Over the last few months, the food on my plate has slowly gone back to the food I ate as a child, thanks to the mater. She loves to cook and feed people and prepares meals that hark back to when she was a younger woman feeding three growing children and a house that was always open. We often had long term visitors as well as people dropping in for a cup of chai. Meals were prepared in large quantities to account for the inevitable visitor or two. It was probably a carryover tradition from the ancestral homes with large families.
Those kitchens were marked into clearly defined areas for cooking, storing and prepping. In my grandmother’s kitchen, she cooked with firewood and the area always smelled comforting. It must not have been very comfortable for those doing the cooking thought as it wasn’t very well ventilated. Pieces of meat and fish would hang over the pots as they slowly dried to be used during the wet months. As city kids who came from homes with compact kitchens, it was exciting to watch the sparks fly as the fire would be stoked. It’s still mesmerizing to see the dance of fire.
Circa 2020, my mother feeds me and mine with foods that used to be childhood favourites like puttu and pazham, kappa puzhungi (steamed tapioca) with chamandi (chutney), ethakka appam (plantain fritters), idiyappam (string hoppers), chakka kuru manga (a curry with jackfruit seeds and mangoes), moru kachiyathu (cooked buttermilk) etc. I barely made them before she came to live with me, the tastes of the youngling are more urban and generic. She didn’t care for the unique texture or food combinations and I couldn’t be bothered to make two different kinds of meals.
The kid hasn’t really warmed to those old foods but I’ve rediscovered those tastes and textures. It also reminds me of my father. Puttu and pazham were a favourite breakfast item but as a child, I couldn’t get around to mashing the banana into the puttu. Dad would do it for me and when it was a nice sticky mass, I’d dig in happily. As even smaller kids, we would have hot rice, ghee and salt mixed and made into small balls to pick and eat. It’s yummy even for adults.
Food has been revered and there exists a rich tradition in their preparation, presentation, consumption etc. but we’ve lost much of those practices to convenience. Elders are needed to continue traditions that are worth saving but it’s tougher now with nuclear families. Perhaps, the loss began with the breaking up of joint families. These days even the nuclear families have fragmented into single person units or fractured families as members live across different cities or countries due to work or study.
The act of cooking together and eating together also faded as appliances reduced the need for increased time in the kitchen. Plus, ‘healthy eating’ was simpler, it didn’t call for elaborate or time consuming prepping. I’m a reluctant cook, a basic one at that and can subsist on simple fare. But, it’s always nice to taste all those old foods once again and have my fill of them too. Maybe, get mother to write down those recipes for me. Maybe someday, I may want to experiment with old food.
Leaving with a quote from one of my favourite Upanishads,
From food all beings are born, having been born, they grow by (consuming) food. Food is that which is eaten by the beings and also that which in the end eats them; therefore, food is called annam.