A Tale of Two Kitchens


A Tale of Two Kitchens

Illustration: Akshita Monga

For as long back as I can remember, I have been fascinated with cooking and spending time in the kitchen. There my mother would be, making varan bhaat with a single crushed garlic clove or a routine onion-tomato masala, as I’d get up on my toes to get a good look at the masala sizzle. I picked up the nuances of everyday cooking from her – but it was from my seafood-loving grandmother, who “needed” fish every day, that I learnt to be a proper Mangalorean.

My grandma visited the fish market every morning to buy the freshest catch of the day. She made meen rassa, fish fry, fish egg curry, dry fish chutney. I woke up every day to the warm smell of leftover fish curry being heated for my father, who often mopped up the gravy with fresh pao at breakfast.

Now in the next five months I will exchange my Mangalorean kitchen – redolent with the aromas of mackerel and jackfruit and kokum and coconut and garlic, the fragrance of indulgence – for that of a Tamil Iyer one. The Kannan kitchen, befitting Iyer tradition, privileges balance and moderation: in ingredients, in spices, in meals in general. I am excited and apprehensive all the same, at the thought of adjusting to a new kitchen and a new master of ceremonies – a new Amma.

Amma is from a Palakkad Iyer family, a kind of Tam Brahm whose roots lie in the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border, and whose cuisine reflects a hybrid mix of the food of both states. Appa, on the other hand, is a Tamil Iyer. In the early days of their marriage, Amma was initiated into Iyer cooking by her father-in-law, a wonderful cook.

A few months into our relationship, Suraj decided to introduce me to his parents. Everything was discussed and planned down to the T. Suraj picked out my outfit and sent me a nervous text every 15 minutes to ensure I was on time (Appa is a former army officer). To ease the tension, I prepared a simple salad to show off my culinary skills to my future parents-in-law.

Homemade chiwda, ribbon pakoda, murukku, and vadams. Every cup of kaapi is supplied with a steady flow of conversations and laughter.

Once at their house, Appa asked Suraj to open a few cans of beer to toast the occasion. Not sure of what the right move in this situation would be, I hesitantly picked up a can – as Amma, the only teetotaler in the room, served us my salad. That’s when I knew things would be okay.

Appa and I broke the ice over a few cold beers, while Amma – who had prepared a spread comprising avial, curd rice, appalam, koothu and rice – and I bonded over cooking. The awkwardness of a first meeting was immediately brushed aside. I like to believe that my salad sealed the deal. Or maybe it was my expert preparation that floored them. I rattled off some facts that I had brushed up on. The reason onion and garlic are used sparingly in Iyer kitchens, I told them with authority, is because the scriptures consider them tamasik ingredients that give rise to base feelings such as anger, resentment, and arrogance. Amma didn’t know that, but was impressed that I’d done my homework. Little did she know that I was preparing to give up my beloved garlic.

Nowadays I spend my evenings with Amma and Appa. She makes me a piping hot cup of filter kaapi but I wait for Appa to bring out tasty snacks from different corners of the kitchen. Homemade chiwda, ribbon pakoda, murukku, and vadams. Every cup of kaapi is supplied with a steady flow of conversations and laughter. Amma, meanwhile, plies us with avial that I believe has truly brought me closer to her. The tangy yoghurt-coconut gravy, perfectly cooked vegetables (my favourite drumsticks!), and a fragrant tempering of curry leaves. Every time I dig into a plate, I feel motherly love wash over me.

Despite this rush of affection, I feel a twinge of pain. I will be leaving behind a significant part of my life as I step into the Kannan home, the first of which will be a painful goodbye to cooking non-vegetarian meals at home. As I prepare myself for the role of daughter-in-law, I teach my palate to get adjusted to long bouts of vegetarianism. I’ve trained myself to tell nosy relatives that I prefer vegetables over fish. But I wonder how I will tell myself these little white lies, when I crave my Sunday meal of prawn curry-rice? Where will I find my sweet corn chicken soup on days I feel under the weather? How long will I have to go without my beloved mutton curry and pav dinners?

I find myself straddling two worlds. I wonder if I will get used to the austerity of Amma’s kitchen, with restrictions on what to use and how much to use. My mother’s style of cooking, with varied stockpiles of spices and meats, with the intensity of the meals, is far more approachable. I’ll miss that.

Appa is my solace during these times. He assures me that I can visit my mother as often as I can, telepathically transmitting that I can satisfy my carnivorous cravings at my mother’s house. As much as he loves Amma, I know he secretly dreams of days when he can tag along with me for a lazy lunch of chicken curry and rice. It’ll be our little secret.