Celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsey and Nigella Lawson and the popular Masterchef series on television, have been successful in turning the humble kitchen into a glamorous setting. There are so many exotic ingredients being used and such a bewildering array of technical terms being bandied around that a dictionary is turning out to be an essential item to navigate our way in the culinary world. Shiny bell peppers, jaunty jalapenos and cheeky cheeses vie for prime position in today’s kitchens. Glossy cookbooks with cuisines from all over the world smile down loftily from kitchen shelves. There are quite a number of gadgets too, which supposedly do everything other than chew your food for you.
In the midst of all this space age machinery, which definitely has made life easier for women, my mind takes a nostalgic trip to my ammumma’s(grandmother) kitchen which easily remains my favourite. It was a cool airy room with just one wooden cupboard and a couple of shelves. The sunlight slanting in through the glass window above the stove gave a magical hue to the smoke rising from the dishes. I loved poking my head inside the cupboard to inhale the unique fragrance of spices and ammumma’s love. The air was redolent with the intoxicating smell of freshly pounded masalas and whatever delectable concoction she would be cooking that day. The most simple of dishes, like the ‘kayu mezhukkupuratti’ (diced raw banana sautéed in oil with a pinch of turmeric and chilly powder added to it) was elevated to a sublime level of deliciousness when she made it. With one edge of her mundu tucked into her waist ammumma bustled around, haggling with the vegetable seller, belting out instructions to the maid and enquiring about my grandfather’s requirements, along with getting a meal ready.
Festival times would see a bevy of aunts joining her in the kitchen to prepare the Sadya (a traditional feast with a number of dishes, served on plantain leaves), and somehow there was space for everybody. With a ladle in her hand, Ammumma directed operations with seemingly effortless ease. She allocated the work and my aunts would take up their stations to get the noon meal ready. My mom still fondly recalls that the payasam (a kind of sweet porridge-like dessert) was her forte. Preparing this involved standing near the uruli (huge vat) and stirring the concoction for a long time. Usually it’s one of the more boring jobs ever, but in ammumma’s kitchen it was the perfect opportunity to catch up on all the news. As I grew older, I preferred to be in that room with them rather than playing with my cousins. It was so comforting to stay tucked in beside an aunt and listen to the ebb and flow of conversations all around. I could see the invisible ribbons of love weaving through the words swirling around, binding everybody together. I think the women in the family looked forward to this time together, when they could shrug aside the roles of wife and mother for a few hours and become just daughters again. Another attraction of the bustling kitchen was getting my hands on the tiny white slivers of fresh coconut and fried golden brown cashewnuts. Ammumma kept a vigilant eye on the latter, and if she found me reaching out too often, it was deftly removed and placed out of reach.
Ammumma had a strict distinction between the kitchen and the storeroom. Other than masala powders, spices and oil, provisions were not kept in the kitchen. Those were the days of getting everything freshly ground in the mill. There were large canisters of rice flour, wheat flour, rice, sugar and other myriad stuff in the store. Snacks, which were invariably made at home, were kept carefully in a quaint little cupboard with glass doors, called the ‘meatsafe’. I went through my childhood calling it a ‘me-safe’, purely because I didn’t know better. It was only years later, when I read about it in books, did I realize that it had a more dignified name! The storeroom was my hideout in the afternoons since I was always shooed away in the mornings. During ammumma’s nap time I would slowly creep inside that cool room. What fascinated me were all the miscellaneous things in the interiors of the cupboards. I had to be very careful while conducting this operation because some of the provisions like pulses and such were kept in small tin containers, which at one time held Nutramul or some such thing. Those infernal things were quite clamorous if I didn’t handle them carefully.
Bits and pieces of coir, broken shells, discarded tins, old brass vessels and crumbling documents which only looked important, were just a few of the odds and ends I found. But my prime target was my uncle’s stamp collection. He had collected hundreds of stamps from all over the world, which he painstakingly stuck on thick black paper in albums, and my favourites were the triangle-shaped ones. Those stamps introduced me to countries like Espania, Latvia and Lithuania. I have such beautiful memories of sitting in that cool shady room and poring over the tiny colourful pieces of paper which took me all around the world.
Today’s kitchen is undoubtedly designed to ease the work of women and I’m so grateful for all the gadgets. But I sometimes feel that my children are missing out on the fun that I’ve had in my ammumma’s kitchen. Maybe as a person who had to do the cooking I wouldn’t have been comfortable in that kitchen without too many conveniences. However as a child and then as a teen, that was the most magical place for me, where I found comfort and an abundance of love.