Dementia and the Story of My Grandmother’s Lost Recipes


Dementia and the Story of My Grandmother’s Lost Recipes

Illustration: Mandar Mhaskar/ Arré

Aweek ago, my grandmother said she was craving homemade appams and stew. I have an image of appams in my head which comes from all the times that I’ve eaten appams in restaurants, where the sides are thinner than it seems possible for a human being to make. But when my grandmother asked for appams, my aunt M, who has taken over the cooking in our house ever since varicose veins and dementia took over my grandmother’s life, suddenly realised in a moment of panic that she didn’t know how. She could manage the stew, she said, but even though she has learnt to make those other Mangalore staples like kori gassi, kori ajadina, and pepper mutton, she never learnt how to get the appam batter right.

So here we were: My aunt not knowing how to achieve appam bliss and my grandmother not being able to remember. Relatively speaking, this isn’t a big problem. I mean relative to the madness in this world, this was a small change. Also M googled “how to make appams” and all was fine with the world, but as I put out the appams on the table, M said softly that she wished she had asked my grandmother how to make all the things that she used to.

This is when it struck me, more strongly than ever, that in four years my grandmother has gone from insisting on making me dosas for breakfast before college, to crying because I eat cornflakes every morning, to barely being able walk to the kitchen to make real food for me, to now, when she doesn’t even ask me if I’ve eaten.

Every time we are having dinner, my grandmother thinks of my father, her son. How much he loves neer dosa, she says. She likes to talk about my father’s love for prawn biryani, or kane meen curry with raw mango, which is the only form of mango that my father eats, when it is offset by some pearly white ladyfish. I have never seen this intense love (he is not particular about food, but just curious about recipes) that my grandmother talks about, but more recently, this conversation of hers, which begins with my father, has begun to descend very rapidly into tears at her inability to cook any more.

When my father is in town, she likes to talk to him about the food that he cooks at home, and asks him over and over whether he made kori gassi and ate it with rotti.

Perhaps, this is partly because of her dementia. My 78-year-old grandmother, who used to cook elaborate Mangalorean meals for everyone who came to visit, full of patrode, pundi, and naatu kori can’t remember how much water to add to cook a cup of rice. In moments that she realises this, there is no way to console her. It happens every day, just as we are finishing our dinner, and before she has her medicine.

When I was a child and we visited Bangalore, my grandmother would spend most of her time in the kitchen. I always remember her in a red sari that made her plaited hair look blacker than it was. From the door, I’d sometimes watch her lift the garlic pod, up toward the light and use a small, broad knife to cut off its head and peel its skin in the way that my father peels garlic now. Then she would lift up the ginger and begin to scrape off its thick skin with a longer, sharper knife. On the stove, the grated coconut for the kori ajadina would turn brown in patches, darker where she had dropped the red chillies that slowly turned black at their tips. When she added the haldi powder, the browning coconut turned yellow, and there was the constant sputtering of jeera and dhaniya seeds from somewhere in the middle of all the coconut. Then I would run away to play and only see my grandmother at lunch time.

When my father is in town, she likes to talk to him about the food that he cooks at home, and asks him over and over whether he made kori gassi and ate it with rotti. Then they talk about making the kori rotti — “I make the coconut milk instead of buying it,” my father tells her, and she is happy, and then they talk about how much garlic (do you buy peeled garlic, she asks him and he is horrified) and ginger should be used to make the paste. Sometimes they even talk about removing the seeds from cold tomatoes, and when I interrupt to ask them how to tell whether the chicken is cooked, my father says, “It’s not MasterChef, you just know.”

My biggest food secret since I moved to Bangalore has been that I like my father’s kori rotti more than the kori rotti that my grandmother would make.

A few days ago, my aunt had made us appams. I tried to tell my grandmother about a book I was reading – Like Water For Chocolate – struggling to find the right words in Kannada. I wanted to tell her that it’s all the memories that go into making food, which make it taste better. I wanted to tell her that it was about remembering, as though you can taste memories, and that it made me think of Zone Pro Site, a Taiwanese movie on food that I have watched over and over again. I can’t forget the scene in which Hsiao Wan starts to cry as she eats noodles because it reminds her of her father. This explanation that I thought might make her feel better was beyond my Kannada skills.

My grandmother didn’t respond. But by now, M, who was sitting at the table too, began to tell me that she had learnt to make gundas, which are like idlis, by watching my grandmother use five twigs to stitch together jackfruit leaves into a little cup, while she watched her Kannada serial. The next morning, my grandmother would put the gunda batter into the jackfruit leaves and steam them so that we could have them for dinner. I realised later that for my grandmother, food had now become about forgetting.

That night, my grandmother cried again, just after she finished eating the egg burji that M had made, and before she had her medicines. She can remember how much she used to to cook, but she can’t remember how to.