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It is a thin frayed book, bound and rebound. Looks like it has been soaked in tea overnight. No cover, no back flap, no title, no author's name. It opens with 'Contents', runs through a list of 'Some household tips', 'Rules for eating', 'The art of being a good hostess', 'Table etiquette', spans 'Cake', 'Blanc-Mange', 'Jellies', 'Lemon Candy', 'Jilabees', 'Meat Preparations', 'Hot Stuffs', 'Chatnies', ending with 'Soups'. It sits in my mother's kitchen in Chennai, just as it did on my grandmother's shelf in Lucknow 55 years ago. As a young wife who moved from Kerala to Lucknow with her paratrooper husband, my grandmother was well-versed with botany and bicycling, but hadn't yet mastered the art of cooking. Her mother-in-law, a grand matriarch and cook from Shoranur, who raised six children on her own, handed her Aunt Leela Ramakrishnan's book, which had been recently published. The rest, as they say, is history. My grandmother was soon hosting feasts across cantonments with flaming gulab jamuns, silken Venetian cream, orange syllabub and fiery eshtew. But then, most people consider their mothers (very occasionally, fathers) and grandmothers the Rubicon of cooking. That is the thing with food — recollections temper our favourite cuisines and no culinary wizardry can outdo nostalgia and allegiance.
Family recipe books make these memories tangible. A recreated dish gives texture, temperature, flavour and fragrance to the past. It connects us to our ancestors, allowing us to nurture the coming generations. To be able to cook like one's mother is not only to make one's mother proud but is also a rite of passage, proof that one can provide, perhaps even satiate, self and family.
If my mother learned her puleenji (a tamarind-based chutney) from the book, staying clear of pigeon curry (six good fat pigeons), rabbit stew (a young rabbit), and hare soup (remains of a jugged hare), I have revelled in Ramakrishnan's most evocative household tips. "An egg that floats is infallibly very bad," she thunders. "Heat lemon thoroughly before squeezing and you will obtain nearly double the quantity of juice," she recommends. "During absence of her husband a lady never goes out for dinner..." she chides. "Never should servants dine where you have dined," she admonishes. The pages of this nameless book bring alive not only a creative and fastidious woman but also conjure up the hunting histories, the convent education and the community ethos from 50 years ago.