Mistress of spices

Mistress of spices

SCRUMPTIOUS Hajra’s Mohammed’s cookbook is not just a delight for foodies, it interests food historians as well because it documents Cutchi Memon cuisine.

At 85, Hajra Mohammed has just turned author with her cookbook ‘Hajra’s Recipes of Life, for Life’ (Westland Books), the first to showcase Cutchi Memon cuisine. So, she has reason to celebrate. She replies with a laugh: “Yes. But not only now. I have always celebrated life. I have never given in to adversity or allowed problems to get me down.”

That is Hajra Mohammed for you. She is spirited and spunky, and yet, endearingly childlike.  And, that is how she has been all her life. She hailed from a wealthy family of Cutchi Memons — “a community of foodies,” as she says. Though she had little exposure to cooking before marriage, after marriage and three children, she found that she was spending most of the day in the kitchen. But she loved it as cooking was a great passion with her.

That is when her lifelong affair with food began. Her children grew up on the great food that she rustled up for them. The aromas of her kitchen and her culinary reputation also spread among the legion of friends and relatives who visited her home. “I have never ever employed a cook,” she says with pride.  

Tradition-bound and tough

Cooking was also her great comfort and a kind of therapy during hard times. Barely a decade after her marriage she lost her husband. As a single mother she had to raise three children — a task made tougher as there was no extended family around her. She had no academic qualifications and had to make a livelihood from the only things she knew — cooking, doll-making and embroidery. Her courage and resilience saw her through a difficult phase.

“I realised that self-reliance and determination were my great strengths. I taught my children what I believed in — embrace life fearlessly with strength of character to succeed in life,” she says.

This motto made her face adversity with a smile and gave her children the courage to make their own choices in life — be it participating in beauty contests or whipping up the best biryani in town. Hajra is also frank and forthright. “Mother doesn’t have a diplomatic bone in her body,” says her daughter Tasneem.  

Age is just a number

Faith in herself made Hajra take up the challenge of writing of a cookbook after crossing eighty. But then, as her children say, their mother has  always been more than willing to share the secrets of her great food unlike some people who jealously guard their recipes.
Recalling Hajra’s fabulous food, Nighat Mohammed, her daughter and a former Miss India, says: “When we were returning from school, we could smell the aromas a mile away.”

It wasn’t fancy or experimental food. Just good, wholesome, traditional food that was simply delicious, recall the girls. Hajra also loved to teach cooking. Her first students were her own children. We are told that Tasneem owes her reputation as the maker of one of the best biryanis in Dubai to these lessons from her mother!  

With so many fans and followers, it wasn’t surprising that Hajra began to think of putting together a cookbook. After two years of hard work and lots of encouragement and help from granddaughter and architect-interior designer Husna Rahman, the book happened.
Husna says, “My food-fascist grandmother raised me since I was three years old. We share an indescribably beautiful bond. My work on this book is my tribute to her... my thanksgiving.”

“Since it is the first book of its kind — i.e. the first to showcase Cutchi Memon cuisine we were very particular that it be completely true to tradition,” says Hajra, “so, we have been uncompromisingly authentic.  I want to emphasise that Cutchi Memon food is unique; it is not Hyderabadi or Mughlai food.”

A neat layout, clarity in instructions, recipes bunched into menus — dishes served together in a typical Cutchi meal — and an introduction to each section, which puts the dish in its cultural context are the cookbook’s plus points.

Both the choice of recipes and the introductory notes which offer interesting insights into the Cutchi Memon ways of dining and living are big value-additions, considering this is a community whose food has not been much written about.

“There’s  a Brunch section in the book since we are not early risers and there’s a special space for biryani which is the soul food of our community,” Hajra explains.

While rustling up a great dish is one thing, authoring a book is quite another! Cooking is a skill no doubt, but it seems fairly easy when compared to the task of recording and reproducing the entire process.

Like many first-time authors, Hajra had moments when she wanted to give it up and retreat to the comfort of her kitchen! “I managed to bring out the book because of the unstinting support of my granddaughter Husna,” she says, “and because I live by the never-give-up philosophy!”  

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