Among the many activities that vie for one’s attention, the one thing I had promised myself I would do in the week leading up to my marriage was to find a few hours of quality time with my Amma and Appa, both superb cooks in their own right. I had already put some thought into the recipes I wanted from them and I set out to note down the specific details. Over the years, side notes would join these recipes to list down the variations I found on the same recipe in my husband’s home. That book is now dog-eared and worn out, but it is still a treasure trove of knowledge for me, something I cherish as an invaluable piece of the past passed down to me from another generation.
I never did ask my mother for the recipe of my favourite childhood pickle until very recently, that too out of fear of losing it forever to her failing memory.
My mother was a specialist in the very versatile Aavakkaai, which was made with cut mangoes and involved a long-drawn labour of love right from sourcing the mangoes and spices, to careful preservation leading to the pleasure of savouring that perfectly pickled mango. Who was I kidding? It was simply not going to work out in a foreign country. For the first few years, I relied on Amma to send me batches of her annual Aavakkaai until age caught up with her and she stopped her annual ritual. But her legacy remains in the fact that if I close my eyes and think about the Aavakkaai even today, I can taste it instantly on my tongue. Memories of another era, never quite erased from the soul.
As a newlywed, I began learning a lot about the cooking style of my husband’s home. While my mother, influenced by the styles of Thirunelveli and Kanyakumari cooked at a reasonable spice level, and used coconut extensively in her cooking, my mother-in-law who hailed from Thanjavur had a different approach. Food was much spicier and a lot more emphasis was placed on balance of flavours and types of food served in specific combinations. I was also introduced to the world of of Thokku (fresh pickles) and Thogayal (chutneys to mix and have with rice) as accompaniments.
A Thokku started off with tempering of mustard seeds and asafoetida in gingelly oil followed by whatever you were making a fresh pickle of, sautéed gently in the oil with salt and turmeric. Once the mixture was cooked, it was taken off the heat and spiced up with chilly and fenugreek powders. My mother-in-law showed me how to turn green chillies, mangoes, gooseberries, tomatoes and such other delights into a tangy, spicy, mouth-watering Thokku that could be had with just about anything.
On the other hand, a Thogayal is South India’s unique category of chutneys that are mixed with hot rice and ghee and often consumed as an entire meal. The world of Thogayals is amazingly versatile and simple at the same time. Six ingredients remain common – asafoetida, dry red chillies, split udad dal, curry leaves, salt and a small bit of tamarind all sautéed in a bit of oil – giving the Thogayal a spicy, nutty, savoury and sour flavour, all at once! Then, depending on what is the theme, the last ingredient is added and everything ground up to a rough paste. This could be sautéed ridge gourd, fire-roasted brinjal, roasted lentils, fresh coconut, coriander, mint, curry leaves, onions – the list can go on and on, such is the flexibility and versatility of the Thogayal.
Hot rice mixed with Thogayal and a dollop of ghee needs no further accompaniment, and is one of the ultimate comfort foods of South India. If you want to up the ante though, then specific Thogayals are paired with either rasam, sambar, kootu (vegetables steamed with a coconut gravy) or mor kozhambu (a yoghurt-coconut based gravy) to achieve that perfect combination that just works.
Having an arsenal of recipes ranging from Oorugai that last for years, Thokku that last for weeks and Thogayal that lasts for days is not too different from how we make plans for life.
Having more than one of these three around can really be very handy during the days other things take priority or you simply have no mood to whip up an elaborate meal. For instance, that tomato Thokku sitting in the fridge assures me that tonight, even if I don’t feel up to cooking an elaborate dinner after work, I need only make a few dosas and my trusty tomato Thokku will add that special touch to a simple dinner of dosa. If other things come in the way of my cooking plans, I only need to whip up a Thogayal and I can manage lunch easily for the next few days without worry. And when all else fails, there’s always that little Bharani of Aavakkaai, tucked away for a rainy day that can elevate even the humble curd rice right up to heaven.
It never ceases to amaze me how simple kitchen tricks passed down from generations of stalwarts can be a big help to this day. If you extend this concept beyond the confines of the kitchen, you will find the exact theme repeated like a life lesson in almost everything we do. From investment options to the ways in which we save money, or buy clothes or even plan a future for the family or the children, life always seems to present us with immediate, short-term and long-term options. Just like the choices of Thogayal, Thokku and Oorugai on hand, we are often juggling between multiple plans and options and choosing the right one for us based on the circumstances we find ourselves in.
The key is in picking the right one and spicing up your life with the perfect choice!