95 each. Hemant Mishra / Mint
In the late 1950s, one of her uncles, a Chennai worthy named K.V. Krishnaswamy Iyer, suggested that Ammal compile her recipes into a book. This was met, at first, with understandable laughter: Why would anyone buy a cookbook of such routine, everyday fare? But when Iyer persevered, and when he convinced a publishing firm named Alliance Press of the idea, Ammal pawned all her jewels and paid for the book’s initial print run in 1961.
“At first, booksellers refused to stock the book, and her son had to push Higginbotham’s—pretty much the only large bookstore in Madras at the time—to agree to stock it on a sale or return basis,” Ramkumar says. “Then, after the initial lukewarm reaction, it started to become popular by word of mouth.” In the 1960s, a new generation of south Indians was moving to other parts of India and even the world, and Samaithu Par rapidly became a standard part of their baggage.
Like Isabella Beeton, the Victorian author of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, Ammal ended up writing a social handbook rather than a dry cookbook. The trilogy’s third volume, for example, contains detailed instructions on the conduct of Brahmin rituals and festivals. “If you were living outside south India and didn’t have your mother-in-law handy, you could refer to the books for this sort of detail,” Ramkumar says.
The books are very weakly marketed, and Ramkumar admits that she doesn’t know how many copies of the books have been sold till date. It must number, though, in the hundreds of thousands. Every year, she simply issues instructions for a print run numbering between 5,000 and 10,000, to fill the orders she gets. The first edition of the English translation (published in 1968) sold for Rs2, Ramkumar says; the 15th edition, currently in bookshops, sells for Rs95.
Ramkumar and her family continue to publish the book more as a labour of love than anything else—a fine testament to the spirit of Ammal. “I’ve heard stories of how, on Deepavali, people would start coming to her house at 5am, and she’d spend the entire day making special dishes like Kanjivaram idlis, special sweets and savouries, serving everybody herself,” Ramkumar says. “Her cooking was about just pure love and affection.”