My mother never threw away anything, believing in the Indian middle class dictum that goes, “One day you may need it.” So you keep plastic bags and mithai boxes, old torches with leaking batteries and spotty hand mirrors. There is also the sari that’s a “little faded” and blouses that shrank in the washing but are “good as new”. Of course, when it came to papers, they collect dust on the top cupboard shelf next to the battered tiffin carrier and an ancient camera.
You think I am making this up? I was transferring all the above items into cardboard boxes for charity and garbage bags last month. All the while I could feel this disapproving shadow floating by my shoulder whispering, “Ohhh… I knitted that sweater for your Baba…” and then with Ma’s implacable talent for going for the jugular, “You’re doing this just because I’m dead!”
I think she was a bit reassured that I wasn’t wiping out her existence when she saw how carefully I stacked away her notebooks. I didn’t know she had accumulated so many, full of random memories and recipes and they were going to be read and treasured. In her last years, she refused to move out of bed and whenever she was bored, she would grab a notebook and scribble — everything from recipes of aloo posto and shukto to her memories of how she was taught cooking by her mother and her nomadic childhood in Shimla and Delhi.
The memoirs are rather chaotic and will take time to sort out, but the recipes were done in an organised manner in two writing pads that are yellowing and rather fragile. That’s how the “Save Ma’s Recipes” project began. It was not really because I wanted to cook the dishes but more in the optimistic hope that others will cook them and then invite me! As I tapped away, the taste and flavour of the dishes came back. Also the faces, kitchens and memories of family chats at the dining table.
She taught me with care, but I disappointed Ma by being a very unpredictable cook. Typing out the recipe for chorchori, I flashed back to our kitchen in Green Park as she showed me the exact way in which each vegetable had to be chopped. The potatoes in slices, the spinach in chunks, the pumpkin in cubes and the parwal peeled in strips. As I watched breathlessly, my parents tasted my first attempt. My kind and loyal Baba grinned and said, “Not bad at all!” The master chef chewed grimly and then declared, “You burnt the panch phoron… I told you…”
It is not easy being the absent-minded progeny of a legendary cook. Just go and ask the daughters of famous mother chefs, they’ll all agree. My sister persisted and recovered from her disaster-prone beginnings and made Ma proud of her. I once managed to burn a pan of rice to a black crisp and remained in the culinary dog house forever.
As we sorted through bundles of old photographs, I found the perfect portrait of Ma. She is standing at the door of our dining room holding a giant thali piled with puris, her face split by a triumphant grin. Puris have a special place in my memories of growing up. I went through a phase when I refused to eat rice. So she would interrupt her afternoon nap and make puris when I came back from school. I remember her frying them and grumbling at my spoilt-brat behaviour.
All the kitchens of my life came back in an impromptu slideshow like the one in Daryaganj with the earthen chulhas and then our excitement when we got an Indane gas cylinder. Ma experimenting with a roti-making machine and our first mixer in the airy Bangkok kitchen where she revelled in Baba’s United Nation’s job and bought all the gadgets she had dreamed of. That included a rice cooker she took an instant dislike to and never used again. Of course, it was not thrown away. It was lugged back to India and still sits in a cupboard. So if anyone is interested in a 40-year old “little-used” rice cooker, let me know. I just want to be there when you switch it on, there could be interesting results.
Memories of my maternal grandma, my Didima, floated in as I typed a very unusual brinjal recipe cooked without any oil. As Ma told it, the family was on its annual transfer to Shimla and stopped at Kalka for lunch and Didima sent a domestic help on a recipe-hunting mission to the dhaba kitchen. While on grandmothers, I thought of my other grandma, my Thakuma, who was a disastrous cook just like me and never hid her lack of interest. When Ma arrived as a new bride, Thakuma handed over the kitchen to her with great relief and went back to her chief occupation of bossing us all.
Another group of faces floated up next — all the cooks and kitchen assistants who had graced our home with their antics. There was the boy who drank up all the rice starch and another who threw away a whole pan of meat stock waiting to be turned into clear soup to go with the delectable mutton roast. The cook in Bangkok who made the best khao phat I have ever eaten, and the bossy genius who now reigns in the kitchen and misses Ma every day.
The kitchen also has a memory that my sister and I share. How many of you have been lectured by your mother to the sound of spluttering mustard seeds? Whenever we were in trouble, we would be summoned to the kitchen, where Ma would give us hell and, for some strange reason, it was always in pristine English. We would drag ourselves in and hear her opinion of my failing in Hindi or my sister being sassy to a teacher and her speech always began, “I fail to understand…” It is a phrase that is engraved forever on our minds.
So last month I offered her recipes to the world through a post on Facebook and within hours, I was inundated with requests. Many of the emails that followed were about the memories of great family cooks. To my astonishment, it also revived an argument my sister and a cousin have been having for 30 years about a contentious bowl of payesh. Which Ma had made, of course.
Subhadra Sen Gupta writes on Indian history and culture. Her latest book is A Children’s History of India