The Indian grandmother: an endless source of recipes and life lessons

Food for the soul.
Food for the soul.
Image: Unsplash/Paul Goodchild
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A good cook is like a sorceress who dispenses happiness.”

— Elsa Schiaparelli

I don’t know if my grandmother, Vahini, liked to cook. I asked my mother’s mother many things over the years but it never struck me to ask her that. I had always associated her, one of my first heroes, with good food and the kitchen. Whether it was Santosh, her tomato-coconut soup, aptly named Contentment in Marathi, or crunchy rice flour-coated, pan-fried pomfret fillets, Vahini knew how to satisfy my hunger.

The other great cook in my life, my mother Meera, was fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants speedy and innovative. Her food was wildly flavourful and inventive but when I was young, I thought it capricious. Children find comfort in consistency and tradition. With mom’s cooking, I was often on tenderhooks about what she would serve forth. Sometimes, I was deeply disappointed because a dish did not match my potent taste memory. Luckily, my unhappy experiences rarely clouded the good ones.

Mom juggled a working woman’s responsibilities with her love of cooking. My grandmother, a housewife, was more conventional, and had the luxury of being more deliberate, taking time always to ensure that the dish tasted as she thought it should. Not once did I see her taste the food before she served it, she just knew when it was right. I had the assurance that her recipes would taste exactly as they should, as I remembered them, each time she made them. The most valuable lesson I culled from her kitchen manner was this: Discover the essence of a recipe’s flavour and then work painstakingly through a specific process to achieve it.

From the age of twenty, when she became a wife and mother, cooking had been a significant part of Vahini’s life. Her crotchety mother-in-law taught her how to make puran poli, churma ladoo, and the coconut milk-laced fish dishes her husband’s family liked. Somewhere along the way, she discovered she had a knack, even a talent, for this art called cooking. She was an efficient, innovative, and creative cook but didn’t take herself too seriously. She knew that whether she liked cooking or not, she was going to have to do it. She might as well make the most of it.

Having had four children in a space of five years, much of her twenties and thirties were spent catering to their needs and individual finickiness.

One liked eggs, another did not; the third was often ill, the fourth was still a baby. Vahini often put four different breakfasts on the table, all with a smile.

Despite living in a world where servants did the heavy lifting—cleaning the house, doing all the mise en place and washing pots and pans—cooking was not easy for Vahini. Unlike some of her contemporaries, she was not a cook in name alone. She did not order servants about, and she was not lazy. She liked doing chores herself. I always saw her working side by side with a maid, cutting, stirring, frying, pickling, never content to wait for someone else to complete a task she could do herself. Mom and I are the same way.

By the time I knew her, my grandmother was in her fifties. When she was young, she had cooked on stoves fired by wood, not as easy to control as gas. Now, she had the convenience of propane, which made her all the more prolific. If I needed her, I ran to the big kitchen where she was conjuring up the next magical meal or concocting wine from unlikely fruit. She might be sitting on the green granite counter next to the two-burner stove, resting her feet on a chair as she stirred a bubbling batch of guava jam or dudhi halva for her large brood.

If, by strange chance, she was not in the kitchen, I knew where to find her. I would run into the garden and see her picking guavas or Moringa pods, gathering croses, jasmine, or sacred basil. Failing that, she was delivering the next round of drinks and treats to my grandfather, who spent many of his waking hours on the verandah. Except for a ten-minute nap religiously taken every afternoon, my grandmother was on call for all of us from the time she arose at dawn till the time she crashed into bed, long after the rest of the household was asleep.

The first day of our summer vacations was marked by a special lunch Vahini cooked for each of her grandchildren as they arrived at Manju Lakshmi. I always asked for santosh served with hot rice and ghee, thinly sliced, deep fried salted okra rings in yogurt, and garlicky brown lentils, with fried pomfret in season.

