“Cooking is like love. It should be entered into with abandon or not at all”.
–Harriet Van Horne (1920-98), American Columnist
At the time of my birth, my family was not particularly orthodox in terms of rigidly following prescribed scriptural rules. But my forefathers, both paternal and maternal, were orthodox in this traditional sense. They never ate out, in restaurants or eateries. They typically ate only what was cooked at home. I don’t recall going out with elders to restaurants when I was young, with one exception. Once a month, my father took me to a restaurant and bought me Idlis early in the morning, before taking me for a haircut. He was either worried that I must have enough energy to go through the process or it was an incentive for me not to fuss!
It was only after I joined the National Cadet Corps during my high school years (1964-67) that I was really initiated into eating outside food. After the weekly parade we were given a snacks coupon worth 60 paise to eat at a particular restaurant near school. I particularly enjoyed the Masala-dosa, bread-butter–jam, and Masala tea that the restaurant served.
When I recall eating the sweets, savouries, or even the day-to-day food that my mother prepared during my childhood days, my mouth waters even now. Over the last seventy years, I have seen our kitchen evolving in terms of the cooking mechanism. However, the taste of the food cooked by mother for many decades remained the same.
During my earliest years, I have seen my mother cooking food with firewood and charcoal stove. Those days, we did not have a refrigerator and hence she cooked twice or even thrice a day. Ours being a joint family, she spent half her waking hours in the kitchen. On some of the festive days, she woke up long before the crack of dawn because the food had to be ready before the rituals began.
It was during the late 1950s that I saw for the first time a kerosene stove with a burner. Subsequently there were several types of kerosene stoves with wicks. During my years as a student of Engineering (1968–73), I would make tea for myself on the Kerosene stove, as I used to get up as early as two in the morning for my studies. Removing the carbon on the wicks and changing the wicks (when they became so short in length that they were not immersed in the kerosene) were painful jobs, which my mother did patiently on a regular basis to ensure I did not have any problem in the early mornings to make tea.
It was in early 1973 that I bought a stove with an LPG cylinder from the local Indian Oil distributor for a princely sum of two hundred and seventy rupees (which was close to my father’s monthly take-home salary at that time) to put an end to the job of constantly changing wicks. In 1990, when my wife visited Singapore she bought an electric oven / toaster, which she used to make pizzas and sandwiches. In 1999, when I visited Australia on work, I bought a microwave oven for the first time. Thus, in a span of fifty years (1950-2000), I have witnessed generational changes in the means of cooking – from firewood to microwave!
Another interesting aspect of cooking in the early years of my childhood was the multitude of processes involved in preparing the required ingredients for making tasty food. Most of the ingredients were prepared at home and only the raw materials were procured from the grocery store. I shall give a few examples.
To make the batter for South Indian breakfast delicacies like Dosa, Idli, Vada, etc., there was a stone grinder (Grinder # 1). To make a paste of ginger with turmeric, salt, and so on, there was another type of grinding stone (Grinder #2). To remove the husk from paddy, two women used to hit it with a pestle and later on separate the husk from the rice (Grinder # 3) by filtering. For making a powder of rice or wheat, they had another type of stone grinder (Grinder # 4). I also remember the days when my grandmother would prepare coffee-powder during the afternoons by manually rotating the handle of the coffee-grinder while having a chat with my mother! Most of the above things are available today in a ready-to-use form.
During the time of the first major modification of the house that I undertook, in 1976, I found several of these stone grinders in the kitchen and store-room and used them for the foundation of the building. Since 1976 all these different types of stone grinders were replaced by one electric Mixer Grinder (‘Mixie’)! Around the same time, entrepreneurs from Coimbatore came up with the idea of Wet Grinders for making batter, which became a household kitchen appliance, just like the mixie. And now, the batter for Dosa/Idli can be bought directly from the store or delivered at your door step!
In the joint family system, the job of cooking and cleaning was shared by the ladies living in the house. While the one who had culinary skills was directly involved in cooking, the others would busy themselves with mechanical jobs like grinding. Similarly while the one who was good in understanding fabrics was involved in washing the clothes and folding after drying them in the sun, the others washed the vessels and cleaned the floors. Today, we even have intelligent Robots to clean the floor!
These days we have access to a variety of tasty foods coming to our door with the click of a button – be it through Swiggy or Zomato. And on festive occasions, we increasingly outsource the cooking to catering firms. This has made our life that much simpler and the food is even tastier, but we do miss the affection and the excitement.
March 01, 2021 | Ravi 39