Because of hectic work, man may get irritated. Don’t take it to heart…don’t be too proud of your education and don’t be too boastful of our 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?”
Step 1: Try and get the ghol fish from your local fish market; it is the equivalent of the freshwater betki. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
That was my grandmother, in a letter to my mother a year before I was born, worried that her daughter—a working physiotherapist and thoroughly modern Bombay girl in the 1960s—would need help being a good wife.
My grandmother, as you can tell, flitted from topic to topic.
It was earlier this year on a crisp spring morning that my mother reluctantly agreed to read out a clutch of letters and recipes, all written in Marathi 46 years ago and in danger of falling apart.
I like the little bits of gossip. My grandmother irritatedly talks of her boastful uncle who obviously liked to compare sons-in-law. Her son-in-law (my father) was an Indian Police Service (IPS) officer, and the uncle’s son-in-law was an Indian Accounts and Administrative Service officer (IA&AS).
“You know what your uncle says? ‘If Rajendra Prasad (still the President in common conversation then) comes, your son-in-law will be seated outside and my son-in-law will be seated inside.’ Anyway, let it be…”
My father walked into the room and offered his only comment: “Oh, she used to make such great biryani!”
Here’s the best part. My mother found 30-40 loose-leaf pages, a handwritten cookbook of sorts written for her by aforementioned anxious mother.
I must mention that my mother is a very good cook. It’s just that she is very diffident about her culinary abilities, not helped by my father who tends to say “good” when something is excellent, or will nit-pick to the extreme: “Well, it’s good but there is just a little of this missing, and maybe a little of that.” Given comments like these, and the belief that her own mother was a fantastic cook, my mother doesn’t really talk about her substantial culinary talents.
The letters from my grandmother reveal the family menus of the time. A few: Thalipeeth (a hand-flattened, spicy Maharashtrian roti), cutlets, brain masala, pudina (mint) eggs, biryani, coconut vadis (cutlets), chiwda (savoury puffed rice).
“My mother sent me these when I got engaged (in 1963),” explained my mother, who was at the time very busy with her private physiotherapy practice. “I went to two-three houses carted around by my brother and did a job at a rehabilitation medicine centre at Haji Ali, Bombay.” At 26, she wasn’t very well acquainted with the kitchen, as most Indian women were.
The letters are hard to understand, full of mysterious symbols, scrawled in Devnagari and written in a trademark staccato style.
“Mummy’s recipes are like that,” said my mother. “They go rapid fire. There are no full stops anywhere. Her eyes used to water, so she kept one eye closed, and with one good eye she wrote this, sometimes with a pencil, sometimes with a pen.”
The recipes in pencil were beginning to fade, and we are still trying to rescue them from oblivion.
“You want the recipes?” my mother asked warily.
“Yes,” I said, firmly.
“It’s tough,” she replied.
I was ready, poised at the keyboard.
“Oh, okay,” she sighed.
Please remember these recipes pan out exactly as my grandmother wrote them. If anything confuses you, make an educated guess.
I’m happy to share the first three that were deciphered:
Rumal Vadi (steamed cabbage cutlet)
1kg cabbage, grated.
Temper oil with hing (asafoetida) and jeera (cumin).
Add cabbage. When it is “slightly cooked” add 2 katoris (about a cup) of besan (chickpea flour), 5 katoris (cups) of water, K tsp haldi (turmeric), 4 tsp mirchi (red chilli) powder, jeera powder (no measurement given; my mother recommends a spoonful), jaggery “to taste”, K tsp garam masala and salt.
Keep stirring till it thickens. Reduce the fire. Cover it, put live coals on top of the cover and steam it (my mom’s recommendation: Put it in the pressure cooker and give it one whistle). Roast 2K katoris of grated coconut in a frying pan, add khus-khus, or poppy seeds (about a cup, my mother reckons; the recipe doesn’t say). Roast that with the coconut.
Pound the roasted coconut and khus-khus in a mortar and pestle.
Add K tsp haldi (turmeric) powder, the powder of 5-6 cardamoms, 1 tsp mirchi powder, K tsp garam masala and salt. Mix it all.
Take a large, square cloth or “man’s kerchief”, wet it and spread it on the kitchen counter. On that put 4 katoris of the steamed mixture (it should be hot). Spread it around (my grandmother used to spread it with a banana leaf; you can do it with the back of a stainless steel cup).
On top of this, spread the dry, pounded masalas and press them in.
Take the two ends of the cloth and make a triangular packet and press it in, so it takes on a triangular shape. Slowly remove the cloth. After the cabbage triangle is cooled, cut it into smaller triangles.
You can eat the cabbage vadis as they are—steamed—or lightly fried.
“Now you see how difficult it is to translate!” my mother said, sighing in relief.
“What was so difficult?” I asked.
She showed me the actual markings in the book.
.//. That stands for K.
./. That’s N.
2//. That’s 2K.
She was translating these symbols on the fly. All she knew was that they were “universal Marathi symbols”. Knowledge of these symbols was clearly fading even when these recipes were written. My aunt (my mother’s younger sister) doesn’t know what they are.
Gholichi Bhaji (fish vegetable)
Ghol is a thick, firm sea fish (English: Blackspotted Croaker! I’m not kidding; I looked it up), equivalent to the freshwater betki (I know Bengalis call it bhetki but we don’t), my mom said. She remembers my grandmother making this nearly 50 years ago, but warns all of you that she hasn’t made it herself. So you only have my grandmother’s words to go by. Good luck: My mother reminds you that there are no portions given.
Bring the fish home, wash it and cut it into “thick pieces”. Apply haldi (turmeric), salt and chilli powder. Keep aside.
Grate half a coconut, add haldi, a “little oil” and salt, 10-12 chopped green chillies (which led us to believe that it’s a kilo of fish my grandmother is talking about, but we weren’t too sure) and a bunch of chopped coriander. Mix everything together. Take 2 potatoes and make thick, round slices. Wash. Apply “a pinch” of haldi and salt to the potatoes. Heat oil, add garlic (the next ingredient has faded, so my mother says it must be ginger), add the fish and toss it all. Add the coconut mixture and potatoes. Sprinkle half a cup of water. Cover with lid and remove from fire when the potatoes are cooked.
Wash and clean 1kg chicken. Apply O tsp haldi, 3 tsp chilli powder, 1 tsp garam masala to the chicken.
Keep ready 1 onion, half a dried coconut. Roast both directly on a flame and grind with some cloves, cinnamon, khus-khus, 7-8 peppercorns and 5-6 cardamoms. In a pan, heat 2 tbsp of ghee, sprinkle hing. Add 3 chopped onions to the ghee, fry till golden-brown. Add the chicken. Add coconut/onion mixture. Stir and mix. Add “some water” and let it cook on low flame. If too spicy, add coconut milk.
This is a column on easy, inventive cooking from a male perspective. Samar Halarnkar writes a blog, Our Daily Bread, at Htblogs.com. He is the managing editor of the Hindustan Times.
Write to Samar at firstname.lastname@example.org