This is something that has been on my mind for a while but reading Indo's and Sandeepa's latest posts, I decided it's time I did some musing too, though my post is not directly related to theirs.
As bloggers, and those who write mostly about food, there's a lot we write about 'the tradition in my family'. We romanticise (me included) how our mothers and grandmothers made this or that, how a recipe is traditional, peculiar to our homes, or twisted (you know what I mean - with a twist in it), etcetera etcetera. In my case, it's not only the loss of these treats that makes me nostalgic, it's also that I sometimes cannot bear to face what I've cooked myself that makes me miss them, the people and the dishes, all the more.
I would even go so far as to say that I really don't know much about my community's special culinary tradition, if it has one, or that in the home I grew up, we just didn't discuss food much (unless it was to tell me to eat less of it). It was there, it was tasty and varied enough to make us look forward to it and we ate it. Of course, if there was some new-fangled dish, like cauliflower pickle, it would be discussed and perhaps forgotten promptly, I really don't know.
My mother works, and so doesn't have any time to spend in the kitchen unless the cook takes a day off. My grandmother cooked for us as long as she could, and then a cook took over. Excited about a new cook, who came from a canteen, we asked him to make something special, and he was handed the vanilla essence when he asked for something that sounded like essence. We had chilli chicken flavoured with vanilla essence that day.
None of the women on either side of my family were taught to cook. It was always 'Study, study, knowledge and career aren't as easily achieved as cooking'. In fact, an aunt says she would often wish her mother had taught her how to cook - when she migrated to a new country, she found herself at a loss, not knowing what to make or how to make it. Perhaps my grandmothers' unfulfilled dreams for their own lives made them decide their children shouldn't end up just cooking and planning meals day after day. Some of my aunts are great cooks but I think it was their own interest and circumstances that helped, but no one, not even my great-grandmothers, as far as I know, said anything about it.
It's a life skill, of course, but to women who were immersed in housekeeping, probably not one of great consequence. One of my great grandmothers, who passed away just 12 years ago, would always ask me if I'd got a raise, but never a traditional question. At the most, she would tell me to spend well and eat well, but that's it. And some of the aunts were so uninvolved with food that after a hard day's work, they would heat up cold rice, mix it with salt and chilli powder and make a meal of it.
I don't know what I'm trying to achieve through this post, probably trying to say how 'traditional' isn't always traditional. And that perhaps, 'no tradition' is a tradition all its own. I'm no authority on anything but it is generally agreed that the 'masala box' is quintessentially Indian. But in fact, we never had one at home. I do, but not my parents. Even if they do, it's probably tucked away somewhere in the storeroom. My grandmother, and the cook after her, mix up the mustard, cumin and the urad dal in a jar and just throw in a bit of it when they need to temper something. The cardamom and cloves are in the storeroom as they aren't used as much as the other spices, and the salt, turmeric and chilli powder are in their own containers. So strange, and novel, was the discovery of a masala box to me - everything in one place, in plastic, steel and even Tupperware (not that I possess the very latter).
Then there's the spice level. Just as Sandeepa gets "Rosshogulla" each time she tells someone she's a Bengali, I get "Oh, spy-sssee! (spicy)" or "I love the avakai pickle you guys make!" I have to confess we are a great avakai family, with vats of it being made every year for our own consumption as well as that of aunts and uncles living overseas, but the funny thing is, we don't call it avakai. We just call it 'mamidikaya pachchadi', avakai coming from the mustard powder that goes into the pickle.
And I don't ever remember eating food so spyzee (spicy) that it would have you burn and bleed over the toilet the next day - that was more or less the odd case, it's not as if we Telugus uniformly make that kind of spicy food. And I hate it when 'Andhra restaurants' paint their food in red (chilli powder) just so that they can keep up with the popular image of the mouthwatering, and yes, eyes-watering food the State is supposed to produce!
Am I giving you the idea of a very practical, even boring, family kitchen? Practical, maybe, but not boring. The cooks themselves (grannies) did not go into raptures over this recipe or that, they must have had enough for a lifetime, or perhaps believed in the 'eat-to-live' principle. (Two generations later, younger now than they were then, and on a bad day, I feel the same way.) But parties always saw cocktail sausages and French fries on toothpicks, pressure cooker caramel custard; festivals saw the traditional pulihora and payasam. And to me tradition and habit were as much those as rice and curd and pickle as well as ootappam with tomato ketchup, milk without sugar, and tiffin with anything but coconut chutney.