Wednesday, March 10, 2010

What's Your Tradition?

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.


  1. Memories are our traditions - the way it was , and if we choose, the way it will be.
    My mom always pooh-pooh'ed the use of store bought garam masala. We belonged to a pot-luck group ruled over by an authority crazed gentleman, who would send out typed recipes to all the women for the dishes to be brought to his house when it was his turn to host. My mom would roll her eyes if she got his version of chicekn curry that liberally used garam masala. Swearing under her breath, she would make her curry without his garam masala. He never complained. She silently won.
    Cut to, 30 years later and a new life in the US, and she keeps marveling over the Eastern brand garam masala I bring home from my forays to the local Asian store. Old tradition lost?

  2. Sra, the story could have been mine. When I first started writing about food and showing interest in how my grandmas cooked, everyone(mom, grandma, aunts) were quite surprised. I never stepped inside the kitchen as long as I lived in India, hostel-school-college kept me away from it. Once I came here the urge to have something tangible is what got me very interested and the fact that some of my friends here knew cooking learnt from their moms/grandmoms and I was a little bit sad that I did not learn when I had the chance.

  3. Sra

    I think my previous comment was totally out of context. I re read your post and I realize my comment was more of a rant on my part as to why I never thought cooking important enough before. It really has nothing to do with the post. So don't publish it and let me come back with a proper thought

  4. Heartfelt Post Sra? You gotta one more thing to it too, personally most of my friends(and I) cook coz their husbands expect them to cook like how their mom or aunt cooked..and it has to be as authentic as it could semi homemade or tricks..If it needs a cup of ghee, you better add 2 cups :) drown it in coconut oil or lather it up with as many ingredients as a dish can hold..

    About andra restaurants, in general indian restaurants here add lots of color that the teeth starts looking yellowy-red after a gobi manchoorian or panner tikka!

  5. Very well put Sra. I think I can relate to you in terms of defining tradition. Even though I grew up in Bangalore, I cannot say with confidence that a particular dish is a traditional one, nor its traditional recipe.
    Same applies to our Konkani cooking. Much of my mom's cooking was adapting to what she knew, what was avaialble and trying to cater to all our needs.

  6. Something come as habit. I guess that is what is tradition. But, aren't we all allowed to make our own tradition? That is what is our 'touch' which I am sure every mother and grand mother introduced deviating from what was shown or taught to them. Very interesting and nice post. BTW, I am hosting my first event which is on baking. Check it out if you are interested.

  7. My granny says: the masala box shows how the woman is organized! I grew up seeing the masala box in my family and kept very neat!
    Traditionnal things, festivals are always sambar, vadai, payasam... But few festival like Sakkranthi, my family does a Pongal with sugar - Diwali is celebrated with a special sweet dumpling made with nuts and coconut! It is our family tradition!
    But married someone from karnataka I really don't follow closely my mom style and in laws.
    Tradition is twisted, changed according our taste or even circumstance!

  8. Enjoyed reading your post, Sra. Loved the bit about your great grandmom asking if you got a raise! :)

  9. You are absolutely right. Thats why on the safer side I started recording my mom's recipes as such (thats the only one I could get as my both my grandmas passed away by the time I tookup cooking). But I consicuosly try to record the intricacies as thats what we call it as a "tradition". But when comes to a regional cuisine the fish kolumbu if tasted in a household in cuddalore petty much tastes the same everywhere in the town. I have seen quiet a no. of telugu bloggers who use the chilli powder in less-than-moderation and my thought of painting everything red for Andhra cuisine is actually cleared by them.

  10. Until the last time I met my in laws... there would be some question about why this and why not that... and I'd say, "Because that's how my mom makes it"... this time I said, "This is how I make it"... or "because I like it this way".

