An Andhra grandmother's cookbook that shines by doing the simple things right
A good meal is a good meal but a good cookbook is a joy forever. While we’ve seen a few exceptional cookbooks published in India in the past couple of years—Annapurni: Heritage Cuisine From Tamil Nadu (Roli Books, 2015), Indian Accent Restaurant Cookbook (Penguin/Viking, 2015) come to mind, though they could be said to bookend the genre—too many continue to tread the same-old, same-old tracks of rootless recipes, half-baked narratives and undistinguished photography. In this clutter, Five Morsels Of Love is as refreshing as a smidgeon of saunf (fennel seeds)—or, perhaps more appropriately, a glass of buttermilk—after a big meal.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of Five Morsels Of Love is that there is no secret to it at all: It shines because of its complete honesty. This is no casual statement because cookbooks—especially books that source recipes from within families—face the most intense scrutiny of all: the individual sixth sense of its readers, consciously or unconsciously measuring the writer’s experience against their own, always on the alert for a false step or a faked love.
The true family cookbook is an intimate document, almost as personal as a diary. To work, it has to draw readers into its embrace, make them part of the long table or the group sitting cross-legged on the kitchen floor, listening to the stories, smelling the aromas, feeding a nostalgia for a past that is not their own. Five Morsels Of Love is a huge triumph in this respect.
As seemingly effortless is the way author Archana Pidathala has updated her grandmother’s cookbook into something contemporary and relevant. In 1974, Nirmala Reddy—or Ammama, as one soon comes to think of her—published a Telugu cookbook called Vanita Vantakalu. It went on to become one of those guides that mothers gifted their newly-wed daughters and emigrating families packed into their bags. In 2005, she began work on a second edition as well as an English translation with her daughter Sadhana. A couple of years later, however, Ammama died. And it was Pidathala, her eldest grandchild, who picked up the unfinished work and, after a couple of false starts, self-published this book.
Memories float across each page of this book, redolent with the whiff of ghee used to temper spices or prawns that still smell of the sea at Nellore, but the recipes themselves are surprisingly exacting and smart. Each of the recipes—split into Vegetables, Meat & Fish, Rice, Powders, Chutneys & Pickles, All Day Snacks, Sweets, and Basics—is introduced with a short note, describing the significance of the dish to the family, or breaking down the ingredients. Pidathala is delightfully unapologetic about the use of fiery chillies—the very first dish, Gongura Pappu (roselle greens with lentils) demands “15-20 green chillies" to feed four!—or about directing that the tamarind, used in many of the dishes, be freshly extracted and not spooned out of a bottle. A stray Butter Chicken—an unlikely family favourite—makes its way into the collection but the bulk of Five Morsels Of Love is made up of Ammama’s own recipes, born close to her own earth, and Pidathala’s recreations of the food she grew up with.
Stunningly photographed by Chinmayie Bhat and carefully designed, Five Morsels Of Love (the name is a reference to Ammama’s five grandchildren, symbolized in the five grains of rice that are the motif of the book) looks almost too beautiful to make the trek from the coffee table to the kitchen. But my copy, I know, will make that journey soon. As soon, in fact, as I can stop eating it with my eyes.