This essay won The Barbra Naidu Memorial Prize for the Personal Essay (2019) in the Open Category.
The theme was Voyaging the Kitchen.
The judge, editor and writer Tejas Harad, had this to say about the essay:
“It’s very hard to separate food from our closed ones as well as the momentous events in our life, and this essay brings that fact out quite lucidly”
Sundays were meant for a walk on the quiet roads of Cubbon park, a toy train ride, a handful of kadle kaayi, and if I was lucky, a quick breakfast at a darshini before we made our way back home.
At the darshini, our order was always the same. Eradu masala, by-two coffee, ondakke sakkre swalpa jaasthi haaki, please.
The dosa had to have a certain crispiness to it, of course, in order to qualify for Appa’s “Ah, idu dose andre!”. It had to be crunchy, but not too crunchy. It had to be smeared with a generous dose of butter, but it couldn’t be greasy. The coconut chutney had to teleport you to a humid, coastal town with salty breeze in the air, or it wasn’t coconut chutney.
Often, as I polished off my dosa, Appa would ask, “It’s nice, no? Do you want another one?”
I’d always say no.
Appa’s response would always be “It’s okay, I’ll buy another one. You can have half of it if you want.”
I’d never eat the other half, he’d never ask.
Whenever we went to the darshini, we’d often bring a dosa for Amma. She’d eat it, all the while complaining that they were nothing in comparison to her favourite Udupi Hotel dosas. The sambhar we got was usually way too much for a single Dosa, so we’d save it for lunch.
Lunch at home was a simple affair. Rice, sambhar, a vegetable palya, buttermilk, and homemade mango pickle. We’d go to the Mango Mela every March, bring home enough raw mangoes, pickle them, and store them for the rest of the year. There was another, more elaborate mango pickle recipe that Amma learnt from a cooking show on TV, but it was prepared only for guests.
Sometimes, there would be dessert for lunch. One piece of Mysore Pak. Sometimes two, if Amma forgot that I’d already eaten one. Amma learnt to make Mysore Pak from our neighbour, Aruna auntie, who claimed she was the direct descendant of the palace cook in Mysore who had discovered the sweet.
The day before Aruna Auntie died, she’d made a batch of Mysore Pak for us. The last piece was still left in the box, when I heard Appa inform, in hushed tones, to Amma, that she’d committed suicide. They didn’t take me to the funeral, so I took out an old picture of her that was taken last Deepavali, and buried it in our backyard, along with the last piece of Mysore Pak. I hadn’t cried, though, because I didn’t want anybody to think that I understood what death was.
Every other Sunday, Appa and Amma would religiously make chakkli and kodubale, together. Dripping with oil and far too bland for my taste, the kodubales were some of the worst things that were made at home. But that didn’t deter them from preparing them.
Ajji had once told me that Amma fell in love because Appa made Kodubales for her the day before their wedding. I didn’t believe her (and neither should you), because a few years earlier, she had told me that Amma fell in love because Appa had cooked rave unde for her.
But nothing made Amma happier than dosas from Udupi Hotel. When the Udupi Hotel in the neighbourhood was replaced by a McDonald’s a few years down the line, Amma vowed never to step into the fast food outlet. But when Aruna Auntie’s boy, Praveen, turned ten, she suggested that the party be at McDonald’s (only because she’d read pamphlets about a certain Happy Meal and she was curious to find out what it was.) And when she did, she vowed never to enter the outlet again.
When Appa got transferred to Bhubaneshwar, Amma was aghast! “Oota ella heg irutto eno? Akki ella sigade idre?”
But after the first week in Odisha, Amma admitted that the rice available in the city was quite okay, although there was something far worse she was about to discover. The Odiyas – even those who ran South Indian restaurants – didn’t serve coconut chutney with their (soggy) dosa!
The first time we made dosa in our new home, a middle-aged lady had arrived, unannounced, at our doorstep. Milli Apa wanted to know how to make coconut chutney, and, in turn, she promised to give Amma her famous fish fry recipe. And thus, the Macha Tarkari made its way into our kitchen.
Milli Apa and Amma spoke in broken English (with some Odiya and Kannada words scattered in between), but they seemed to understand each other perfectly well. Though my bad grades and lack of discipline were the main topics of conversation, they also spoke about the rising fuel prices, increased pollution, and bad climate. Soon enough, the city had become our second home, and the Macha Tarkari, the household staple.
When we came back, our old haunts had started disappearing and were replaced by fancier, newer places that served cuisines we’d never heard of. Amma was relieved to be reunited with her Udupi Hotel, and Appa, with his darshinis. And in the new Bangalore, I hoped to find something that I’d like as much as Aruna Auntie liked her Mysore Paks.
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