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What I Learnt From Amma

Those who know me or have been reading my blog posts about Appa know I place him on a pedestal and credit him for the person I am today. When you have such a larger-than-life personality for a father, it also tends to cloud other memories, however significant they may be.

When we were a newly married couple, almost every sentence of mine would start with “Appa taught me this” or “Appa did it this way” or “Appa would never let us do that”. Often my husband would jokingly ask “Surely Amma taught you something too?”

When I think back today, I realise what a balance of personalities my mother and father were. While Appa was hyper-organised, driven and driving, ambitious and inspiring, Amma was efficient, matter-of-fact and a multitasker who found the shortest path to complete her chores simply because of the size of the family she managed – a husband, five children, her mother and her mother-in-law.

This reflected in the way she would share a recipe. It infuriated me no end when I was younger but today I realise how much it has shaped the way I cook. I know the organised chaos method that Amma imparted to me works because everyone enjoys eating what I cook!

But I digress. Going back to every single time I’ve asked my mother for a recipe (with the sole exception of batters or spice mixes), her instructions emanate from a place where proportions and measures don’t exist. It is a place of magic and mystique. Teaspoons, tablespoons, cup measures are strangers. At most her fingers would come together to show how little or how much of something one would add to the recipe, so it was as visual as it was verbal.

I still remember when I got back home, barely ten days before I was due to be married. Among the many things I had to get sorted out before the day (including my bridal outfits!), I was determined to carve some time out with both Appa and Amma to note down the recipes for the dishes I grew up with. Maybe I wanted a piece of those memories to accompany me as I took the first steps into a married life. Whatever my reason was, I am really glad I could get both of them to sit down for some time daily and share their wonderful recipes. With Appa no more and Amma’s memories fading away, that book is now one of the most precious things I have from them.

The style of those recipes though is exactly the same. I can still hear both of them talking over each other, eager to grant my wish and enthusiastic to share their recipes. Any recipe narration went something like this:

Amma: Soak some tamarind in water first. Now cut the brinjal.

Me: Amma wait, how much tamarind, how many brinjals?

Amma: You know, some tamarind, few brinjals. You know!

Inexplicably, she was absolutely right. Somehow, I knew.

A few weeks ago I saw a quote doing the rounds on social media.

The quote was:

“I don’t measure a thing when I cook… I just sprinkle and add stuff until I hear the spirit of my ancestors whisper, ‘That’s enough child!'”

While the response to it was mostly laughs, it brought back beautiful memories for me, the longest my mother would have sat still in one place, sharing these recipes as opposed to running around all over the house getting her chores done in clinical precision.

Things really came back full circle last week when my neice was sharing a recipe during the Ganpati season. She had found this new recipe online to make modaks (Lord Ganesha’s favourite sweet) using milk powder and sugar. She then added that she didn’t add as much sugar as the recipe said. When I asked how much she landed up adding, she said something that made my heart leap. She said, “Chitti, I just kept adding until I felt it was enough!”

I realised then that is what we learnt from Amma and had even managed to pass it on to the next generation. The one thing where being organised and driven and focused gave way to letting our instincts and the souls of our ancestors take over, was when we cooked.

I’ve been wanting to write about this experience for a few weeks now. But it somehow slipped my mind until the discussion with my niece. It all came together in my head today, including the sketch that goes with this piece. My way of honouring every single person I learnt bits and pieces about cooking from. Above all, Amma, who managed despite Appa and his towering personality to impart this very key piece of knowledge – when it comes to it, deep inside, you know exactly what to do.

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