Despite such sumptuous meals, we were constantly in need of sustenance. “Aji, I’m hungry,” one of us would call. And she would bring out freshly made guava toffee or coconut vadi, or crisp, crunchy chakli, and watch as we ate, clapping her hands absent-mindedly, tapping her foot and singing, “Chak-ali, chak-ali” or the name of whatever she was feeding us. For a more filling snack, there were sliced Alphonso mangoes or, my favourite, cream-&-sugar sandwiches, made with cream collected daily from the buffalo milk that was delivered fresh each morning and boiled before use.

The cream rose thickly to the top of the pan and my grandmother collected it when the milk had cooled. Once she had gathered a week’s worth, she churned butter by hand. Soft white clouds of it sat in a cold pool of water to keep them fresh. We liked to run our fingers through it as Krishna must have done. Then we’d pick up a lump and put it into our mouths, letting the heat melt it gently on our tongues.

I had no notion of how my grandmother made shopping lists or had the vegetable vendor, grocer, and mess sergeant fill her orders. I had no idea how tired she was and how tiring her life. All I knew was that there was never any lack of snacks or sweet treats. I got chocolatey Bournvita stirred in my milk morning and evening, a treat not allowed at my own home; I could go to the cupboard any time I wanted to grab a bite to eat, no matter when dinner was. No one ever said no to us.

This unconditional love was the most generous gift my grandmother and her daughter, Meera, could have given us. They schooled me, not by any dictum, but by the selfless, generous way they lived their lives.

  • There is always enough food to go around,
  • Share what you have,
  • Serve what you make with a smile,
  • Never refuse a child something to eat,
  • People are more important than things.

Two Recipes

These two recipes reflect my two ancestries, my father’s family, the strictly vegetarian Marathes, and my mother’s people, the fish-loving Sirsikars.

Braised Okra with Tamarind-Jaggery

Serves: 2-4, Time: 30 minutes

My father’s aunt Susheela Marathe shared this unusual Konkanastha recipe for okra with me when I was researching my first cookbook.

– 1/4 kg okra/bhendi, washed, well-dried & stemmed
– 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
– 1/2 teaspoon mustard seeds
– pinch of asafoetida
– pinch of turmeric
– 2 tablespoons tamarind pulp
– 2-inch lump of jaggery, grated
– 2-3 tablespoons water
– 3/4-1 teaspoon salt
– 3-4 sprigs coriander leaves

Chop okra into 3/4 inch-long pieces. Heat oil in a medium wok. Pop mustard seeds. Stir in asafoetida and turmeric. Sauté okra over medium-high heat for 2-3 minutes. Stir in tamarind, water, and jaggery. Reduce heat and cook covered, stirring occasionally, 12-15 minutes. Add salt and cook uncovered 2-3 minutes to evaporate most of the water. Serve hot, garnished with coriander leaves.

Saraswat Pan-Fried Pomfret

Serves: 2-4, Time: 30 minutes marinating + 30 minutes cooking

The Saraswats love fish and I am no exception. My grandmother Vahini’s fried pomfret makes a delicious appetiser. If pomfret is not available, try it with thin fillets of firm, white fish like tilapia, cod, or turbot, or even shrimp.

– 1/2 kg pomfret OR other firm-fleshed white fish fillets, washed & patted dry
– 2 teaspoons salt
– 3 teaspoons turmeric
– 50 grams fine rice flour
– 2 & 1/2 teaspoons red chili powder
– 1/4 litre vegetable oil
– lime wedges for garnish

Rub fillets with salt and turmeric 30 minutes before frying. Spread rice flour in a small plate. Heat 2-3 tablespoons oil on the griddle till very hot, 4-5 minutes. Sprinkle some red chilli over each fillet and transfer it to the rice flour, pressing down to coat both sides evenly. Pan-fry 6-8 coated fillets at a time, 3-5 minutes per side. Drizzle a little oil around them as they cook. Turn fillets when the first side is firm and golden brown. Replenish oil as needed. Drain well before serving hot with lime wedges and sliced onions.

Excerpted with permission from Shared Tables: Family Stories And Recipes from Poona to LA, Kaumudi Marathé, Speaking Tiger Books.

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