My cousin Ravi and his wife Radha were visiting America for the very first time. One day, as I was waiting to pick them up for a drive around town, Radha was unusually late. As she slowly stepped into the car, she handed me a small box, saying “this is what made me late, wanted to warm it up for you.” I could smell the treasure. “Elai Adai!” I screamed with joy (translates to leaf pancake). The last time I had savored this heavenly dish was at Radha’s daughter’s wedding in India about three years ago. I was teary and grateful for her thoughtfulness. All through the car ride we reminisced over my grandmother’s cooking and the culinary precedent her ancestors had set. The taste goddess had blessed my family tree with amazing cooks. In Tamil, there is a term for this, kai manam, which means “aromatic hands” meaning that whatever one cooked was filled with flavor and taste.
We talked about my great-aunt Rashamma who lived alone in a big house surrounded by her paddy farms, mango and jackfruit groves, rubber plantations, and cows. Rashamma was known for her “kai manam.” She worked and managed the farms by herself; she was quite the busy landlady. Cooking was the last thing on her mind. But when she stepped into the kitchen, she created magic with the least amount of ingredients. I can never ever forget her keerai masiyal (a mashed spinach dish), that she whipped out with the bunch of spinach that she had just picked. Every time I make this dish it always takes me back to her kitchen.
All this talk about food and family tree made me wonder—what will happen to my cooking lineage? My cousin and I wondered what our kids will cherish when it comes to our culinary heritage. Will elai adai and keerai masiyal die with me, along with sambar and rasam? Will my two boys ever know the value of the dishes I ate as a child or savored as a grown-up? Will it matter to these Indian American kids, who prefer In-N-Out burgers to idly sambar, that the idly is also a part of who they are?
I almost had a panic attack thinking of the-almost-extinct dishes of my heritage. For example, I fear the endangerment of the quintessential Avial (a mix of many vegetables like long beans, winter melon, pumpkin, drumstick, raw mango, raw plantain, in a coconut green chili paste with yogurt) which is scorned at my dinner table with a “Yuck! Who invented this dish that looks bad and tastes bad?” sending a dagger through my heart bred in Kerala. The pavakkai pitla (bitter gourd in a tamarind coconut sauce), which is welcomed at the dinner table with “I think I’ll make myself a sandwich” or “I’m going out to eat,” I relegate to the dinosaur category. And the list goes on.
That evening as I walked into my home, I could smell garlic and basil simmering on the stove. My son was cooking dinner. He asked me to taste the one-pot pasta he had made. He noticed the longing in my eyes and continued, “I will cook all your dishes one day, but for now it’s just pasta.” I chuckled and smiled hugging my son, for it really didn’t matter if its pasta or pitla that he was cooking. What did matter was that I had passed on the love for cooking to the next generation. Hopefully, the “heritage” recipes will come in time!
Rashamma’s Keerai Masiyal
Clean, chop and cook the spinach in little water. Puree it and set aside. Heat coconut oil and add mustard seeds and let it splutter. Add urad dhal, dry red pepper, curry leaves, asafetida and green chilies. Add the fresh coconut scrapings and sauté for a few minutes. Once it is a little toasted add the pureed spinach, mix well and season with salt. Serve as a side dish with rice.
This is a famous Kerala side dish that is served at feasts and weddings. There are many variations to this basic recipe.
Vegetables used are winter melon, raw plantain, long beans, pumpkin, carrots, and drumstick.
Raw mango (a few pieces)
2 cups of vegetables julienned
¼ teaspoon turmeric
1 tablespoon coconut oil
3-4 curry leaves
1 cup sour yogurt
Make into Paste
1 cup fresh coconut scrapings
3 to 4 green chilies
Place the vegetables in a large flat sauce pan with winter melon at the bottom. Season with salt and add coconut oil, salt, curry leaves and turmeric. Cook the vegetables in a medium flame without mixing too much. Use a flat ladle to gently mix so that the cooked vegetables don’t become mushy. Now add the ground coconut chili paste and mix. Lower the flame and add yogurt and mix. Cook for a few minutes. Check the seasoning and serve hot.
This is a delicacy made in homes and it cannot be found in restaurants. It requires a banana leaf (elai) that is warmed over a gas flame to make it pliable without letting it tear apart. The outside shell is made with raw rice that is soaked in water, drained and made into a thin batter with salt (adai). The filling consists of fresh coconut, jaggery, small pieces of ripe jackfruit and cardamom. A ladle of rice batter is spread into a circle, on a banana leaf. The coconut filling is spread on the bottom half on the rice batter circle. Then the leaf is folded on top of the filling. The sides are folded and secured with a toothpick. This leaf pack is then steamed. It tastes like a modhak.
For all of us who want to cherish our culinary heritage, the best way is to write down family recipes in a Word document to share with your children. Maybe one day in the future, they will look through the document, feel inspired and try one of mom’s ancient recipes!
Maybe, they will even ask me to show them how to make Elai Adai—a recipe that cannot have precise, written measurements—a recipe that needs to be learnt by watching to be able to emulate—a treasured treat from the taste goddesses hailing from my family tree!
Praba Iyer is a chef instructor, food writer and a judge for cooking contests. She specializes in team building classes through cooking for tech companies in the Bay Area.email@example.com