Nostalgia on a simmer

Last Updated 09 October 2010, 10:32 IST

You know you are growing older (not old!) when you start craving for the food you grew up on. The simple daal tempered with a hint of asafoetida and red chilli powder can transport you to the days when you probably did not take too kindly to that same daal. It can bring back the smell of your room in your parents’ home or the sudden recollection of the pattern on the tablecloth that you thought would be imprinted on your mind forever.
Food has that power. It can bring back memories of home.

Test it for yourself. On a Sunday like this, maybe even today, cook a simple meal, but right from scratch. This would essentially mean, no snipping open a packet of ginger-garlic paste or readymade tomato puree. Let’s do without even the ready-mix sambhar powder. Instead roast all the essential ingredients that your grandmother often shared with you, but you were only half listening. Once you’ve managed to organise all the ingredients (you needn’t call long distance. Simply Google the recipe), and have started the roasting process, the aroma that hits you is guaranteed to transport you back in time.

While it is good to indulge in ‘nostalgia trips’ once in a while, it can get a tad tiresome. And anyway, the point we are trying to make here is not about flashbacks but back to basics, especially as far as food is concerned. The good, wholesome, home-cooked food that is nowadays at best found in recipe books by the same name, perhaps!

Slow and healthy
Though all the chopping, slicing and grinding can certainly not be anybody’s idea of a Sunday, it may be  good to raise a toast to the ‘slow food’ movement. What someone like anti-obesity activist and TV cookery show host Jamie Oliver is doing. “The home  used to be the heart of passing on food and food culture…that is what made our society. That isn’t happening anymore,” feels Jamie.  He is on a mission to save children from across the world, especially from the UK and America, from junk food. Jamie has initiated a number of projects involving school children raising awareness about locally available food and the dangers of consuming processed food. “I wish for everyone to help create a strong, sustainable movement to educate every child about food, inspire families to cook again and empower people everywhere to fight obesity.”

Closer home, the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) has announced that it will soon be establishing a first of its kind culinary institute in India, which will offer courses on Indian regional cuisines. IGNOU vice-chancellor VN Rajasekharan Pillai has said that the introduction of the new courses will help in the documentation, preservation, development and the promotion of India’s regional cuisines. “Most of the authentic recipes of all these cuisines have been lost or are dying with the passage of time and need to be documented. IGNOU will be offering not only professional programmes such as certificate courses but also PhDs, MBAs and other specialisations in Indian cooking,” he is reported to have said.

What goes in is what we are. At least that’s what conventional wisdom tells us. And for once it is worth keeping this in mind. Families are increasingly being seduced by convenience (assembly line) food products. Ready-to-eat ‘cuisine’ which was once meant to be ‘for emergency’ use only, is more a norm now than an exception on our dinning tables.

Despite commercials and cookery shows on television playing ‘food porn,’ and food becoming the new four letter word, the good news is that people are not only just watching, but taking notice as well. When celebrity chef Sanjeev Kapoor tells his viewers about a recipe that he picked up from his grandmother, and how he is adapting it to contemporary taste, people listen.  

 It is a known secret that top chefs have long sourced original recipes from their rightful owners and turned it into marketable commodities set in five star ambience. But says Sandeep Kachroo, resident manager and executive chef at Vivanta by Taj in Bentota, Sri Lanka, “Italians always say ‘my mama’s pasta is the best.’ In India, we still have a lot to learn,” feels Sandeep. According to him, the world is opening up to ‘mile clubs,’ which are essentially eateries that serve locally-grown stuff, within a radius of a mile. “In India, we have a new cuisine every 10 mile, so you can imagine the possibilities.”

Ask any bookseller, and he’ll tell you that nothing sells like a well photographed cook book. Monish Gujral, scion of the legendary Moti Mahal restaurant in New Delhi, that now has branches all over India, should know. His latest book, On the Butter Chicken Trail, published this year is a bestseller.
Monish inherited his passion for good food from his grandfather Kundan Lal Gujral, who created the tandoori chicken and butter chicken. Kundan Lal migrated from Peshawar to Delhi during the Partition, and set up the first Moti Mahal in 1947. Monish feels he is the custodian of his grandfather’s legacy and believes he not only has to preserve it, but popularise it as well. “My grandfather believed the kitchen was the soul of any restaurant, and the act of cooking akin to doing yoga,” recalls Monish, adding that the egg halwa, which is not yet on the restaurant menu, was his grandfather's favourite dish.

