During one of my parents’ many moves, tragedy struck our household. Of the 80-odd boxes that left their home to trundle across the country to their new home, one box didn’t make it. According to the checklist, it was a box with “papers” in it, but that was something of an understatement. Among those “papers” were two tattered exercise books from a bygone era. In them were recipes. One was filled with my grandmother’s perfect, calligraphic handwriting. She’d written them out for my mother so that my mother would stop pestering her for them. Another one was more of a scrapbook, of recipes my mother had gathered over the years — from Woman’s Weekly, strangers on trains, restaurants, all sorts of places.
There are few moments when I’ve seen my mother allow herself something as wilty as tears of sadness. Losing those two notebooks was one of those rare occasions. They were recipes, of course, but they were also fragments of people we’d lost over time. My grandmother’s no-nonsense precision; memories of the years when my mother didn’t know the first thing about groceries, let alone cooking (she couldn’t tell onions from garlic. It’s a talent); vintage international phone calls demanding precise directions on how to cut an unripe jackfruit — we had no idea how many stories nestled in those exercise books until we lost them.
Reading Rukmini Srinivas’s Tiffin, I was reminded of those recipe books we’ve lost and I almost wept with longing. Tiffin isn’t a cookbook. It’s like burrowing into your grandmother’s lap and listening to her while she gently strokes your hair. Srinivas writes with a charming, old fashioned simplicity. She describes things in meticulous detail, with an earnestness that is just adorable. For example, recalling her room in Madras’s Queen Mary’s College hostel, Srinivas writes,
“…the hostel room was small and cramped with two chests of drawers, two writing desks with straight-backed chairs, and two beds against each wall, and hardly any room to move…”
Do you need to know all this in order to appreciate and follow a recipe for Mangalore Bonda? Of course not. But it’s just the kind of thing that a memory-rich grandparent will tell you, and suddenly, you find yourself not just reading a recipe, but feeling all the expectation and tingle that young Srinivas felt when she’d chomp on the Mangalore Bonda as a young woman who couldn’t bear to eat the bland slop of the college canteen.
I’m sure the recipes in Tiffin are fantastic, but I must confess, I barely glanced at them after a bit. A few minutes of walking alongside Srinivas down memory lane, and I didn’t really care much about the actual recipes. I just wanted the stories and people that surrounded the food. One moment, it was afternoon and I was casually flipping through this lovingly-designed book. Next thing I know, it’s 1.30 am and I’m reading about drunk blue jays that are bashing into windows. Now and then, as I sped past the recipes, I noted I had the ingredients for them. Mango Fool, for instance, is top of my to-cook list since all you need are raw mangoes and I’ve got two kairi cooling their bums in my fridge. And Amma’s Orange Rind-Green Chilli Relish.
All the drool that’s collected in my mouth after just typing those two names notwithstanding, the recipes weren’t the reason that I devoured Tiffin in one sitting. That would be because Srinivas is a charming storyteller. Reading the book is to slip through a portal of sentences into a sepia-tinted era. Was it a perfect, flawless past? Absolutely not. There were prejudices, frustrations and confusions; along with joy, hope and tenderness. Srinivas’s book reminds you that comfort food isn’t about taste, but the memories that waft from them.
Tiffin is filled with wonderful places and fantastic characters, like Srinivas’s father and her aunt, Annam Athai.
“Annam Athai observed all the feasts and fasts of the Hindu calendar, including fasts for the new moon, full moon, solar and lunar eclipses, Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays, and the many festivals. With India gaining independence in 1947, she added Republic Day, Independence Day and Gandhiji’s birthday to her list of fasts and feasts.”
In her acknowledgements, Srinivas insists Tiffin is not her autobiography. She doesn’t like the sound of woman you argue with, but the fact is, particularly in the early parts, Tiffin does read like one. Srinivas takes us far back in time, to a modern colonial India. Taking the reader by hand, she meanders through early 20th century Quetta, a liberal Poona of the 1930s and 1940s, tradition-bound small towns of Tamil Nadu, and North America in the 1950s and 1960s. Possibly because of Mohit Suneja’s illustrations, Tiffin almost feels like a graphic novel as Srinivas wanders into old vegetable markets, college messes, women’s courtyards and travels by ship to America. This isn’t flamboyant, stylish writing, but it is evocative precisely because of its simplicity.
Tiffin is a personal history that doesn’t bother with important dates or events and lingers instead upon incidents that most would deem inconsequential, like Srinivas picking up a museum piece to grind spices in her American kitchen or how an arranged marriage for a neighbour fell through. Most of us don’t know of a time when it took five days, on a boat, to go from Southampton, UK, to New York, USA. The word ‘metate’ would have a lot of us turn to Aunty Google and even when she shows you a photo, the mixer-grinder generation will blink uncomprehendingly at the slabs of stone that appear as images. This is the world that Srinivas recreates through her memories and the flavours of her recipes are enriched by these recollections.
It’s palatable to remember the past through Srinivas’s eyes because her liberal upbringing and worldview make it easier to let waves of nostalgia wash over you. Still, with delicacy and tact, Srinivas touches upon aspects of the old world that weren’t entirely heartening, like the demeaning way many treated wives and daughters, and the keen caste-consciousness that conditioned so many people’s behaviour. This is one of the ways in which Tiffin makes for an interesting document: it tries to blur deeply and painfully-etched boundaries by collecting in one volume recipes from the privileged Brahmin kitchens as well as (relatively) caste-unconscious fast-food joints.
Tiffin is a book that you’ll read for the stories and keep for the recipes. I’m not surprised Srinivas’s daughters were the ones who came up with the idea of this book and pushed their mother to write up her memories and beloved recipes for a wider audience. I’m going to be giving Srinivas’s book to my mother in the hope that she’ll re-collect (and update) my grandmother’s hand-written cookbooks. Yes, it will mean committing to written word the fact that most of the family is cheerfully nuts, but hey, they make good stories and great food. (Also, I want my mother to make a couple of the more complicated recipes for me.)
Part cookbook and part memoir, Tiffin is a reminder that there are so many stories embedded in the mundane and as the times change with characteristic ruthlessness, it wouldn’t hurt to nourish memory.
Tiffin – Memories and Recipes of Indian Vegetarian Food, Rukmini Srinivas, Rupa, Rs 395.