Grandmothers… & culinary legacies

When Rushina called me over a month ago, to tell me about her upcoming Marathi Mejwani session in the Culinary Legacy series at APB Cook Studio, I jumped with joy. She wanted to explore the cuisine of Maharashtra.

The line-up looked delicious and I was attending!

‘You’re going to host it for me!’ Rushina declared. Just reading about the speakers and their blogs and books was an educational experience for me.

I’ve always wanted to know the roots of the different cuisines of Maharashtra. This journey started in both my grandmothers’ kitchens. And whenever I speak about food, it’s hard not to mention Manuaai, my paternal grandmother who I was extremely close to. It is thanks to her that I really understood the nuances of cooking techniques and ingredients.

With Manuaai, in Malwan

One fine afternoon, Manuaai was feeding me. She would kaalav (mix) the bhaat (rice) with daalichi aamti (oh the softest ever it was!) and then a tiny piece of fried fish topped these tiny balls of rice mixed with daal and she called them undya! And every ghaas was fed with two-three lines from a story she’d read somewhere. Or a story from her childhood.

That day, daalichi aamti was served for lunch and it was a daalichi Aamti story. I’m going to try telling it exactly like Manuaai did. her voice still ringing in my head, and my fingers attempting to translate it to English :) Here goes!

“Next to our house in Malvan, there was a small hut where a carpenter lived. I don’t know his or his wife’s name. I just remember everyone calling her Sutarinbaay (Sutarin is lady carpenter, and baay is Malvani/kokani for woman).

Sutarinbaay was very loving. She’d always ask after us. But we were not allowed to go into her house… My aaji was extremely kadak (strict) about sovla-ovala (religious purity apparently). Brahmin kids couldn’t go about mixing with lower castes back then.”

I found this part of Manuaai’s story rather amusing.

“But I’d always sneak into Sutarinbaay’s house when my Mom took afternoon naps. And Sutarinbaay lovingly served up daalichi aamti and bhaat. Sometimes, if it was a good day, there’d be fried pedve or Verlya.”

Pedve and verlya are tiny fish that are found in abundance near the Malwan coast. I am not sure of their English names.

Malwan, being a coastal town, is all about pescetarians. Chicken was never cooked in my house until the mid-80s. And lamb was an occasional treat. But fish, was an everyday affair. Well, almost. Malvanis of higher caste and higher socio-economic status ate the big fish like Halwa, Rawas, Paaplet. Bangda only if it is phadphadit (a word always used for fresh fish. I assume phadphad must be the sound a freshly caught fish must be making…). Only Kolambi. No red prawns or karandi either.

Pedve, verlya, tarlya were the fish of the poor. Manuaai never ate bombil or mandelya either. She just didn’t think small fish was fit for the Salgaonkar plate. But fried pedve or verlya, if demanded were produced in honour of Sutarinbaay. Anyway, back to Manuaai’s story.

“We’d take our plates and sneak out to the patio at the back, because my mother would come looking for us as soon as she noticed the silence in the house. She’d ask Sutarinbaay ‘Go amchya chedvak baghitlas’? (Malvani for did you see my daughter?)

Sutarinbaay with most sincerity would deny it. ‘Naaay ge baaaay!’ (if you hear Malwani or Konkani, you’ll notice that they are languages that are sung or recited as opposed to spoken. There’s always a musical tone to them, and vowels are relished just as one would relish a delicious piece of fried fish).

We’d finish our meals in Sutarinbaay’s house and run along. Much later, I realized why Sutarinbaay’s aamti was so different. Our mother made aamti with fresh green chilies. And Sutarinbaay couldn’t afford these fresh chilies. So her phodni would be that of dried red chilies. But to me, that poor lady’s lunch was a luxury.’

Manuaai would giggle. And by the time the story was finished, our plates would be clean.

Manuaai repeated that story many a times for me. And she’d make Sutarinbaay’s aamti often too. That story was a reminder that if you open your hearts and your tastebuds, you’ll discover new stories.

But the familiarity of eating a bhatacha unda from Manuaai’s plate was a luxury I relish the most.  She’d often finish all her chores by 3 pm (long after everyone had eaten and finished their naps) and settle down for a meal. My sister and I would go to her and demand a bite. The rice undis that she made were and continue to be the tastiest food I have ever tasted and I know Nani, my sister will nod in agreement.

As I sat through the sessions at Maharashtrian Mejwani at APB’s Culinary Legacy, there was a generous sprinkling of grandma and grandpa stories. Whether it was Saee’s grandfather being pulled out school one afternoon because hot puranpolis were made and he had to eat them or Mohsina Ma’am’s grandmother who’d make the Saandan batter late at night after everyone went to sleep, and how she added toddy to it for fermentation or Anjali Koli’s grandfather and how he’d start conversations with what was cooking for dinner. Every cuisine was inspiring in its own way…

We’re probably a lucky generation who lived closely with our grandparents, and were nourished by the delicacies of our grandmothers and nurtured by their stories. And it is these grandmothers who give us a memory for every corner of our kitchen. The love and curiosity for food and the stories behind it, is the most precious gift that my grandmother gave me. It’s a legacy that I hold close to my heart. And someday, I hope to pass it along… 

And because of the efforts of passionate people like Rushina, these stories and traditions get highlighted and documented. And she has a team  that is enthusiastic about everything edible at APB Cook Studio. Manisha Talim, who helped Rushina get this event together, has written a lovely post about the whole event, so do read all about it here.

Keep an eye out for the next event in this series on APB Cook Studio’s FB Page

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