Grandmama mia!

P Anima | Updated on November 02, 2018

Illustration: DIPANKAR

A tale of three grannies and what they say through food

A few months ago, Meenakshi, my maternal grandmother, turned 88. Most of her contemporaries — siblings, relatives and acquaintances — are gone. She now wrestles with a strange perplexity — has she missed the ticket? Worse still, has she been forgotten? To emphasise the cliché that age is just a number, I launch into a list of 88-year-olds still at the top of their professions. Almost on cue, my grandmother cuts in, telling me that she is having a tough time warding off suitors. “It is tiresome to make tea for all of them,” she moans over the phone.



Angst or not, Meenakshi sure retains her wicked sense of humour.

Mother of six, grandmother to 11 and great-grandmother to six, she was the domineering presence in the large household she ran efficiently. For all her prowess, she was not an earning member, though she had an inheritance. And the only space where she worked autonomously and exercised absolute control over was the kitchen.

Her story is similar to that of a generation of grandmothers, women who were educated but rarely worked outside their homes. They left their imprints in the kitchen; the arena where they experimented and created, adapted and negotiated, collaborated and networked. My two grandmothers share a name and the spunk, but had little else in common — barring the fact that they both asserted themselves in the only space they could completely own. They spent their prime in a newly independent country and struggled to shape their families at a time when the country was struggling to come into its own. Kerala, the state they belonged to, had had its first Communist government. Frugality, simplicity and minimalism were the norm, not an aberration, and it found resonance in their kitchens, which sought to be self-sufficient ecosystems.

Much of what my maternal grandmother cooked at her home in Thrissur came from her plot — rice from the fields and coconuts and a handful of vegetables from the backyard. Her cuisine was simple, mindful of the seasons, and adapted according to availability. Early in the morning, she would confer with her assistant of half-a-century, Vilasini (Vilasu to everyone), on the vegetables she needed for the afternoon curry. A low-lying raw jackfruit, a fully grown yam or else leaves of colocasia or drumstick would work just as well. Vilasu wasn’t merely an aide, but an entrepreneur. She would sow long bean and koorka (Chinese potato) in the backyard, share the yield with the owner and sell the rest.

Handy, always: Plantain, colocasia and yam which grew in the backyard were a regular part of everyday food   -  MAHESH HARILAL


As for my grandmother, she was left to manage the ever-expanding family single-handedly for long periods, as her lawyer husband, who worked for the government, was almost always posted to faraway districts. She did so by building a network of aides who helped in the kitchen as well as outside. They would take up the tedious chores of pounding rice and breaking coconuts. But my grandmother reserved the cooking for herself. With six children growing up all around the same time, there was always a hungry child at any given point in time. So, she had little choice but to be adept at quick-fixes. She experimented, innovated, and, more important, applied common sense when she cooked. Into the large pot of rice cooking on the wood fire, she would drop a whole nenthrapazham (Kerala plantain). A few minutes later, the kids would be instructed to scoop out the banana, which would be boiled just right and would keep the hungry army quiet for a while. When she had a good supply of small, green plantains, she would score a few of them, temper them with salt and leave them in the wood fire embers. She did so with local mushrooms, too.

For the famished ones returning from school and college, she prepared food that satiated hunger, but was frill-free: upma, boiled chana or dosa. Dosa spurred many experiments — she mixed coconut and jaggery into the rice batter to make sweet pancakes. In what would qualify as health snack now, she blended grains and pulses, spices and vegetables to make multi-grain dosas.

Years later, when pesky grandchildren descended in droves, she would banish us all deep into the plot with our straw baskets to collect fallen cashew nuts. The collection would be presented to Vilasu, who would roast them in a wood fire. If we brought in plenty, cashew balls would be made by mixing the nuts with rice powder and jaggery.

My grandmother functioned as the team leader in the kitchen, helming affairs but delegating in equal measure. She assigned a task to each of her children — making batter, grating coconuts, chopping vegetables. Consequently, she taught them without making a ceremony of it. When she milked the cow, the kids stood guard to ensure a cantankerous animal did not strike a kick or two on their mother. Her kitchen was dominated by women; the only task assigned to my grandfather was to churn butter from milk, which he performed rather diligently every morning.

