Mrs Rukmini Srinivas, author of Tiffin, chats with Sid Khullar about her south Indian cooking heritage and love for Indian vegetarian fare that is healthy, delicious and ecologically productive.
Sid Khullar (SK): How were you introduced to cooking? Was it a part of your education at the time?
Rukmini Srinivas (RS): To answer your question, no. Cooking was not a part of my education. As I’ve mentioned in my book Tiffin, it was during one of my summer holidays with my youngest paternal uncle, my Chitappa, Dr. Natesan, a medical doctor that I got interested in cooking. One afternoon he made masala vadai for tiffin and I did all the preparation work and saw the entire process from start to finish and this resulted in a delicious crunchy vadai which I enjoyed. I must have been around 14 years old at the time.
SK: South Indian cooking is perceived as being tougher than most other Indian culinary cultures. What are your thoughts?
RS: There is more than one kind of cuisine in the south Indian cooking culture and I am interested in vegetarian cuisine. I wouldn’t use the word ‘tougher’ to describe the south Indian culinary culture. Perhaps it is more nuanced and the tastes are more layered. But, just like any other cuisine it has its own character and I feel this is not difficult to master. In fact, that is why I wrote Tiffin to give readers a sense of the ease in cooking Indian vegetarian food and more particularly the south Indian vegetarian genre which is easy and quick. Being vegetarian is also healthy and ecologically less destructive. I believe if more people know how to cook vegetarian food our environment will benefit.
SK: Do you believe there are obvious overlaps between Vedic cooking techniques and the strict protocols followed in a traditional south Indian kitchen?
RS: Rather than thinking about Vedic cooking which introduces religious concepts, I prefer to think about health and taste.
South Indian vegetarian cooking with its emphasis on different combinations of vegetables, spices and herbs appropriate to each dish, season, time of the day, and the individual’s health can be seen as a domestic medical system of health giving.
It is more in line with a sort of Ayurvedic dietetics where keeping the body and mind in balance is important. The Indian vegetarian cuisine of the south uses black pepper, turmeric, coconut, cumin, coriander, curry leaves, fresh ginger root and fresh coriander in an array of combinations which not only impart flavor but again each spice and the judicial combination of spices has a distinct medical therapeutic purpose.
As regards strict protocols of maintaining purity in a traditional south Indian kitchen, this was associated with cleanliness. The separation between cooked and uncooked food was important for avoidance of spoilage of food in a tropical country like India and its effect on the health of people. That is not to ignore the practice of the way food and the cooking and eating of it was used to separate people of different castes often to the detriment of the lower castes.
SK: Diwali is approaching. Did you observe any culinary practices around this festival, while growing up? Were there many special dishes made? Did the festival impose any new practices in the household? How about Dusshera?
RS: The Dusshera festival, a festival which celebrates different forms of the Female Diety in India, from Durga puja in Bengal to the worship of Chamundeshwari in Mysore honors women and so food and domestic decorations are very important. In South India in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and in the other states where Tamilians live, during the nine days of Navaratri, women decorate the threshold of houses with rice flour designs, a Kolam, and with Bommai Kollu or a ‘dolls festival’ which is both a religious and social event, the latter particularly for women. The prescribed offering to the deities during the nine evenings was fruit and ‘shundal’ which are steamed beans and legumes with tadka, a flavourful tempering with mustard seeds, green chillies, curry leaves and coconut – a nutritious snack and each day brought its surprise of a different delicious shundal.
