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Food notes from history

Ritika Bhatia | Updated on November 02, 2018

Past repast: Stills from Sindhi Kadhi: A Recipe by Nani, directed by US-born filmmaker Natasha Raheja, who captures her grandmother Sushila Dodani preparing the eponymous Sindhi dish alongside sharing her life story

A docu-series that gets grandmas and grandchildren together to cook an old favourite recipe and, in the process, uncover lost threads of family heritage and roots

Six years ago, the (slightly cuckoo) professor teaching my visual communication class asked us, “Why does my [grand] mother’s aloo gobhi taste different from yours?” While we contemplated the question in jest back then, it now comes to me often in all seriousness.

Since I stay away from my family, I frequently think of home and my mother’s cooking. The dishes cooked by my mother or grandmother are infused with not just their love and secret ingredients, but also memory, history, culture and tradition.

 

 

A renewed desire to reconnect to my roots led me to a collaborative web docu-series called Grandmas Project, which invites young filmmakers to make short films on their grandmothers, using a beloved recipe to explore their relationship and their family’s heritage.

The transmedia project was started in 2015 by French filmmaker Jonas Pariente, whose film Molokheya is about his paternal grandmother (simply called Nano) cooking a traditional Egyptian dish called molokheya, a soup prepared with minced jute leaves. In the film, Pariente, who is of mixed Polish and Egyptian heritage, narrates how this personal project became so relatable across the globe.

“Nano’s cooking is my only tangible relationship with Egypt. Her accent, her anecdotes, the ingredients she uses, make me travel to an imaginary Cairo, a city that I don’t know and yet defines me,” he says.

In a globalised world, which continues to displace vast swathes of people from their ancestral lands, Pariente has set out to create a portrait of the women of that generation, and open up conversations about food and how it relates to our roots.

With multiple eight-minute short films, Grandmas Project features matriarchs from across countries, races and cultures — from France, making soufflés; from Poland, making kneidler broth; from Netherlands, making ajvar out of sweet red peppers; or from Lebanon, making mehchi, a delicate recipe of lamb-stuffed eggplant. Among my favourite films in the series is the Polish Kneidler, in which 23-year-old Frankie Wallach filmed her gregarious grandmother Julia Wallach, a nonagenarian and Holocaust survivor, cooking the traditional Polish Jew dish of chicken broth. Their effervescent friendship, built upon trading stories and knowledge, is a true joy to watch on screen.

Sindhi Kadhi: A Recipe by Nani is the first Indian entry to the project. Directed by US-born filmmaker and anthropologist Natasha Raheja, it captures her grandmother Sushila Dodani preparing the eponymous Sindhi dish. “It’s hard to find Sindhi kadhi in restaurants, so it’s a meal that I associate with family and home. What I like about the dish is that you can vary the amount and kind of vegetables you put in. When we cook Sindhi kadhi in our family, we keep in mind who is going to be eating it that day and which vegetables they like,” says Raheja.

Her grandmother was born in Sukkur (Sindh), Pakistan, and came to India with her family in 1947 as a refugee. “While working on this film, I also thought about the gendering of domestic work. I thought about how patriarchy shapes who cooks and who gets cooked for,” she says.

 

 

Raheja grew up in Texas but visits her grandmother in Ahmedabad during the holidays every year. Much of their time together is spent cooking and relaxing after a meal, giving Raheja’s film ample food for thought. “I appreciate my nani’s embodied approach to cooking... she pays attention to how things look, feel, taste, and smell, not exact measurements or timings.”

That generation was also perhaps the last to cook exclusively by hand, imparting its own texture and flavour; Dodani says it was their daily kasrat (exercise).

The film refers to Sindhi cooking’s use of lotus root, an ingredient not much used in regional cuisines. Raheja’s grandmother fondly reminisces about the fresh lotus root that was available in her Sindh hometown, insisting it was far tastier. And like many mothers and grandmothers, nani Dodani shares with her grandchild cooking and “get married soon” tips in equal measure: “You’ll enjoy this kadhi even more if you’ll eat with your husband!”

All that cooking with grandmothers doesn’t just teach us about spices and vegetables, but also opens up conversations about history and memory.

Most of the films in the series have the grandmothers referring to the violence and conflict that led to their families’ displacement. Raheja’s film has a passing reference to the Partition.

“My nani has fond memories of her childhood and regularly tells us stories about Sindh. At the same time, leaving Sindh and not being able to go back was difficult for her. I included a single mention of Partition to signal that while my nani’s memories of Pakistan are a casual part of conversation, there are also silences around the difficulty of having to leave home and not being able to return,” she says.

With the first season now ended, Grandmas Project will call for fresh submissions in January 2019.

“I have filmed my grandmother to remember. To grasp the ingredients that connect me to my roots,” says Pariente. “I film not to forget. I cook to transmit.”

Ritika Bhatia is a freelance journalist and film consultant based in Mumbai

Published on November 02, 2018

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