“Stop eating oats Sudha, Horses eat oats, not people”

Rice,Sambar,Avial and Pappadum

There is nothing like a visit from the good old maternal relative to shake things up a bit and set you chewing on a few things. Literally. You might think you are the bee’s knees but trust the woman who brought you to this earth to cut your ego down to size in no time at all. No sugar coating there.

A couple of weeks ago, after years of dodging my invitation to come stay with me a couple of weeks, the matriarch finally relented and duly arrived , bag, baggage and a few kgs of crispy chaklis, syrupy jalebis , laddoos and a jar of pickle. When I kicked like a defiant horse, she shut me up deftly with this: “ I would like to feed that poor man some good food till I am here.” The reference of course, being to my spouse who, incidentally , transformed from Harassed Harry to Happy Husband while doting mom-in-law was around. I decided to hold my horses. Let her settle in and I will settle the matter, I told myself, gritting my teeth.

I love the maternal relative but ours has been a stormy relationship because we are both very strong women who won’t give an inch. She has always had a soft corner for me because I have a life-long ,second-child hang up and she has always tried her best to keep me from feeling unwanted. But that has in no way stopped her from expressing herself freely about my many omissions and commissions: I was too headstrong a teenager and too flighty for a middle class girl from suburban Mumbai. She fumed when I hung out with the pimply-youth in the vicinity and worried when I took on neighbourhood bullies. She chided me for being foot loose and fancy free and said real life was different from my Mills & Boons numbers.

“Get real and learn some cooking. Some day you will regret not paying attention. Every woman has to feed a family at some point.” she would say.

“Not me,” I would retort. “I will get someone to cook for my kids and my family. Better still, you can feed them, I would laugh, tossing my wild mane of hair and running off to hang with the guys. It is another matter altogether that when I finally got myself a husband and progeny, I struggled to feed them. I did keep my word and get someone to cook but I must confess that there were the occasional pangs for not being the hostess with the mostest and the mom who sent out the most delicious lunchboxes for her child.

Coming back to living with amma ( having not done this since I left home at 19):

Day 1:

Crash, bam, boom. I fall off the bed and realize painfully that I am not actually cycling with SRK in a picturesque village in Goa. I was merely dreaming. I rush to the kitchen and the matriarch is standing in the middle of the kitchen, which, incidentally, looks like cyclone Vardah visited us in advance.

She was trying to grind some coconut chutney to go with the idli sambar that she was planning to feed my husband, she explained. The kitchen clock shows 5 am. I clean up and totter off to bed, muttering to myself.

7 am: I wake up exhausted and bleary eyed from pre-dawn misadventure and I can hear pots and pans clanging in the kitchen. I sneak a peek and there is spouse standing besides the matriarch and chopping beans at the kitchen platform, while she is busy tasting the sambar and adjusting the seasoning. I mumble a hasty good morning, get myself a cup of tea and escape to the bedroom to read the newspaper.

8 am: Breakfast of Idli, dosa, chutney, sambar and 2 mugs of tea.

9 am : Head for work and return only 11pm by when matriarch is fast asleep.

Day 2

5 am: Same as previous day. Plus, grinding of mixed dals for Adai at breakfast. Not to forget the house almost going up in flames from matriarch roasting whole red chillies on gas flame.

1 pm: Lunch of avial, sambar, one giant pappadum, a large mound of rice. Parippu payasam with jaggery and fresh pressed coconut milk.

“I get migraine from eating sour and fermented stuff. Please can I have my dal roti instead?” I plead feebly.

“There is nothing that a plateful of rice and sambar can’t cure. Also, you need to eat more coconut in your food. I am seventy and have eaten sambar and coconut chutney all my life,” matriarch says, daring me to take her on.

2pm-5 pm: Sulking under a sheet in darkened room from raging migraine, wanting to kick spouse who is snoring like an anguished whale, after mega meal.

6 pm: I wander into the kitchen to get water and a crocin to drown my sorrows.

7.30 pm: Matriarch is in the kitchen bending over a giant pot of something that is bubbling merrily. “Come have a bit of this and you will feel better in no time at all.” The bowlful of red rice gruel looked too tame to cure my migraine but turned out she was right. Half an hour after having amma’s kanji and coconut chutney, the magic potion had zapped away my migraine and I am happy as a lark.

That evening I sit on the sofa with her and listen entranced, as she talks about food and its healing properties. Of how families back home in her village ate like kings during the day, their day beginning with puttu (steamed brown rice cakes) and spicy kadala curry (Bengal gram), polished off sambar, kaalan, avail and a variety of other veggies cooked in coconut and coconut oil for lunch and ate golden fried pazhampori (banana fritters) at tea time. Dinner, even in the most affluent homes, was typically kanji and chammanthi with coconut, roasted red chillies and pearl onions. Sometimes, fiery red fish curry. “We did not need nutritionists to tell us that food intake has to taper off in the latter half of the day,” she said. “Besides, we worked hard all day at home and in our farms did not spend our time hunched over our laptops.

She had other words of wisdom too. “Stop eating oats. Horses eat oats, not people. Have nachni instead.Eat curry leaves, drink plenty of water boiled with cumin seeds to bust your migraine. Eat lots of curd like we malayalees do. And rice. And at dusk, light a lamp and sit with your eyes closed, praying a bit. We all need to tell him we are grateful for our blessings.”

Amma left yesterday after a fortnight’s stay and I already have a precious legacy from her in the form of priceless memories from her childhood and her favourite recipes , gathered over the years from her mother-in-law, her spinster aunts and her own mother. She came to Mumbai as a bride at 16, clueless about the workings of the Indian kitchen but is now the best cook I have ever known. My father, who passed away last year, was a foodie like no other. Days before he passed away, weak from surgeries and bed-ridden, he whispered something in her ears. He wanted to eat her signature chicken curry. She cooked that day like her life depended on it and when he ate a few spoonfuls and declared that her magic was intact, she blushed like a new bride. Someday I hope to be a cook like her. The secret ingredient to a great dish is the love that goes into it, she said to me. I will always remember that.


Sudha Menon

Sudha Menon

Sudha Menon is an Author, a Writing Coach and a Speaker on Gender and Diversity.

You can reach her on sudhamenon2006@gmail.com or her twitter handle@sudhamenon2006
Sudha Menon