    I don't have a masala box... my mom didn't either :( I like the idea of storing tadka ingredients mixed in a box :)

  11. Hi hi chilli chicken flavoured with vanilla essence , that would have been something, well you can say atleast froma earlly age you had fusion food ;-)
    My mom didn't had a masala box untill some 10 years ago. When i was home it was almways small jam bottles or plastic bottels were she kept all her spices, there will be this variety of small boxes sitting there next to her gas table.
    I dodn't know if i was brought up in a traditional way.

  12. There are lots of things that I used to believe in before that are no longer important to me. Is that loss of tradition?
    I do regret not taking any interest in cooking before marriage. Like you said, it is a life skill and something that everyone should learn the basics of, irrespective of gender. I make "traditional" dishes more 'coz I don't want to not know how to make 'em than to keep up the tradition.

  13. All what you've said is quite true in my house where the emphasis lay on studying - cooking was something we'd learn eventually! But I married into a house where girls are taught and expected to cook well and a variety of dishes for the family and extended relatives. Thankfully, I knew to cook but was always - and still sometimes am - nervous about the reactions and feedback. Personally I feel cooking is a skill for life and every member in the family must know to cook basic food atleast for themselves- well, this thought sprung from some personal experiences and living outside the homeland!

  14. I love this post! It's so interesting, the things we write about as food bloggers/writers. I think I probably spend more time writing about what my mother doesn't cook rather than what she does but there are definitely still some meals that are intrinsically linked to my memory.

  15. Sra, was gathering my thoughts before I could comment, hence the delay. Here they are:
    Madhur Jaffery in her book Climbing the Mango Trees, goes on and on about how her family was one of the very few modern families in India, but the book is redolent with food cooked by her mom, grandma and various aunts in the family.
    Which is not to say that a woman cooking food can not be modern. What I am trying to say is, your family was probably way ahead of its time (and more modern than Jaffery's family), with emphasis on economic independence rather than cooking techniques.
    My grandma (dad's mom) was an excellent cook but she was also a very independent woman who supported a big household while my grandfather was in jail (as a freedom fighter) for long periods of time. She was a music teacher and also ran a restaurant for a while with two of her friends.
    My other grandma too is an excellent cook and she finished her masters while raising four daughters and taught in a school till the age of 70.
    My mom still works and when we were kids, used to cook before going to work and after coming back.
    I, who don't work anymore, and did not cook growing up except make rotis or chop some veggies, cook with a different rythm than all three of them.
    That being said, the fare of all the three women and for that matter of my aunts has always been simple -- roti, dal, sabzi, salad and rice. An occassianal dessert for special occassions.
    Far away from influence of my family (or his) I have eventually reverted back to that simple menu on most days when we are not trying out our hands at new ingredients available here.
    I think I am going to convert these thoughts into a post and link back to yours.

  16. Have you thought about converting this into an event? Ask them to send in their cooking tradition and no recipes, just links to the ones they have already posted causally thrown in the post. I will host it for you if you are too busy. What say?

  17. Ok I am back, have re thought very hard ;-)

    My story was exactly like yours in the sense that I was never encouraged to cook. "Study well" was the only refrain that I heard and that is what I did most of the time !!!

    My Mom stayed at home and did all the cooking and over did in fact but neither she nor me felt it was a glam thing to do. I think she did it more as a sense of duty as a home maker and you don't really love things you have to do as a routine.

    Once I moved from home,I started cooking more as a necessity and I have said this several times. I still didn't think it was a worthwhile thing to do and though I loved eating, I felt browsing recipe sites was something idle minds do.

    Here in the US things were very different, almost everyone I met cooked really well and I really wanted to learn more of the stuff that folks back home cooked regularly.

    Also I really feel Food Blogs have made something like "everyday home cooking" a very glamorous thing to do. I myself owe "Mahanadi" a big one for that.

    You now kind of feel proud doing your everyday dal, feeding a home cooked meal to the family seems more worthwhile. And that is how you slowly foray into making your own traditions and reliving the past ones.

