‘Recipes for Life’ celebrates India’s food diversity and culinary traditions
I am craving comfort food, the way my mother makes it: well-cooked kanji, payar thoran, red coconut chutney, dollops of ghee and generous helpings of crisp, hot, golden pappadam and, maybe, a dash of pickle. If you read Pune-based Sudha Menon’s new book, Recipes for Life, published by Penguin, it is bound to make you long for the food of your childhood. Comfort food is all about nostalgia and what we eat as children.
As lockdowns motivated many people to return to comfort food, journalist-turned-writer Sudha Menon began her new book, Recipes for Life , on comfort food from all over India. Here, 30 celebrities from different walks of life talk about their food memories, the way their mothers would make it and how it evokes images of childhood, warmth and home.
The idea evolved when Sudha lost her mother-in-law and with it her treasured recipes for different kinds of masala and dishes. “None of us, including her children, had any idea how to make those. Indians don’t have a tradition of documenting recipes. Most of us learn cooking from our mothers or elders by helping them in the kitchen. Rarely are the ingredients or methods written down. Orally transmitted by women in the household, the measures are not accurate; you depend on expertise to discern what spice has to be added or decreased. The idea of the book gained traction when my mother, Pramila Radhakrishnan, and I spent time in UK with my elder sister, Sabita, a couple of years ago,” said Sudha.
Age was playing tricks with her mother’s memory and the excellent cook who had pampered her three daughters with homemade food occasionally found it difficult to recollect a recipe.
A pan-Indian collection
That motivated Sudha to accelerate the work on her book of recipes, with stories collected from all over India. There is Olympian Mary Kom, authors Amish Tripathi, Shantha Gokhale and Manu Pillai, politician-author Shashi Tharoor, actors Suhasini Mani Ratnam and Vidya Balan, author and sports commentator Harsha Bhogle, Michelin-starred chef Atul Kochchar, artist Atul Dodiya, cricketer Irfan Pathan and banker Uday Kothak among others reminiscing about the food that shaped their childhood and youth.
As each one enthusiastically narrates stories about their choice of food, what is evident is the variety, simplicity and nutritive value of eating local and fresh food. Cuisines are never watertight compartments and ingredients, cooking methods and flavours from many regions in India blended in kitchens to form new taste palates.
“The book is a recognition of mothers’ ingenuity in transforming the most humble vegetable or meat into flavoursome dishes that pamper the taste buds. No matter where they lived, they would find ways to recreate the taste of home for their children,” she says.
One also gets glimpses of Indians acquiring cross-culinary tastes from nooks and corners of the country thanks to their parents working in public sector companies, banks, railways, huge private firms and so on.
While Tisca Chopra recalls the roast chicken, mutton, tinned sardines and veggies such as brussels sprouts when her father was working in Kabul, VR Ferose, senior vice -president and head, SAP Academy of Engineering, reminisces how their home was a melting pot of different Indian cuisines as they lived in a Railways colony in Kharagpur, West Bengal.
Culinary traditions of India
From molgapodi, curd rice, vathakozhambu, bharli karli, saalans and mampoo pachadi (mango blossom chutney) and jackfruit seed payasam to puran poli, different kinds of dals, flavoured rice, breads and wadiwaali aloo, the book maps the rich culinary traditions of the country.
Sudha says although we believe ourselves to be cosmopolitan, she realised how little she knew about the diet in the North eastern states and her conversation with Mary Kom came as a revelation.
“Mothers usually shape the eating habits of children and those have a lasting effect on our food choice. So, there is Atul Kochchar who talks about how his strict mother made him eat lauki for a week because he refused to eat the vegetable. But it also showcased her culinary artistry because each time the lauki appeared on the table in a different taste. That was how mothers of an earlier generation made sure we never wasted food or turned up our nose at any kind of food,” says Sudha.
Her own favourites from her mother’s treasure trove of recipes include Avoli (promfret) cooked with mango and coconut, ripe mango chammanthi, raw mango and cucumber curry and mango pulissery.
Along with recipes of snacks, vegetarian and non-vegetarian food, the book celebrates India’s vast food diversity. Many of the celebrities also reminisce on the food that used to be made during festivals. Every festival in the country, many with roots in our agricultural past, is closely linked to a wide range of cereals, snacks, curries, preserves, sweets and drinks.
Sudha hopes the book motivates readers to collect the recipes in his/her family to pass on to a new generation.
The book was launched on July 23.