For a woman with effective managerial skills, she never worked outside home. Her own mother, though, had been a music teacher. Meenakshi recently let slip that she had scored 80 per cent marks in Std X. She had enrolled for her intermediate degree in Science in St Mary’s College, Thrissur, but dropped out when she was married off at 19. As childbirth and rearing dominated the next couple of decades, home and kitchen became a full-time occupation.


Adaptability was the key feature of my paternal grandmother’s kitchen. Also called Meenakshi, she married a school headmaster and moved to the larger town of Kozhikode — where she initially lived in a rented house and raised five children. As the matriarch of a non-agricultural family rooted in the town, her kitchen was dependent on the market. A small income meant that my grandmother was helming a frugal kitchen. But as someone quick to adapt and tap resources, she always pitched in.

She never took up a job, though some of her siblings were teachers. As a young girl she was despatched to a convent in Shoranur near her home in Pallipuram village. But my grandmother’s educational qualifications have been a bit of a mystery. I remember asking my grandfather why he didn’t help her get a job, particularly since he had put her siblings through the teacher’s training course. He had smiled slyly and whispered, “You have to finish the third form (an equivalent of Std VIII) to apply.” My grandmother’s face would become an inscrutable mask whenever we probed about her education. However, deep down, I don’t think she cared. She was a practical woman, and her thoughts firmly on getting things done.

Handy, always: Plantain, colocasia and yam which grew in the backyard were a regular part of everyday food   -  KK MUSTAFAH


To replenish her kitchen, ever so often she would board the train from Kozhikode to Pallipuram, where she owned land. She would oversee work in the small patch of paddy fields and return to town with rice and home-grown products such as yam, colocasia, tapioca and plantain. She stocked up her kitchen, cooked tapioca for breakfast and sent the five kids off to school. Her trips to the village were an assertion of independence, but also of playing an active part in providing for her children. When the village property was sold off years later, it snapped a lifeline that had held together my grandmother’s kitchen through some tough days.

Even in the rented house in Kozhikode, my grandmother kept herself resourceful. She raised hens and managed to sell a few eggs. A rebel in her food choices, she steadfastly and unapologetically remained a fish and meat eater in a family of vegetarians. All it took was subtle animosity from her end and my grandfather would come home holding in his left hand a hook with a clutch of sardines strung to it. Whether sardine, a slab of shark meat or dried fish, my grandmother would deal with it — roast or steam it, and then eat it — after everyone went to bed.

Years on, her grown-up kids, all vegetarians except one, would whiff out the smell of fish right at the gate and raise a hullabaloo every time she cooked it. Yet soon she would be found sitting in a chair on the verandah, a couple of ₹10 notes folded tight in her hands, as she waited for the fish vendor.

Her tough experiences in the town also meant she was always saving for a rainy day — even when there was no need to. For every bottle of spice on the shelf, another would be stashed away somewhere, to be taken out in an emergency.

Handy, always: Plantain, colocasia and yam which grew in the backyard were a regular part of everyday food


My grandmother — who died 16 years ago at the age of 86 — would be found every morning hunched over a wooden trunk, which she would open ceremoniously to measure out the rice to be cooked for the day. The trunk was touted to be the store box, but always held a bit more. If one moved around the bottles and lifted the cloth covers, hidden jars of banana chips were bound to surface.

When she moved into her own house in town, food became the means with which she liaisoned with her neighbours. Over the compound walls, they exchanged a bunch of homegrown plantain or jackfruit, and repeated recipes for one another. From her Tamil neighbour she learned to make laddus, and with the young Muslim mother next door, she shared a bowl of pumpkin curry when her son insisted on vegetarian fare for lunch. The rare occasions she ran out of snacks, she whipped up innocuous stuff — roundels of rice flour for instance. What she made in a hurry often had no name and were not found in recipe books, but tasted just fine.


My mother, now grandmother to two, has never been too fond of the kitchen. As a working woman, cooking was a chore she had to finish before heading out. So, she cooked fast and feverishly, but always very well. However, now that she has retired, I often find her surfing the Internet for recipes. Whenever she visits, it’s not uncommon for one of her granddaughters to cuddle beside her to watch food videos on YouTube. She updates herself on the granddaughters’ long food list, and was seen discussing the virtues of shakshuka — eggs poached in a tomato sauce — with them. She recently found on one of the sites a way to use leftover rice by powdering and adding it to puttu-mix. However, she knows the quickest way to her grandkids’ hearts — Maggi is a two-minute business. And it suits her just fine.

Published on November 02, 2018

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