Here Is How S.Meenakshi Ammal Infused “Cook and See” With Nuances Of Cooking And Life
- IWB Post
- May 28, 2018
Struggling with the restless evening vibes of a new city, I shuffled through the books in an indiscrete bookstore near Indira Nagar, Bangalore. Perhaps frantically searching for a companion that felt like home, I somehow ended up in the cookbook section. A novice at cooking, the thought of reading about home food and attempting it instantly lifted my spirits.
S.Meenakshi Ammal’s “Cook and See” was one of the books that I picked. The book’s rooted appeal and the shopkeeper’s rave review of it convinced me to purchase it. Reading the book was like entering a traditional South Indian kitchen (I learned about it over the years during visits to my friends’ houses) with your mother instructing you to cook, sometimes in a caring tone and sometimes in a condescending one.
In a column that Meera Ganapathi recently wrote for The Soup, she discussed “Samaithu Paar” or “Cook and See” and what gave it a cult status.
Meera writes, “In the ‘60s Tamil Brahmins migrating overseas carried her [Ammal’s] cookbook along with a pressure cooker each, to cure homesickness with food from home. As the book gained popularity, the norm was to hand it to young brides who’d often have to move to the North of the country with their husbands and learn to cook without the support of the ever-present maamis. More recently, families have taken to gifting their sons the book as they leave their homes for idli-less shores.”
She adds, “‘Cook and See’, says the title, implying it isn’t so hard really. The instructions inside provide alternative suggestions and steps to take care of kitchen disasters.”
Meera writes how the book is full of “mildly stern” reassurances that reminded her of her father. If you ask me, even when you are not a Tamilian, the book would remind you of the authoritative figure in your life who is always strict with you but for your good.
Meera explains the sternness by giving an example from the recipe for making Butter Milk Sambar:
For this drumstick, brinjal and lady’s finger are best. Potatoes, chow chow and ash gourds are second best. Any other vegetable is third rate.
The book has its roots in the traditional Tamilian cooking and like Meera writes, in the book “even filter coffee is an elaborate recipe filled with helpful details” like the following note:
If necessary, the second decoction may be mixed with the first. Two and a half cups of water will give two cups of decoction to serve four people.
“It is only natural that Meenakshi Ammal is stern I realize. Her life has not been the easiest and sometimes reads like the melodramatic script of an old Tamil movie. ” writes Meera as she prepares to give us a glimpse into Ammal’s life.
Turns out Ammal’s life was one filled with challenges and thus probably the stern tone crept as a warning of all that could go wrong in life and in cooking if not taken care of properly. “Ammal who lost her husband at 18 lived with a mother-in-law, her younger brother-in-law and her young son in what could not have been the best of circumstances,” Meera writes.
Ammal, however, had a superpower. Meera explains, “Her cooking was sublime and she was constantly pestered for recipes and instructions from friends and family. Relatives going abroad would request Ammal for specifics and she would answer them with succinct recipes in blue inland letters.”
Meera shares that besides cooking, Ammal was also known for her managerial skills. “She would command parties of young women at weddings, instructing them on the nuances of communal cooking , even preventing squabbles between them. I found it rather sweet that as a treat she would often take these young ladies to the cinema.”
Ammal’s uncle K.V Krishnaswami Aiyer urged her and finally convinced her to compile a book of recipes once her son had grown up. Meera shares, “And she did, writing down everything she knew about cooking. If you notice all her recipes are meant to serve four, the exact number of people in her own family.”
However, nothing came to Ammal on a silver platter and raising capital for publishing her book was another one of many challenges that she faced. She had to sell her jewellery for the same. “And just publishing wasn’t enough because who would want instructions to make home food? The story goes that her son walked shop-to-shop requesting owners to stock the book, finally convincing Higginbothams to display one as well.”
What followed though was something that Ammal would have probably not envisioned. Meera writes, “It took a few years for ‘Samaithu Paar’ to gain popularity. But when it did, it became something of a legend. The book has now been translated into various languages and although the vintage illustrated cover featuring a dreamy young bride cooking has been replaced by a photo of idlis and vadas, the book still commands an ever-growing audience.”
Meera shares how her views about the book and its condescending tone changed with time. She writes, “And I can see why, the instructions that once instilled paranoia in me seem considerate now. When I started out, everything about the process of cooking would terrorise me; the crackling mustard, the occasional bouts of fire from damp curry leaves in hot oil, incendiary tomato chutney bursting out of the mixie in rebellion leaving blood red streaks all over my kitchen. Yes, all very dramatic and inclined to leave me dispirited. But it’s been two years since then and now I find myself singing when I cook.”
She adds, “That cooking teaches you patience should seem obvious, but what I found is it also gives you a strange sort of confidence.”
H/T: The Soup