I have liked the kitchen ever since I was five years old. I used to watch my grandmother as she made rice dal and vegetable curry in our Kanchipuram house. I looked on with awe as she ‘barbecued’ eggplant and sweet potatoes by directly putting them into the embers of our mud oven. She never used any metallic pincers to turn the stuff this way and that way. She did it with her bare fingers.
I was eight when I ‘graduated’ in making ‘degree coffee,’ a special type of coffee made in the hotels of Tamil Nadu. My grandfather was against me taking cooking lessons. People in those days held the notion that cooking was the last resort of men. ‘Marry her at least to a cook’; people advised fathers who could not afford good bridegrooms for their daughters.
There was a cook in our family named Varada Kutty whose preparations were fabulously tasty. He possessed the touch of the legendary Nala. The very sight of him as he arrived with his big ladles and sieves at our house to cook during the death anniversaries of our grandparents used to make our mouths water. I always lent my mother a hand in the kitchen. I chopped vegetables and shredded coconuts. I used to insist on washing the pots after school. My mother started teaching me cooking even before training my sisters in art. The first thing my mother taught me to make was an up the pump.
My first attempt was a disaster. I failed to stir the stuff evenly and intermittently as it cooked. The result: half the quantity of the up puma got burnt and stuck to the bottom of the pan. I was disappointed. But my mother told me not to be upset. “It’s your first attempt. You will learn fast. Whenever I cook up the pump, I deliberately leave it to be burnt at the bottom. The burnt crust is the tastiest portion of the up pump. Black is beautiful, and burnt is tasteful,” she said. My first sambar ended up as rasam, and my first rasam turned out to be sambar. It was after wasting a great deal of batter that I mastered the art of making a perfectly crisp dosa.
Watching my grandmother make sweets on Janmashtami eve was a great experience. Once I begged her to allow me to make a small quantity of Mysore Pak. Of course, it was an utter failure. A big mistake while melting the sugar resulted in Mysore Pak becoming ‘mysorerock.’
I learned cooking from my grandmother and mother, shedding sweat and tears, but I never got the opportunity to put it to use. My wife never allowed me to enter the kitchen. “It’s my domain. Confined to the dining table, you remain,” she said on the very first day.