A family culinary legacy comes to life
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“My mother had a firm belief that a way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. And she was not sure that I had a map based on this premise. She being the masterchef of our house, she really did not tolerate a daughter messing about in the kitchen when she was busy working out the weekly menus, snacks, festival goodies and everything to make our kitchens smell heavenly, especially when we came home after school, college, and later, a hard day’s work. Her attitude suited me. For, I had the least interest in the fine art of home cooking.”
So begins the English introduction to my mother’s new diary—publishers, please note—as she transcribes the Marathi recipes she was handed by her mother (my grandmother) 53 years ago. The transcription is an excellent idea because the original pages, yellow, brittle and written in pencil, threaten to crumble into oblivion. It is also a good idea because only my mother is familiar with my grandmother’s handwriting—in scrawled Marathi and scattered with archaic references, such as “pauki” measures, fractions and tables which my mother learnt as a child in pre-independence India (ek pau, pau; be pau, ardha—one times a quarter is a quarter, two times a quarter is a half—and so on). The recipes belong to that lost age, 1940-60, my mother notes.
My mother’s new diary is an edited, cleaned-up version of the daily living recipes she was handed by my grandmother. The recipes are still in Marathi. “They lose flavour in English,” my mother reasoned. I can live with that because I can easily read and follow her neat, print-like Devanagari script.
I have previously written about the letters my grandmother sent my mother. Interspersed with recipes, hopping from topic to topic, they are a window into her times and life, with references to Rajendra Prasad, India’s first president. “Because of hectic work, man may get irritated,” wrote my grandmother, who died the year before I was born. “Don’t take it to heart…don’t be too proud of your education and don’t be too boastful of your achievements. Your father-in-law is like a jackfruit, rough outside but soft inside, affectionate and hospitable. Don’t wander too much every night. Tell them (your in-laws) when you go out. Did you get the wool?”
What I did not know was that she had sent my mother a detailed weekly lunch and dinner menu. My grandmother was clearly doubtful of her daughter’s housekeeping abilities—her meal suggestions include chapati—and my mother freely acknowledges the fact. “When I decided to get married and that too in a large family, she was a worried woman,” writes my mother. “She knew how inadequately trained (kitchen-trained) her older daughter was...she was desperate. She had a debilitating eye condition, so she could write with full vision in one eye and she would shade the other with her palm, as it watered continuously. There was no stopping her!”
Of course, my mother exaggerates. She is a fine cook, if vexingly anxious about her abilities. Most of my cooking instincts have come from her—the almost obsessive focus on food that keeps the family happy, the ability to use whatever is in the fridge and the instinct to chronicle our kitchen adventures. My younger brother—who, unlike me, has a real job running a software company in Florida, US—does not spend as much time in the kitchen as we do, but he does spend some, and his instincts are similar, flooding the family WhatsApp stream with his culinary efforts, entirely focused on making meals of God’s creatures. The focus on dead animals is, clearly, a family trait.
My grandmother’s weekly menu is built around meat, chicken, egg and fish, mainly bombil or Bombay duck (Harpadon nehereus, a marine lizardfish), the soft, almost translucent fish beloved of the Konkan coast. Only on Thursday—growing up, the dreaded vegetarian day—does she offer an all-vegetable menu.
Thanks to my mother’s latest chronicle, I could snatch a recipe from the family’s slowly dimming, distant past. There was quite a bit I had not done before, including the stove-top roasting of onion and coconut and the steaming of the chicken—I think the heavy spices in this recipe are best suited to meat—with a plate of water on top. “There were no pressure cookers those days,” my mother explains, “so we often used the water plate.”
I made some modifications to the recipe, such as adding vinegar. In any case, my grandmother’s recipes would be unacceptable rough guides to modern publishers. There are no ingredient amounts, and much is presumed to be understood. My mother understood, and so do I. What you read below is my interpretation of my grandmother’s recipe. It would never have happened if my mother had not decided to give new life to her old notebook. The next step is to get my mother to take a shot at cooking these recipes, especially the “Wet bombil curry”. Well, mum?
Chicken with roasted onion and coconut
1kg chicken, medium-size pieces
Half large onion
One fourth coconut, in one piece
4 green cardamom
Half tsp cumin
Half-inch piece cinnamon
4 dried red chillies or 2 tsp peppercorns
6-7 garlic cloves
1 tsp fresh ginger
1 tbsp synthetic vinegar
2 tsp vegetable oil
A pinch of asafoetida (heeng)
Salt, to taste
MethodRoast the onion and coconut on a flame until charred. Roast the other spices (including ginger and garlic) on a griddle until they start to pop. Grind the onion, coconut and roasted spices with vinegar, salt and water to form a paste. Marinate the chicken in this masala and set aside for 2 hours.
In a non-stick vessel, warm the oil and add the asafoetida. When it sizzles, add the chicken with marinade. Cook on high flame until the chicken is seared and browned. Reduce the heat, add 1 cup water to the marinade bowl, stir and pour that masala water in the non-stick vessel. Cover the chicken with a steel plate (with edges) containing water. Reduce heat and let it simmer for 30 minutes.
This is a column on easy, inventive cooking from a male perspective. Samar Halarnkar writes the fortnightly column Frontier Mail for Mint and is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures. He tweets at @samar11.
Also Read: Samar’s previous Lounge columns