“The fragrance of fresh spices being ground in our kitchen each morning served as our alarm clock. I surfaced each morning to the slow, rhythmic sound of the grinding stone or ammi as it is called in Tamil, that Mom used for everyday cooking. She used the ammi as opposed to the mixer since the slow grinding of chutneys and the masalas on the stone brought out the flavours, oils and spice, combining them and giving them a beautiful soft texture simply not attainable by a machine. Nowadays, when I wake up I sometimes lie in bed listening to the silence—a void that was left by her passing away. The ammi misses her too…”
The priceless recipe grove is a labour of love, with Prasanna having collated the treasured making of lipsmacking array, ranging from fish curry, prawn masala, shrimp pickle, curry leaf chutney, and Chettinad curries to egg sambal, mutton dalcha and banana blossom vadas, and even a tasty rendition of the sundal she used to have at Marina Beach during her early years. It is a rich profusion of ingredients, local, fresh and seasonal – bringing out mouthwatering specials in baked crabs and biryani – celebrating the mouthfuls of pleasure with darling ingredients in nutmeg, banan blossoms and muskmelon inclusions. The flavours leap out of the pages, teasing your nostrils and palate with flirtation and flounce.
It is a 300-page book, a food atlas: “Ammi: an expression of love….from the kitchen of my mother Nirmala Pandarinathan” that Bengaluru-based photographer and former model Prasanna Pandarinathan has put together lovingly, chronicling the warm growth of her mother’s culinary skills over the years. “This is my mother’s story. Food holds a history for everyone, for my mom it began in the melting pot of culture and cuisines- Colonial Singapore,” says Prasanna. “She was raised here in a mix of Indian, Malaysian, Chinese, Indonesian and European cultures. Married, she found herself in London,” she shares, reminiscing about the crabs they darted with as kids on the shores of Rameshwaram when they visited India.
“I grew up watching her cook and being so passionate, with making food delicious. She enjoyed having people over, cooking for them, our home was always an open house. I learned a lot once she passed on. I too went through the process of going to the market early morning, getting the freshest produce, coming back and cooking. It has been a healing process for me,” says Prasanna. “Yet the one dish that I could not get myself to making is the brain omelette she made with relish. I’m not brave enough to cook it for now.” Her own love for cooking stands shaped by the delicious wafts from the kitchen, the cheerfulness and love that her mother poured into the recipes as she served the food to everyone.
Any eclectic detours that Prasanna has made herself? “Usually, I cook locally grown produce, but I just brought in last obscure thing would be toddy while making appams,’ she confesses. Turmeric, saffron and cinnamon rank high on her list of favourite ingredients at the moment. Pearl of wisdom? “I believe in American restaurateur Guy Fieri’s words – “Cooking is all about people. Food is maybe the only universal thing that really has the power to bring everyone together. No matter what culture, everywhere around the world, people eat together”, she says. After all, good food does carry good memories.
Shilpi Madan for Deccan Chronicle