What were those specific moments which sparked the idea of this journey?
It was all about what my grandmother sought for herself. For me it wasn’t about having a passion for cooking or for books. We tend to realize the value of something after you have lost it. And when I lost my grandmother, I felt the importance of her work and wanted it to see the light of the day. When she was around, we didn’t help her make this happen or dedicate our time to it. It never occurred to us that she’d be gone all of a sudden. But that was that point when I took this up.
Could you tell me what you experienced during the beginning of the journey of Five Morsels of Love? When did you realize that you are pursuing your dreams instead of your grandmother’s?
It didn’t happen immediately and I took ten years to publish this! Initially when I began cooking my grandmother’s (ammama) recipes I felt a lot of disappointment when I didn’t get it right. It was frustrating to not be able to recreate her dishes. I kept giving up in between thinking it’s too hard for me. There was this constant endeavor to complete this project but then I’d retreat for some reason. I couldn’t really resonate with the work I was doing. I gave the entire draft to my aunt in Madras hoping she’d be able to help me out but it came back to me.
I think my approach towards this changed when my son Arjun was born. Being a mother and having to feed my child made me develop an interest in cooking which I did not have earlier. So I took this up again, began practicing ammama’s recipes and everything fit into place in time.
How different do you feel your connection is with your late grandmother through her recipes compared to before?
There was a lot I thought I had forgotten, those little moments from my childhood which was locked in a box somewhere in my head, some things I wasn’t even aware of. Food brought that back for me. There was an instance when I could remember things vividly, like my grandmother’s saree while cooking a certain dish she would’ve cooked the same day.
There must have been instances which made you emotional as well. Could you recall them for me?
There definitely were times when I felt sad. I saw ammama become very sick towards the end of her life, I would go to Hyderabad every weekend to visit her. Everyday felt like a gift then to just be with her. She had a fridge which was always well stocked with dry fruits, almonds, mango puree and those kulfi cones on a stick which I love. She could just take out anything from the fridge and make a dessert. That was her real treasure. And then one day she told me to take a big bag of almonds from there. It was almost like she was giving things away as an inheritance. So there was a recipe I was writing which called for a handful of almonds. At that moment I remembered this and cried. There were enough moments with emotional intensity when I felt stuck even though it was an outlet in some ways. It was just about taking time and overcoming it.
I also found out a lot about ammama which I didn’t know before. While having a conversation about her with my family, I found out she was allergic to pumpkin, that she loved grapefruit and the fact that her name was acknowledged in a quite a few books. She was very well known in the industry back then but she never shared it with us.
Could you tell me how you brought out certain aspects of yourself in the recipes?
While the recipes are hers, the words are mine. There is an essay about my family, even about food like rice and jaggery. Those are my words about my memories and whatever I learned over the years. However, for the recipes, I wanted to have the same narrative tone of my grandmother explaining the instructions. When I’m describing something in the recipe, it would relate to how she would guide me with the process. My voice is all around the rest of it.
How has Five Morsels of Love helped you evolve through this journey?
Embarking on this journey itself made me fearless. I feel like I’ve developed a sense of openness and I wouldn’t shut any option out if it means good to me. I’m open to looking at things without any inhibition. I’m open to adventure. This also means that I don’t have to stay in the same path even though it has done so much for me and this book saw success. I don’t feel bound by it. I may even choose to do something different in the future, wherever my interest leads me. And that’s what this book has taught me.
How important is the participation of family in the kitchen?
I always felt that cooking shouldn’t be a responsibility for women alone. Everybody in the family should cook irrespective of gender or hierarchy. I don’t think cooking should be a choice. It’s like getting 8 hours of sleep everyday. It’s something you need to do for yourself. When my son was born, for the first three years he was with me the whole time so I had to take him wherever I went. That meant going to the market or to buy groceries too. But the habit has followed since and he is involved in the kitchen as well. As a parent, I feel I shouldn’t let him consider the work I do at home as a different role. It’s an integrated life and everyone should be a part of it. I don’t get why we should take kids to a mall or someplace to be entertained when they’d be as fascinated in a market. I have an open kitchen at home so it has helped a lot. He’d watch me cook while he’s playing and he’d immediately come to participate when he finds something interesting. Although I have to admit that when I was a child one could only find me eating something in the kitchen than helping in the cooking process!
But that is still a way of participating in the process don’t you think, by just being present in the kitchen?
Yes you’re right that’s so true. It helps you absorb the process even if you don’t know it at the time. Your senses are at work. You get curious so you look around at the ingredients lying on the kitchen counter, you absorb smells when an ingredient is being added while cooking the dish and such. I remember my ammama always made me taste the food to check if the food needed fixing. So even though I didn’t know how to cook earlier, I always remembered what the final dish is supposed to taste like. It has been a great point of reference for me from the time I started cooking.
And what about dining together?
I feel the generation has changed so much when it comes to eating together as well. We did something called communal eating. Where all the kids of the family would sit together and ammama would feed us with a big bowl of food. We call it ‘Kayi Thuthu’. Many families have that practice. But I don’t think that’s a thing anymore.
What is your point of view on the cooking culture in the younger generation?
I feel like there is definitely more interest in cooking. With shows like Chef’s Table and Masterchef and other Netflix food series gaining more popularity, I’m sure the younger generation is becoming more aware of the intricacies of food. But to convert or apply this knowledge in the kitchen is a question that’s still up for debate. As long as there’s some engagement with food or the process of cooking because it’s beneficial in many levels, it’s fine if you don’t put yourself to it everyday.
What is creativity according to you in the culinary world? And how do you see Indian food influence world cuisine in the years to come?
Right from the ingredient combination to the plating, I find the culinary world to be an extremely creative space right now with a lot of energy infused into it. While I observe that the focus is still on being rooted to where one’s from, people are still presenting it in a very contemporary way. I’m amazed by the approach!
With Indian cuisine, I think the awareness will increase across the world. What I’m referring to here are the micro-cuisines. Indian food is very diverse but I find that only a handful of dishes are being termed as Indian cuisine in parts of the world. With time people are realizing that Indian food is very rich in variety. Appreciation of regional food is already happening even if it doesn’t necessarily influence world cuisine.
Speaking of global cuisine, we notice you have a lot of readers in other parts of the world enjoying Andhra cuisine with Five Morsels of Love. Do you see this book evolving by itself and being translated into other languages? And what do you feel about Five Morsels of Love being accessible across cultures?
I’d love to publish it in many languages. It’s ideal to get it translated to other languages and being appreciated across cultures, but given that I’m self-published right now I can only do so much. I am hoping it will reach a larger audience though. I also feel translation would be a very vast topic to get into right now as I’m unsure of what language to choose within the diverse segment of Indian languages itself.
When you began experimenting with food post 32 years, did you feel your connections with people and your culture became stronger?
It has for sure. I do feel more connected to my roots. It makes me more confident and grounded. It has done a lot of good things to me.
If not in the kitchen cooking up a storm, where would we find you?
You would find me in a corner reading a book. Books have always been an important part of my life. Although at home I have a reading desk where I read, I’d still be engrossed in a book while in a bus or even in the play area in my apartment when my son is playing. I can’t read much on my kindle yet. Although I see the benefits of doing it, I want the physical comfort of a book. I’m a bit old-fashioned that way.
What do you want others to feel when they are cooking what you cook?
I want everyone to really just enjoy the process!
Images & Words - Chaithraa Jagadeesha