Mother's Day - I am trying to put together a meal for some dear friends and am hard pressed for choices from my limited range of capabilities. I would never have imagined the need to plan and plot a dinner - I had never seen Amma (mother) cook by design - she just cooked - it was supposed to be natural! As usual, with my lack of focus, I let my mind wander - and I find myself in my comfort zone - Amma's blue kitchen. I get lost in its aromatic flavors, feel the vibrancy of its high level of activity, its constant stream of visitors and warm embrace.
She always shooed me out of her kitchen - it was her domain and she did not want me cluttering it with my awkward and unwieldy presence. Although she was a fabulous cook, I always suspected that Amma did not enjoy lingering in the kitchen - she speed-cooked in the early hours of the morning, readied the rest of the day's meals and left the kitchen to Lady Friday, Panchali's ministrations. She never hired a cook for no one could have satisfied the varying demands and tastes of the Raman family. Worse still, no one would have stood the test of Amma's hygiene levels - she showered before, she showered after, she washed her hands a million times and cleaned the counter incessantly.
Amma was a genie in the kitchen - with just a wave of her wand, she would turn the most mundane, daily fare into delicious and interesting treats. She could honestly churn up something out of nothing, cater to sudden drop-ins without panic and do all of it without assistance. I, on the other hand, at age 21 (when I got married), could only boast of a shameful repertoire confined to boiling milk, chopping onions, and separating spinach leaves from the stem.
Amma's kitchen was large and comfortable. The predominant color was blue - varying types of blue Formica adorned the wooden shelves - the tall one showcasing the shiny stainless steel utensils, plates and cutlery was a solid blue as was the small shelf on the floor that carried the large jars of oil, crystal and powdered salt, tamarind, etc. The two-tiered blue and white Formica shelf held small Horlicks glass bottles of spices and lentils used for seasoning, small stainless steel jars with coconut and sesame oil, salt in a cream and brown ceramic jar and so on.
She had two kitchen counters - the taller one with green tiles had a window with blue glass, looking into the back yard (into the well, the car shed and the outhouse), and the shorter one had some sort of a rustic black colored stone. She had two stoves of two burners each - attached to red gas cylinders placed under the kitchen counter. Amma was 4 ft 8 in and it was always a challenge with the taller counter - she resorted to a tall white stool on which she would sit, legs swinging (not quite reaching the floor) and conduct her cooking business. She had to use all four burners for speed, and scurried around, off and on to her perch at frequent intervals. A whirlwind in the kitchen, she had no time or the patience for unskilled interns.
She kept her coffee powder, tea leaves and sugar in stainless steel air tight containers right beside the stove for ease of operation. She boiled copious quantities of milk and brewed lots of coffee for the constant stream of family and household help, priests, and anyone who would drop in.
A large granite grinder resembling the mortar and pestle sat in one corner. Its sole purpose was to produce an unending supply of rice and lentil batter whose ultimate form would be delicious and crisp dosas (savory pancakes) or melt-in-the-mouth steamed idlis (rice cakes) for after school treats. Amma would make the traditional coconut chutney and/or an array of spicy, mouth-watering mixed vegetables chutneys and/or sambar (a soupy concoction) as accompaniments.
The adjoining store room featured many shelves with a large number of big Horlicks bottles with screw top steel lids containing a colorful array of cooking ingredients - lentils, chillies, jaggery, spices, and sugar. A large wooden box containing rice occupied most of the room. Tall ceramic jars stored home-made pickles that were eventually apportioned into smaller bottles. Home grown coconuts sat on the shelves to be broken and scraped on a wooden, four-legged, short, grater with a serrated edge. The store room also had a short pole-like structure embedded in the floor in one corner with a rope tied to it. We used it to churn large pots of the cream and yoghurt into buttermilk and yummy white butter.
As I scour the internet for easy recipes, I marvel at how she cooked without looking at recipes or measurements. The right measure was a handful, a spoonful or a pinch, and the right timing was simply her experience and expertise. Her quality was consistent, the taste of her creations, unique. She made it look effortless.
Her range of cuisine varied from the simple to the exotic - Kerala, Tamil, North Indian, street food, Indonesian and Chinese. Festivals, celebrations, death anniversaries, birthdays and poojas warranted specific foods. On those days, we sat cross legged on the floor and ate off banana leaves. Early in life, we developed the art of cleaning the leaf with a sprinkling of water, eating with our fingers, mixing food of liquid consistency with rice so as to prevent it from wandering off to the neighbor's leaf and so on.
Amma's kitchen made festivals and family weddings (of which we had plenty) memorable events. She would seek the help of a couple of women to manufacture special sweets and savories in industrial quantities for distribution beyond the boundaries of the home.
Of course, Amma was not always the paragon of virtue I make her out to be. She loved to eat out - it took very little nudging to make her close shop and go in search of restaurants and ice cream parlors. She often cheated at teatime with freshly baked, crusty topped bread and buns with the right touch of sweetness from Kerala Bakery. She would slather loads of salty Amul butter and sweet Kissan jam or sandwich the bread with spicy potato curry. Of course, it was a time when sugar was safe and did not cause hyper activity, diabetes or other complications, and when butter and fat did not clog the arteries! It was a time when we rejoiced in blissful ignorance and lived happily ever after.
My favorite moments in the blue kitchen are the evenings when my sisters, brother, cousins, nieces and nephews would gather for dinner. Amma would cook lots of rice, blend it into a soft mush, mix with yoghurt, some milk and salt and season with spices and curry leaves. We would sit around her in a semi-circle (in batches) with little plates and outstretched palms. She would spoon a little of the yoghurt rice into each palm, to which we would add pickles, vegetables or sambar and slurp skillfully. We would joke and tease as we ate tons of the rice until it was time to mix another batch for another group. Oooh what a delight that simple meal was!
She filled the kitchen with her love, pouring into it, her heart and soul as she nurtured our camaraderie. The simplicity, the comfort and warmth of the unpretentious kitchen will remain forever etched in our family's memories. I doubt if I would ever be able to achieve her nonchalance or her way around food. I do hope however, that one day, I would be the fulcrum of my family like she was, inspired by the experiences in her blue kitchen!Happy Mother's Day Amma!
© Meera Balasubramanian 2019
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