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Journal About Life and third rate vegetables with S. Meenakshi Ammal. Illustration recreated by Harshita Borah It seems to me that S. Meenakshi Ammal usually appears to one under duress. More recently, families have taken to gifting their sons the book as they leave their homes for idli-less shores. A theme of reassurance runs through this iconic cookbook from the Tamil Brahmin community.
The instructions inside provide alternative suggestions and steps to take care of kitchen disasters. Potatoes, chow chow and ashgourds are second best. Any other vegetable is third rate. Someone learning to cook might find this book mildly terrifying, because the instructions flow like a stream of consciousness narrative albeit with slightly obsessive details. But for a seasoned cook the book is full of nuggets that no YouTube video or for that matter, cookbook can offer.
Ultimately if you use the book well, you could end up with a dish that tastes as authentic as something only your Paati could make.
Take for instance this neat little tempering trick for Stuffed Brinjal or Ennai Curry: If the brinjal is not very tender and has seeds inside, soak a little tamarind marble size in a handful of water, prepare juice and sprinkle, instead of sprinkling plain water. I found Ammal in the old way, my father gave me the book when I moved to Mumbai as a 20 year old Copywriter.
I only opened it ten years later when I was left without a cook and with ten days of takeout plastic. Being stupidly ambitious I decided to start my cooking journey with my favourite Tamil Brahmin dish, Vatha Kuzhambu a thick tangy and richly spicy broth of dried salted vegetables that can make certain parts of your brain buzz with pleasure.
When I reopen the book to that recipe now, I find it stained with turmeric and paranoia. Masalas seem to have been scattered in confusion and terror. When it finally got made, I remember the kuzhambu tasted like poison flavoured with tamarind. The book has been preserved in a neat old school bind but is littered with handwritten notes and highlighted paragraphs by my mother, giving me a glimpse of her as a struggling young cook.
This is something very hard for me to imagine given her current expertise in the kitchen, which is what makes this book so special. Here the recipes of my childhood are broken down with a simplicity that is perfect for men and women who have never ventured into the kitchen except to drop their used plates.
But as I get better at cooking, I am inclined to drop my online wanderings for the seasoned and in-depth lessons of Ammal. Here, even filter coffee is an elaborate recipe filled with helpful details like this note: If necessary, the second decoction may be mixed with the first. Two and a half cups of water will give two cups of decoction to serve four people. It is only natural that Meenakshi Ammal is stern I realize.
Her life has not been the easiest and sometimes reads like the melodramatic script of an old Tamil movie. Ammal who lost her husband at 18 lived with a mother-in-law, her younger brother-in-law and her young son in what could not have been the best of circumstances. However her cooking was sublime and she was constantly pestered for recipes and instructions from friends and family. Relatives going abroad would request Ammal for specifics and she would answer them with succinct recipes in blue inland letters.
Known for her managerial skills just as much as her cooking, she would command parties of young women at weddings, instructing them on the nuances of communal cooking , even preventing squabbles between them. I found it rather sweet that as a treat she would often take these young ladies to the cinema.
When her son was finally older, her uncle K. V Krishnaswami Aiyer convinced her to compile a book of her recipes. And she did, writing down everything she knew about cooking. If you notice all her recipes are meant to serve four, the exact number of people in her own family.
She had to sell her jewellery to raise capital for publishing. The story goes that her son walked shop-to-shop requesting owners to stock the book, finally convincing Higginbothams to display one as well. But when it did, it became something of a legend. The book has now been translated into various languages and although the vintage illustrated cover featuring a dreamy young bride cooking has been replaced by a photo of idlis and vadas, the book still commands an ever-growing audience.
And I can see why, the instructions that once instilled paranoia in me seem considerate now. When I started out, everything about the process of cooking would terrorise me; the crackling mustard, the occasional bouts of fire from damp curry leaves in hot oil, incendiary tomato chutney bursting out of the mixie in rebellion leaving blood red streaks all over my kitchen.
Yes, all very dramatic and inclined to leave me dispirited. That cooking teaches you patience should seem obvious, but what I found is it also gives you a strange sort of confidence.
I may not know what minus is without a calculator, but I do know how many cups of rice would feed a table of four, I know every masala in my little box of spices by scent and texture and I can guess how much pepper must be ground for a particularly piquant milagu rasam. And so it occurs to me that just like the early migrants from the s, I have also found courage and solace in food from home.
Recipes of Meenakshi Ammal
Life and third rate vegetables with S.Meenakshi Ammal