Indian celebrities share their favourite meals from childhood in this food memoir


The idea of comfort food is reassuring. It has also possibly acquired a new meaning in our lives after the pandemic. As we sat at home for a longer period of time, away from our loved ones, whipping up our favourite dishes became something more than a hobby — it became a means to stay connected with our roots. Journalist and author Sudha Menon is in agreement. “My theory is that we cook when we want to feel secure and comfortable. Many of us were separated from our parents, children and friends, and cooking some family recipes allowed us to feel safe and secure, as though we were back with our mothers and the unconditional love they offer,” she says. “For me, food is all about something nice and comforting that we can cook with whatever ingredients we can find at home. Made mindfully and with love, even the simplest meal can sparkle.”

That ethos is at the heart of Menon’s new book Recipes For Life (published by Penguin Random House India), where she has not only interviewed over 30 public figures from different parts of India, but has also had a deeper conversation about how their relationship with food has evolved. The common strand emerging from all accounts is that food is about nostalgia, reliving a time in we hold close to our hearts. Comfort food is not about elaborate meals. Sometimes, it is also about what circumstances can afford us. Menon cites her interaction with former Indian cricketer Irfan Pathan as a case in point. When she asked him what his most memorable meal was when growing up, Pathan paused. “He said that on most days, his family’s main meal was a simple dinner of rice and potato subzi because it was nutritious, filling and cheap.” He went on to add that mealtimes would become special when his Ammi (mother) had the money to buy dhania (coriander) with which she made tasty dhania chutney. Having three meals a day, the cricketer told her, was a big deal for the family back in the day. What about his favourite food memory? Sitting with his family in their humble home and eating Ammi’s roti that would be crisp and glistening with oil that would be dipped into the tea and eaten right before heading to school.

Menon says if you look at each of the recipes in the book closely, it is easy to spot that each celebrity is talking about comfort food that their mothers cooked, food they will still reach out for when they are stressed, ill or just want to feel happy. The idea for the book took root a few years ago when Menon spent some time with her mother in London. “I was trying desperately to get her out of depression following the death of my father. I had almost given up hope of ever getting through to my mother when, one day, I found she was actually responding to some conversation I was making with her about the food she grew up eating during her childhood in Kerala. And before I knew it, the old Amma was back, talking about delicious meals her trio of aunts cooked using fresh, seasonal produce from their land. And what heartwarming stories they were — stories of plucking drumsticks from the tree to make sambhar and plantains to make a quick thoran when unexpected guests dropped by or how the women spent entire afternoons preparing freshly plucked jackfruits and frying them into crisp, golden jackfruit chips to be served at tea time.” That summer, Menon adds, her notebook filled quickly with her mother’s recipes, as the latter rediscovered her “mojo and was soon cooking for me”.

Around the same time, Menon’s own mother-in-law passed away; she had been suffering from dementia, which meant “with her went away the recipes that had come down to her from her own mother and mother-in-law”. Both experiences reinforced one thing rather strongly — different culinary traditions and recipes needed to be documented. “I realised then that most Indian families do not document their recipes and so we end up losing huge parts of our culinary history and traditions due to the practice of only orally passing the recipes down the generations. I think each one of us can contribute to the preservation of our culinary traditions and identities by documenting what we cook and eat as a family,” she says. “And no dish is too ordinary to be left out.”

The book was written at a time when India had imposed lockdown. While a few interviews had been conducted earlier, Menon says this also meant that celebrities who would otherwise be busy were also stuck at home and hence could spend more time sharing their memories vividly. The most important step, however, was to find people with interesting backstories and narratives. “For instance, actress Vidya Balan was somebody I wanted in the book because she is a foodie and has often spoken about her uneasy equation with food in her teenage years when she was targeted for being plump. It was fascinating to hear her speak about her mother’s cooking and how she was, in many ways, helped by her mother Saraswathy Balan to get over her body image issues and tumultuous relationship with food,” says Menon.

The brief to the subjects was clear: no fancy recipes, just simple, everyday food that would be prepared in their households, foods rich in memories. “I got that in plenty. Mary Kom talking about her mother’s Kopi Bhoot , Tan and Ooti, superstar Aamir Khan’s mother Zeenat Hussain talking about his favourite Besan Ka Halwa, author Amish Tripathi talking about his mother’s warm and gooey rice khichdi, with ghee, dahi, paapad and a sprinkling of buknu masala, actress Vidya Balan drooling over her mother’s scrumptious Adai and Podi and top artist Atul Dodiya talking about his mother’s Kathiawadi Karela with besan (bitter gourd with chickpea flour) and variety of bhajiyas.”

The result was a fantastic collection of recipes from culturally diverse households. Turn over for some nuggets from Menon’s book.

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