Growing up in a mixed Maharashtrian-Kannadiga household, I experienced two very distinct culinary traditions in my childhood.
Aai mostly cooked Maharashtrian dishes in the traditional Koknastha style – mild stir-fried vegetables or pulses with a hint of jaggery and coconut and a simple tadka or phodni, kakdi or tomato-kandyachi koshimbir and super-soft polis or phulkas. Sabudana thalipeeth was a special treat, as was batatyachi poli, better known as aloo paratha!
There were many other Koknastha dishes that I suspect were either too cumbersome to make or that Aai herself did not particularly enjoy and hence were not frequently prepared at our place. Those, I got to enjoy at Aaji’s – aamti, kothimbirchi vadi, puran poli and the like. Yummy!
Attya’s preparations, on the other hand, were typical of North Karnataka, the region she and my father hail from. Simple but delicious saaru-anna, her comfort food, was the dish I took for granted whenever she cooked for us. Bisi bele huli anna, muddi, kadbu and hittud dosa were eagerly anticipated too.
Pav Bhaji, the quintessential Bombay party dish, was reserved as a treat or for when my nagging got too loud and insistent for Aai to handle. As for pizzas, Punjabi or Indo-Chinese dishes, a younger me would have probably told you they are to be found only in restaurants and that too only on special occasions or something!
Lest somebody think I am complaining about what I ate growing up, let me clarify.
I am not! On the contrary, I think of those times with nostalgia nowadays. For one, the food was handed to me, hot and delicious, literally on a platter! Beats slaving over an exotic dish any day, don’t you think?
But jokes aside, Aai’s and Attya’s recipes are probably hand-me-downs from my grandmothers and their grandmothers, the result of decades of experiments and improvements. The secret of Attya’s cooking, I later realized, was in the masalas, painstakingly prepared at home and taught to her by her aunts and cousins.
So there was a strong sense of identification with the distinct taste of each dish and a peculiar sort of comfort in eating the food that my uncles and grandmoms and great granddads had enjoyed before me.
But alas, I did not learn to cook when I was home!
And as a result, my cooking now is a mismash of bits and pieces I pick up from here and there. A pav bhaji recipe from a cookbook, a poha recipe my mausi wrote down for me once, thalipeeth taught to me by my mother-in-law and a spicy Andhra sambar recipe from a family friend. Attya would be shocked to know my favorite bisi bele rice recipe actually comes from Sanjeev Kapoor’s cookbook! And when all else fails, there are the food blogs, my saviors and best friends in the kitchen.
In the last one month alone, I’ve made pithla-bhakri, masale bhaath, solkadhi, manchurian and fried rice, baingan bhartha, dum aloo, bruschetta and tomato-sev-shak, all from recipes so generously shared by my fellow bloggers. The wonderful part, of course, is that the husband and I are able to cook and enjoy such a wide variety of cuisines from India and elsewhere.
But on the other hand, there’s no pattern to our cooking at all! One never knows what to expect. My pithla may be of Kolhapuri origin and very spicy one day, and of Koknastha style and boringly mild the next. The husband has given up trying to analyze my cooking and asking me to make a particular dish ‘like last time’ by now!
Plus there’s no sense of the familiar in my food at all! I struggle to recreate the taste of Attya’s saaru each time I make some, but in vain. My concoction is delicious too, no doubt, but it’s not the taste I associate with the saaru of my childhood, you see!
A simple solution, a practical person like my father or my husband would say, is to set aside some time and learn to cook my favorite dishes from Aai or Attya one day. But if only it were as simple as that! If I had the patience to sit down and learn to cook, I would have done it a long time back, wouldn’t I?
The fun of cooking is in experimenting with different recipes and ingredients I think. I’m sure I would die of boredom if I had to cook the same sort of food day after day! So I’ll continue to hunt everywhere for recipes and play around with the poor husband’s taste buds instead. Maybe a pattern will emerge over the years.
If not, my kids might feel inspired to write a post on their mother’s wonderfully erratic and vibrant style of cooking someday!