It seems to me that S Meenakshi Ammal usually appears to one under duress. You won’t find her until you need her.
In the 1960s, Tamil Brahmins migrating overseas carried her cookbook along with a pressure cooker each to cure homesickness with food from home. As the book gained popularity, the norm was to hand it to young brides who’d often have to move to the north of the country with their husbands and learn to cook without the support of the ever-present maamis (aunts). 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. “Cook and See,” says the title, implying it isn’t so hard really. The instructions inside provide alternative suggestions and steps to take care of kitchen disasters. But even that reassurance is mildly stern, like this particular note for making Butter Milk Sambar:
For this drumstick, brinjal and lady’s finger are best. Potatoes, chow chow and ashgourds are second best. Any other vegetable is third rate.
Strangely I can hear my dad in this book, perhaps because “third rate” is a word he uses quite often. And also because the book reminds me of his particular brand of “strict reassurance”—this will annoy you but this is ultimately good for you. For instance, there was a time when my father would find me dreaming serenely on Sunday afternoons and attempt to break my reverie by asking me stuff like, “what is 1,67,395 minus 578?” His is a lifelong mission to make me alert, either by shocking me with mental mathematics or dark warnings of potential accidents that would most certainly occur, thanks to incessant daydreaming.
“Cook and See” is similarly packed with sudden instructions and underlying threats. In a completely unexpected sentence in the fifth paragraph of a recipe you are warned of pulse balls that might break from wrongly shaped spoons, sweet kosumalli that must be cooked “soft as a flower” but not too soft or else…, pongal that must only be served on Sankranthi and never otherwise, and so on and so forth.
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, a 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 (grandmother) 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 10 years later when I was left without a cook and with 10 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 scars were such that I haven’t attempted making it ever again.
After that disaster, I finally found my cooking chops online in a website called “Padhu’s Kitchen“. 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. No shocks lie in wait for you, there are step-by-step photographs and assurances that so-and-so thing is “a very simple dish to make.” A fitting tone for a website where the blogger describes herself as an “optimist.”
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 realise. 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 KV 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.
But since her life seemed to be fraught with difficulties, Ammal didn’t have it easy there either. She had to sell her jewellery to raise capital for publishing. And just publishing wasn’t enough because who would want instructions to make home food? The story goes that her son walked shop-to-shop requesting owners to stock the book, finally convincing Higginbothams to display one as well.
It took a few years for “Samaithu Paar” to gain popularity. 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.
But it’s been two years since then and now I find myself singing when I cook.
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 1,67,395 minus 578 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 1960s, I have also found courage and solace in food from home.