  18. Very well writeup Sra. I started cooking at very early age to help my mom in the morning hour rush. But at the same time she made sure my brother also helps her. It helped me a lot when I went to hostel. I was sure that I will never go hungry :)

  19. chicken flavoured with vanilla essence sounds great Sra, thought provoking post..its nice to read everybody's comments..

  20. Sra enjoyed reading your post.loved to read sandeepa's comments too.she is so right.Till date my mom, again a working lady never has cooked any dish in the traditional way or has ever put her heart and soul into cooking and we still love it because we are used to it.but somehow i had this penchant for cooking (may be my both the grandmothers passed it on to me) and here in the services I discovered everybody is an expert
    cook the reason being socialising and playing host to lot of parties.So iam helping to keep the armed forces wives' traditions alive:).that vanilla essence with chilli chicken must have been gr8...i am in splits here

  21. Sra,
    Splendid post..well I dont know know what more to add after all these worth-reading comments and this thought provoking post :)..
    we create out own tradition and each and every home has it's own way of making things "working" or "alive"...tradition is like a river , you add more and it grows bigger,deeper or even turn acutely and change places LOL..
    hugs and smiles

  22. My family tradition is not following the tradition, much like yours as well. My grandmother was a great cook in the family and my mother cooks well...but she doesnt cook much. Its always the cook!

    I grew up in hostel(lived on special diet Kerala mess, Andhra mess, Tamil Nadu mess, you name it)...traveled so much(Chennai, Hyderabad, Coimbatore, Delhi, Nagpur, Memphis, Oxford, Atlanta...).

    When I started cooking for myself...everything came naturally, which I still wonder how!!?? I basically lack knowledge how many diff' dhalls we have in India. Mommy swears its gradma's genes, but I believe its more like a palate thing', true omnivore, practically lived on diff' cuisines.

    And I guess, the levels of oxytocin is also pretty much important in house keeping, he he.:)

  23. What an interesting peep in to your life

  24. Traditions.... My mother never shopped, ever. My father did all the shopping, brought the food home and my mother cooked whatever he bought. He didn't use a list and she never told him what she wanted. He bought what looked good and she had to work with it. She was a good cook - but with very few 'dishes' that she regularly made. - and no cook books except for sweets.

  25. I think I get what you are trying to say.....I never had the opportunity to taste my extended family's cooking since we lived in Mumbai while they were all down South. It was just Mom's cooking - and she had really beautiful memories of traditional Tamilian food - but even she learnt to cook most of it after getting married - before that, as with most South Indian women of her generation, it was all about the education and the Master's degree!

    My Dad is an avid foodie and that was what prompted her to learn to cook North Indian food so that we didn't eat out that often - yes practicality over romanticism :)

    But still - that is my tradition and memories -some home cooked Tamil food combined with Anglo Indian cooking from my Godmother downstairs liberally sprinkled with Maharashtrian food eaten at my neighbours!

  26. Yeah, two food adjectives I am scared of - traditional and authentic, though I am guilty of using both in my descriptions. I too had never cooked at home, or "trained under" my mom. I just started cooking once I moved to Bangalore and had a kitchen of my own, well shared kitchen with my roomie. Somehow along the way it kinda became a passion. Only then I started showing any interest in the "traditional" kerala dishes :). That's the cooking part, but the love for food was imparted in me from a very younge age. My family was a totally foodie family , we used to eat out at restaurants so much more often than "normal people" in our income range at the time. As long as it was non-veg, I could get over my germaphobia and clean up the plates.

  27. i loved this post...actually have been reading and commenting on a few of them this past hour....its so true..what is tradition seriously? and coming from the worst form of cross breed and marrying into a family where the whole community makes the same type of molaga podi..its confusing at best....i am all for gets my goat too that the minute you utter andhra, avakkai is the next...and for a hyderabadi, there's no escaping the "ohhh i love the biriyanis"


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