As I had narrated in my book Tiffin in my chapter on celebrating Deepavali as we in south India refer to the festival, in Tanjore in my parents’ home, this was a time for the extended family getting together, for the exchange of new clothes, lighting of myriads of oil lamps, bursting fire crackers, not to overlook the feasting on innumerable varieties of sweet and savoury snacks; Badam halwa, Mysore pak, Boondi laddoo, Gulab jamun, and a variety of toffees and fudges with coconut, peanut, and cashew and many milk sweets like Kheer and fresh coconut milk Payasam flavored with the delicate aroma of cardamom and saffron. The savories were no less delicious; mainly made of rice, gram and urad flour there would be different kinds of crunchy deep fried spicy noodles, chiwda and chips. The fried rice flake chiwda rich with lots of whole roasted cashews and raisins was a favourite with all the children. For the few days following the celebration of Deepavali the house would smell of freshly made ghee. I loved that aroma in food. But the one signature dish my mother made during this festival was called Deepavali marundu; a medicinal fudge of powdered herbs, roots and flowers cooked in ghee and jaggery; it resembled chyawanaprash but with a more delicate flavor. Making of the ‘marundu’ took several hours of stirring and we ate it as a digestive in little rolled balls as big as marbles. The image I have of my mother is of her sitting on a stool and stirring the big cauldron of marundu for hours. The taste was delicious and one of a kind which I can recall back to this day!
SK: Are there any dishes that you believe the people of the north or for that matter, the rest of the world have probably not experienced?
RS: I have found through my teaching of Indian vegetarian cooking at the Cambridge Center for Adult education in Boston, on television and at home in India and the US that people are most eager to learn good vegetarian cuisine. Cooking at home nourishes both body and mind. I would say that people are scared of Indian cooking today because they feel it takes too much time and effort. With fresh ingredients and simple techniques one can have a wholesome meal cooked easily and in less time than you would think. I hope that Tiffin teaches your readers and budding cooks how easy it is to whip up a healthy snack in a few minutes.
SK: Apart from the written word, traditional cooking appears to be passed down from generation to generation. Given your vast experience, have you found willing and able receptacles for this knowledge among your children or grandchildren?
RS: I wrote this book for my daughters. They left home for higher education in the USA. They were often homesick for our food and they would write to me or call me and ask for recipes. I would, as I have said in Tiffin, give them the recipes accompanied by stories of how these recipes took shape in my repertoire. They urged me to write this book and share all this knowledge.
SK: What do you believe are fundamental differences between the different culinary cultures in the south of India?
RS: When we speak of different culinary cultures we think of taste contributed by spices or ingredients and techniques of cooking. Take for example, Andhra food and you think of fiery food and the spice of Guntur chillies. When I think of Kerala cuisine what comes to mind is the sweetness of fresh coconut and coconut oil. The origin of most cooking cultures is local and regional and that is what makes it interesting. Thanjavur cuisine is different from that of Madurai. In fact the people of Thanjavur would look down on the cuisine of North Arcot, though to someone in the north of India these subtle and yet important differences would not be apparent. I tell my students in Boston to think of regional Indian food as they would of the different cuisines of Europe where Italian is different from French and even within each there are significant differences from one micro region to the other.
SK: The consumption of meat and eggs is less frequently found in the south of India than in other locations. Why do you believe this is so?
RS: I am not sure if I would agree with you that south Indians consume less meat and eggs than people in other parts of India. To me as the wife of a social anthropologist and the mother of two more it would seem that it is about caste and religion. In many regions, upper caste Hindus were thought not to eat meat but that has changed over several decades. Food habits and tastes change as people travel and are exposed to different cultures of eating. I am more interested in food and health. I think that makes for better experiences of cooking and eating and a more tolerant outlook in general. I am vegetarian, because I find it healthier for me; I also believe vegetarianism is better for our planet. But that does not mean others should not have a diet of their choosing and what suits them, their bodies and their ethics.
SK: Among our readers are thousands of budding cooks and those who want to learn more. Would you have any words for them?
RS: With most recipes I’ve found that it takes me a couple of tries to get comfortable with the dish and to give it my own signature. Over time you acquire confidence with different techniques, ways of cooking and newer technologies. Even today I learn new and easier ways of doing what appeared complicated at one time. I would tell enthusiastic cooks to persevere with patience and master the art and skill of cooking.
Mrs Rukmini Srinivas, The author of ‘Tiffin’ in conversation with Sid Khullar.