Unearthing roots
When filmmaker and author Sadia Shepard realised that her grandmother was Jewish who had eloped with her Muslim grandfather and migrated from India to Pakistan and later, to the United States, she set off on a journey to research and reconnect with the way of life her grandmother left behind. In her acclaimed memoir The Girl from Foreign, Shepard tells the story of her journey to document the Bene Israel, a shrinking community of Jews which believes that it was shipwrecked in India 2000 years ago. In Search of the Bene Israel is a documentary film in which she seeks to understand her grandmother’s history and the future of the 3500 Bene Israel who remain in India.
“My great-grandmother Segulla-bai Chordekar brought her cooking pots, inscribed with her name in Marathi script, with her from India to Pakistan at Partition. She continued to use them to make traditional family recipes such as puranpoli and sandans. When my grandmother moved from Pakistan to the United States in the 1970s, she brought these same pots with her. They are now in my parents’ home in Massachusetts, where my mother makes these same dishes on special occasions,” reveals Sadia, who got married this summer. “I have been thinking more about the role of food in family traditions...It may be time for me to learn how to make puranpoli and sandans in those same pots,” she says.

For people like Sadia, who connect food with home, Bhanu Hajratwala is working out a solution. Bhanu, a Fiji-born Gujarati, who now lives in California, is the author of a cookbook of Gujarati recipes to be out early next year. As a Gujarati migrant who had to learn to make everything from scratch, to this day she makes her own masalas, rotis, sweets, papads, even ghee. When she goes back to her village in Gujarat her relatives are shocked at the recipes she knows (special sweets called ghoograa for Diwali), which many families now in India buy readymade. She has also learnt to write these recipes down with proper measurements and directions, instead of the traditional way of ‘a pinch of this, a handful of that,’ since her friends, children and relatives are always asking for the recipes.

Says Bhanu, “At first, trying to preserve traditional recipes was difficult since most  ingredients were not available in the US then. However, now most ingredients are available in most countries thus making it easier to bring the taste of home back.
Therefore the original recipes were very crucial. A typical example is the recipe for garam masala. I do not buy garam masala combinations available commercially. I mix and grind my own. Hopefully, my cookbook Best of Gujarati Foods will bring back some of the traditional recipes."  

Mita Kapur, who runs the literary agency Siyahi in Jaipur, knows it is easier said than done when it comes to expecting nuclear families to follow traditions. She has documented a madcap account of a working woman who spends all day -- and sometimes, most of the night -- juggling family, friends, long-distance phone calls and food. How do you serve up a nutritious yet delicious meal to a large family of individuals of varying ages and with extreme differences in taste? How can you convert a carnivore into a lover of greens? Mita has captured a chaotic culinary romp with tender moments thrown in, and packed in some recipes, “however conservative or weird!” in her soon-to-be-out book, The F-Word.

“I discovered a wealth of food facts which made me feel that I was just beginning to get educated - the old cooks in Lucknow gave me details of how the cooking processes of each kebab, each biryani is sacred and ceremonial and how it demands a steadfast adherance to each step and the use of certain spices,” says Mita. She has been talking to a lot of royal families in Rajasthan about how cooking techniques and certain recipes are fast vanishing. “No one makes a mirch ka potha (a whole green chilly plant) now or a bakre ki mundi (the whole head of a goat) or a keema samosa served on laal maas (red meat) and served with meetha dahi anymore,” she adds.

While it is difficult, (even cruel!), to ask families these days to bring back such rare and old recipes into their kitchen, we can look at a way in, so that when our children grow up, atleast they will not visualise their mothers cutting open readymade dosa batter packets, whenever they are biting into a crispy dosa.

There, I have justified the purchase of the new wet grinder, which is waiting to be inaugurated.

(Published 09 October 2010, 10:32 IST)

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