Memories are often buried under the debris of living and it takes the slightest nudge to send me back to the storeroom in my mind. It is in the crevices of these spaces that I both lose and find myself. Dig, rummage and claw through the musty past. And there they lie waiting, to be carried out into the sunlight. To be remembered. To be celebrated.
When I think of the kitchen of my childhood, I think of an elephant. Larger than life, merry, stomping, vegetarian, constantly feeding, swaying from side to side, swinging a heavy necklace of inherited misshapen and bruised pots and pans, making a glorious spectacle of herself. She was always kicking up a storm, cooking up an orchestra of kitchen song.
It was a densely populated kitchen with humans and utensils in nearly equal measure. It sat squat at the back of the house, none of this new-fangled open concept type where you are in plain view crying over peeled onions. No fancy white porous marble top waiting to greedily swallow ghee and turmeric, no kitchen hood to suck up appalam frying fumes, just big open windows, and no swish timber clad push button kitchen cupboards with characterless, deadpan small, medium, large pots a perfect fit like Russian dolls. Oh no! This was a wonderfully mad, eccentric, loud, functional Indian kitchen, where cupboards were rooted to the ground on a tiled base, so that when the day’s cooking was done, the cleaning orchestra slid into action along with long stick brushes, penyapu lidi, Breeze soap powder, Tamil movie songs from the black transistor radio, and squealing children.
Before birdsong was kitchen song. The whistling of the pressure cooker, the sound of idli steaming in their circular metal tray, the dripping of South Indian filter coffee, the sizzling and spitting of angry mustard seeds retaliating for the abuse of being thrown into hot oil, the clanging of pots and pans in the sink, and that black transistor radio.
Minimalists, turn away. Battered aluminium pots, sturdy stainless steel ones, pock-marked stone pots blackened from cooking sambhar, the slightly wonky eeya shombu (made up of an alloy of metals) used only for rasam, the long iron ladle pulled out at the end much like a magic wand, for tempering. The vessels, that beautiful Indian word that gathers pots, pans and everything in between under its aegis, in which magic and alchemy were deftly practised.
Afternoon kitchen song matched the tempo of the inhabitants in the house. While the rest of the house slept on hot, muggy afternoons, the kitchen offered cool respite and held the promise of some exciting activity. Lentils and spices to pick through for sneaky weevils and camouflaged stones. The tricky business of winnowing, watching weighty lentils cartwheeling through the air, hoping to land safely back on the tray as the counterfeit fall by the wayside. That mellifluous rise and fall on the rattan tray.
It was from the back and beyond of the kitchen where the drumming began. The heart and playground of my home. Where Ammi and Aatu Kallu lived.
Ammi, with its horizontal pestle pillow on a bed of stone, grinding, crushing, being dragged back and forth by a pair of firm hands. The crunch of toasted dried chillies and lentils quickly followed by white flecks of grated coconut, blessed with several sprinkles of water for unity, persuading each to give of itself for the betterment of the whole. The grating strains of stone on stone deepens to a sticky squelch as a thuvayal takes shape.
The exhibitionist Aatu Kallu requires you to address its presence as you sit straddling it, so large is its girth. The right hand feeds wet uncooked rice and black gram dhal into its hollow mouth, while the left hand moves the heavy stone pestle in a rhythmic circular motion to gradually crush and grind both into the much loved and recognised batter for idli and thosai. As children, we fought to be the anointed one to push the batter in, triumphant when our little fingers escaped being trapped. That took us one step closer to becoming the conductor in this kitchen orchestra.
In a world that is mired by wireless smart living, it is a privilege and luxury to return to methods of past. Where the mind connects to the hands as they grind, where thoughts are osmotically diffused into the making of the chutney or the batter. Were dreams and hopes crushed under or did they rise from? A stillness is born from a very active task. Focus is summoned to play—the right consistency, not too rough, not too fine, and that all too cliché and bandied phrase “of being in the moment”. Where instant gratification still took plenty of minutes. That same child that avoided the drudgery of homework, who escaped to the place where Tamil stories spilled out of a small black transistor radio and the kitchen song reigned supreme, in this present moment, acknowledges and pays obeisance to her foremothers and bows gracefully to the blender.
Amma’s Parappu Thuvayal – A Modern Day Version
For 4 people
3 tablespoons of toor dhal
2 teaspoons of split urad dhal
5 dried chilies, cut into three sections, fewer if you want it less spicy
6 curry leaves
½ teaspoon of tamarind pulp without seeds
¼ teaspoon of asafoetida powder
Salt to taste
1 ½ tablespoon of grated coconut, keep separate
1 tablespoon of cooking oil
Heat a pan with the oil and fry the chilli on a low fire. When it starts to turn colour, add the two dhals, asafoetida powder, curry leaves, the tamarind pulp and fry well till its golden brown. Add salt to taste. Take it off the fire.
Add the grated coconut and stir in well. Leave to cool.
Then blend in a small spice blender without adding any water. You want it to have a granular texture. You may need to blend it a little at a time.
Pour into a serving bowl. Sprinkle a little water, a little bit at a time and mix in by hand until everything is well mixed and becomes a soft ball.
Serve immediately with hot rice and a generous spoonful of ghee.