By Kalpana Sunder Jan. 17, 2017
Whether you end your meals with payasam or kheer, Indian food has always been more than just a collection of regional cuisines.
hen my mother made the journey to north India and made Agra her home, she did so with her Bible, Samaithu Paar, the classic south Indian vegetarian cookbook.
Published in the 1950s, it’s an unpretentious guide written by a simple Tamilian housewife, and was a part of the trousseau of young brides learning the ropes of south Indian vegetarian cuisine. From this book my mom whipped out dishes like molagootal or kootu, where coconut is ground into the gravy of vegetables like gourd or squash, along with jeera, red chillies, and pepper. My favourite was keerai kootu, cooked and mashed spinach leaves mixed with boiled tur dal and tempered with urad dal, mustard, and red chillies.
In Agra’s unfamiliar north Indian surroundings, my touchstone was my mother’s home-cooked meal. I think it was the same for my mother. Uprooted from her milieu and plonked into the heart of a new state, fenced in by alien sounds and languages, my mother’s only reminder of home were the smells she whipped up in the kitchen. For her, cooking was a comfort in the relentless newness of Uttar Pradesh. There was an us, with our simple poriyals and coconut shavings, and there was a them, with their complicated biryanis and fried snacks.
I learnt to admire the beauty of Tamil Brahmin cooking for its sheer simplicity: saatvik food influenced by Ayurvedic beliefs, no complicated gravies and time-consuming cooking techniques, and light seasonings. Food was fresh, leftovers were shunned, vegetables were locally sourced, processed food was never used, and spices and poddis (masalas) were almost always home-made. Just as the predominantly Gujarati Jain community abstained from onions and garlic, we too viewed them as foods that stimulated baser instincts.
But living in crowded and dusty Agra, I also secretly loved north Indian fare – hot aloo parathas with blobs of yellow butter on top eaten with mango pickle on cold, wintry mornings; sour and sweet aam papad with chaat masala, sold outside our school; and singhada or water chestnuts eaten raw and crunchy. There were ghee-laden paneer curries spiced with onion, tomato, ginger, and garlic, which we ate at friends’ homes and at the local club. And then there was the sickly sweet petha, a local sweet made with pumpkin and oodles of sugar.
On special days, my mom would treat us to a sweet payasam. Semiya payasam was usual fire-roasted semolina with milk, nuts, and sugar.
My mother with her wholly Tam-Brahm repertoire and her copy of Samaithu Paar looked at north Indian fare with a smidgen of distrust. The divide was too keenly embedded in her. North Indian food smelled and tasted too much of the unknown – a feature she’d had enough of in her new life.
When winter came calling, the cold wasn’t the only thing new to our south Indian upbringing. The idea of stored food crept up on us slowly but surely, when the aunty next door gave us a couple of winter recipes. My mother succumbed to slicing and drying potatoes from the garden and making wafers to store, along with vegetable pickles in mustard oil.
That was the beginning – and from there, the discovery started.
Straddling two cultures, I soon realised that there were so many similarities between us and them. Mor kozhambu, a buttermilk-based dish with sautéed okra/white pumpkin/yam, that we south Indians loved to eat with rice, was merely another version of the north Indian kadhi. I saw that both cuisines used yoghurt as raitas or pachadis. I loved the south Indian version of the raita where cool yoghurt was mixed with cut cucumber or grated carrot or fried okra and tempered with mustard seeds and green chillies.
On special days, my mom would treat us to a sweet payasam. Semiya payasam was usual fire-roasted semolina with milk, nuts, and sugar. Other rarer delights were parappu payasam with gram or moong dal, jaggery, and powdered cardamom. My north Indian counterparts made the similar kheer with rice.
Slowly north Indian food moved from being side dishes and took their place in the centre of our dinner table.
Heavy north Indian dinners of daal makhani and paneer used to be topped off with a mor saadam, rice with watery buttermilk (spiced with curry leaves and a dash of asafoetida) accompanied by vadu mangai made from raw baby mangoes, soaked in brine until they shrivelled!
Thanks to this mélange of regional cuisines that I grew up with, I was able to appreciate principle of unity in diversity that characterises India. From the culinary treasure troves that each family’s grandmother holds the keys to, to the multicultural buffets being held inside train compartments across the country, to the ubiquity and adaptability of the humble glass of chaas, I learned how food is not just a collection of ingredients, aromas, and flavours, but a universal human experience. That the North and the South are not culinary enemies caught in reductive stereotypes. There is always a place where we can merge and coexist and sometimes it begins on our dinner tables.