The Heavenly Kitchen — What the culinary legacy did to my relationship with food

The Heavenly Kitchen — What the culinary legacy did to my relationship with food

It was usual for heavenly smells from the kitchen to wake me up and lead me by my nose to the source. And this did not happen on one odd day in between. This was every day. Every. Single. Day.

The kitchen cauldron was always bubbling away with a great-grandma, a grandma, a maushi (aunt), and my Aai (mother) overseeing the food preparations with two women as kitchen help. 

This kitchen was an amalgamation of flavours and cuisines. It was primarily koknastha (from the Konkan region), but strains of various national and international cuisines crept in.

My relationship with food has been complicated. My earliest memory of food, which is often repeated to show the complication, is how I used my rudimentary grasp of sign language to get more of the chicken stock I was being fed. And I was a tiny being with no teeth to speak of, consuming only liquids. 

After that, it progressed to adventurous eating and drinking. But whatever I consumed, subpar-tasting food and passable fare just would not do. Ever. Thus my choices of where I ate and who made the food were severely limited.

My great-grandma was heavily influenced by what she learnt from her mother-in-law, being married at 16 years of age, as was the pattern then. Her everyday cooking was delightful. Her expertise lay in pickles chutneys — dry and wet, laddoos of all kinds, and cooking unusual leafy vegetables — Chandan batwa, Chuka, and Rajgira, to name a few. 

She loved doing things the old way. No mixies for her. The pata varvanta (stone-based grinder) did such a fabulous job of mixing the curry paste. 

Buttermilk was churned using a big whisk rotated with rope. We always had a cow at home. How could milk be anything but fresh? The last cow we had at home died when I was 7. As my great-grandma aged, she left the kitchen in the competent hands of her daughter-in-law, my Grandma. 

Yet, every now and then, she found a reason to potter in there. Just to create someone’s favourite dish or send a pickle someplace. And to make a meal because a specific vegetable or fruit was in season. She just had to make up her mind.

My Grandma was brought up in Nagpur till she married and moved to Pune. The Vidharbha influence dominated her cuisine. She traveled the world with my diplomat Grandpa soaking in Rome, Paris, Boston, Baltimore, New York, London, Geneva, Bangkok, and New Delhi. 

As soon as she set foot in a new city, she took a bus tour to get a feel. After that, she would travel various routes back and forth on the bus to note what each locality was like. She knew the best grocers and the best butchers. In Europe of the 1960s, she managed to get Indian spices and vegetables delivered wherever she was. 

She loved integrating with the society they lived in. If she had let it limit her, her typical social circle would have been the families of other diplomats and those who occupied that charmed circle. Yet, away from this milieu, she sought opportunities to mingle with families across strata. 

She volunteered at schools for the disabled, took language lessons, actively participated in the United Nations family associations, and exposed herself to experiences through these channels. 

She loved to cook and feed people good food. She never ate meat, yet made the tastiest meat dishes. Language barriers notwithstanding, she knew a kindred soul when she met one. 

An Italian lady shared her pizza secrets, a French baker demonstrated croissants baking, an English friend showed her various pies and puddings, and a Pakistani housewife cooked her an entirely vegetarian meal. Wherever she was stationed, she ensured that the local house help learnt all there was to know about Koknastha cuisine. It was her way of giving back what they had given her family by way of service and local tastes.

At a United Nations fest in Geneva, held to showcase the cultures of member countries, my Grandma marshalled a combined effort of several Indian women to serve Bhel and Chaat to visitors. To support this endeavour, Air India flew 70 kgs of puffed rice and other Indian ingredients overnight from New Delhi. Not a morsel of chaat remained at the end of the day.

It was a never-ending smorgasbord of love-filled bonds cemented over food. My Grandma preserved all her memories in the form of a diary and a well-thumbed recipe journal. Around the time I was born, my Grandpa had retired, and both he and my Grandma settled in Pune. The kitchen and our huge garden became the centerpiece of her daily existence. Once I tasted that chicken stock, there was no holding me back.

My Aai, who had traveled with her parents as a child and teenager, inherited a pair of hands that created culinary magic. She claimed she absolutely hated cooking all her life, but it did not go with the pudding as proof. 

By the time my Grandma passed away, it had been some time since Aai had taken over the kitchen. She continued to be as particular and as meticulous about the cooking. And over time, she added to the original recipe journal that my Grandma had started.

Indian food shares a close relationship with the containers it is cooked, served, and eaten in. The cooking equipment, the serving bowls, and the crockery cutlery matched the impeccable food that made its way from the kitchen. 

My great Grandma lived in Kolhapur and Baroda for some years, where my great Grandpa was posted as a Medical Officer. Those places were fairly rural compared to Pune in the 1930s and 1940s. She had to make do with what was available. By the time she settled in Pune, she had made appropriate additions to her kitchen utensil collection. Every vessel, plate, bowl, and spoon had a purpose; using it to do something else was sacrilege. My Grandma added to this collection in between their postings abroad. 

By the time Aai took over, we had most of what was required to cook, serve, and eat. And more. They were inventive women, blending ingredients, experimenting, intuitive enough to know which spice went well with which vegetable or meat or what could be changed to enhance the flavours.

Lunch and dinners on proper stainless steel plates with vati, bhanda, and tambya. 

Egg and milk, never without vanilla, in a tall smoothie glass. Soups in a proper bowl with flat edges and soup spoons. Homemade original Italian-style pizzas (yes, base and all) on china plates with knife and fork, tea in proper teacups from England. Cakes in Corning ware, muffins in moulds, pies in a baking pan. Whiskeys in tumblers, wines in wine glasses, and chasers in shot glasses. Unimaginable in the Pune of the seventies.

I was born into this food heritage enriched with each passing generation, and I inherited it as soon as I took my first sip of the chicken stock. I had to have my milk with a straw, in a tall glass with a pack of cards printed on it, and my meals in particularly colourful bowls. My Grandpa’s copper tambya bhanda became a beacon at mealtimes, and my tiny hands reached out often to grab the shiny thing.

Every time I open the recipe journal, I am transported to our kitchen, where my favourite people used to chop, cut, mix, knead, stir, saute, and fry food — creating wonders for my eager senses. They come alive in the written word as I skim the pages. 

My complicated relationship with food has nothing to do with eating less or more of it or preferring one kind of cuisine and not others. 

It has everything to do with this culinary legacy that has rendered me less capable of accepting anything not meeting these standards of love, care, and brilliance.

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