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Read and see July 12, 2008

Posted by C Y Gopinath in Food, Humor.
36 comments

For decades, this classic set of three books has been the last word on authentic South Indian cooking, says C Y Gopinath

This unassuming and classic trilogy is for many the last word on South Indian cuisine

May I offer you some light tiffin? No? A cool drink then?

What about a curd bath? It’s guaranteed to cool you off.

According to the instructions in the third book of the Cook and See trilogy, the offer of a curd bath may fearlessly be made to Brahmin priests during certain auspicious days. The complete bath must include rice, buttermilk, sweet jaggery water, and a coconut chutney, among other things. Towels and soap are not mentioned.

Before you leap to the conclusion that this blog has degenerated into bathroom humor, what with the lavage of priests and all, let me add that bath merely happens to be how the venerable Meenakshi Ammal spells bhath, meaning rice, in her three-part classic set, Samaithu Paar (or Cook and See). As any self-respecting Punjabi knows, curd-rice is what gives the average Madrasi his or her keen edge and legendary stamina.

Similarly, both light tiffins and cool drinks are de rigueur when you are getting your daughted hitched to a suitable boy and the wedding guests are at the door. Page 162 of Book III goes further, offering a ‘List of Items Required for Preparing Food Etc’. In smaller type immediately below this are the words ‘For About One Thousand Persons’, followed by a list of 46 items that includes 12 kilos of coffee powder, 8 litres of ghee, 40 kilos of idli rice, and about 750 kilos of firewood.

Trust me, this is valuable information, available nowhere else on the planet but in S. Meenakshi Ammal’s revered trilogy. Spoken as it would be in Tamil, samaithu paar is a disarming invitation to try your hand at some fun stuff in the South Indian kitchen, make a few mistakes, create a complete balls-up of in all but on the whole have a very good time doing it.

If you are wondering, as you should be by now, where cooking comes into what has so far sounded like a one-stop marriage manual, the answer is Books I, II and III. I doubt there is any recipe or procedure featuring any vegetable or grain you can name that will not be found somewhere in these two volumes, starting on page 1 with four different ways of making sambar, and going on to such obscure but crucial life skills as the method for grinding Australian wheat into flour, preparing a perfect cup of south Indian filter coffee, and how to beat rice flakes into submission. For the latter, there is the helpful tip that “when two people pound it simultaneously by alternate strokes, the flakes turn out better”.

Samaithu Paar is simply the most authentic set of recipes I have ever seen  on classic South Indian cooking. I was fortunate to find a fresh reprint at a Higginbothams book shop in Chennai. Amazingly, you will find its 1968 edition listed on amazon.com, but with a small line confessing that it is out of print. The single customer review there describes how indispensable it is to someone struggling to learn South Indian cuisine, even if navigating the book takes a little getting used to.

The books look today as they doubtless did when they were first printed in 1951. S. Meenakshi Ammal’s writing has not been value-added by the pens of modern recipe-makers. The ingredients and the instructions are offered in unhelpfully blocky paragraphs, no effort made to separate ingredients into lines. The tone of voice is that of an older woman advising a younger and inexperienced one. And this, it turns out, is pretty much what Meenakshi Ammal set out to do.

When she wrote her first volume, it was a planet that had not yet felt the need to coin a word like foodie. There was no great demand for cookery books, and no one thought it a great idea for a woman — imagine that! a woman! — to write an entire book of recipes. Meenakshi Ammal had many detractors and only a handful of supporters. One staunch encouraging voice was that of  her uncle, father of the Library Movement in Madras State, the late Rao Bahadur Sri S. V. Krishnaswami. And her own indomitable will, of course.

The set I finally purchased had been revised by Meenakshi Ammal’s son, P. S. Sankaran, to include modern weights and measures rather than pinches and pugils and fistfuls. The publisher, in her introduction, explains:

“. . . it was also a time when with the opening up of more opportunities for women and the dawning of the realization that education was for both sexes, a vast majority of girls were not able to find the time to learn cooking in the traditional way from one’s mother. This proved a problem subsequently when, after marriage, they had to build their own homes and manage their own kitchens. In was to address this need that the author with a lot of foresight, embarked on her venture to bring out a cookery book which would serve more as a manual for daily use”.

Where a modern cookbook might have a single sentence, ‘Boil a cup of tuvar dal (pigeon peas) with turmeric’, Meenakshi Ammal has an entire paragraph, titled To Cook Dhal. It is vintage Meenakshi Ammal, cooking instructions as stream of consciousness, not a thing linear, afterthoughts interwoven with forethoughts:

Choose a stoneware of vessel with a very narrow mouth. Wash dhal. Clean and remove stones, if any. Boil water in a vessel. Add dhal, a pinch of turmeric powder and 1 teaspoon of gingelly oil. Cover with a lid or cup, filled with water. (Add this water to the dhal, if needed.) Cook till very soft. (If the dhal is cleanly husked, it need not be washed.) (Some dhals do not cook soon. If so, add a pinch of baking soda. If baking soda is added, do not use the turmeric powder, as the color of the dhal will be spoilt.)

Yes, I know. You want proof of the pudding. So here are three of my all-time favourites from her set. Not only are the recipes simplicity itself, but the spice mixtures I describe may be used for pretty much most other vegetables other than the ones I have described.

Potato Podi

Potatoes 350 gms (choose big ones)

Red chillies 6 or 8

Red gram dhal (tuvar dal) 2 tsps

Black gram dhal (urad dal) 2 tsps

Asafoetida (hing) a pinch

Black mustard seeds 1/2 tsp

Method

Fry the spice ingredients in 4 tsps of oil to golden brown color, and grind to a coarse powder along with 1 1/2 teaspoonfuls of salt.

Cook the whole potatoes in their jackets, and peel. Spread the spice powder on a board and place the potatoes on top of it. Press the potatoes with a roller to break them up. Keep breaking them up till the pieces are roughly the size of large marbles and thoroughly mixed with the powder. Serve with chappatis or rice, and sambar or dal.

Crumbled Arbi Curry

Arbi (colocasia) 250 grams

Juice of an areca-nut sized piece of tamarind in 1/4 cup of water

Whole black pepper 2 tsps

Cummin seeds (jeera) 2 tsps

Black gram dhal (urad dal) 2 tsps

Sprig of curry leaves

Salt to taste

Method

Heat a vessel with enough water to cover the arbis. When the water is boiling, add the arbis (washed and cleaned well) and cover with a lid. Turn it occasionally. When it is cooked, remove from the fire and peel. Cut each arbi into two or three pieces and keep aside.

Roast the whole black pepper, cummin seeds (jeera) and black gram dhal (urad dal). Grind into a coarse powder. This is known as curryma powder.

In a vessel, heat 4 teaspoonfuls of gingelly oil, and add a teaspoon of black mustard seeds. When they start spluttering, add the cut arbi pieces. Add about a teaspoon of salt and scald, turning frequently. Add the tamarind juice and boil till the raw smell of tamarind goes away. Add 1 to 2 teaspoons of curryma powder, curry leaves, and mix well. Keep cooking until the liquid has evaporated, and the arbis become a mass.

Serve with rice and dhal, or sambar.

And in closing, let me add that if some dedicated and selfless person were to take on the task of presenting the priceless recipes in Meenakshi Ammal’s books in a more user-friendly way with clear ingredient lists and instructions, and gorgeous drooly pictures as is the norm these days, on lovely glossy paper — why, I do believe there may be a modern classic here waiting to be lapped up.

Of course, you should make sure you have a word with P. S. Sankaran first. (more…)