We all have a relative who in our eyes is the “best cook in the world”.
I’m not sure what exactly made us think we possess the ability to effectively judge all possible cooks in the world and to give this particular person the title with such relentless confidence. But biased or otherwise, I think we all genuinely believe it’s true. Maybe it doesn’t require knowledge and just requires perception. Who knows.
I have a friend who thinks her aunt is the best baker in Dubai and another who believes his mom’s dosas are truly restaurant praise worthy. However, I don’t have any one person I can choose because I really am spoilt for choice when it comes to deciding my “best cook in the world”.
I come from two generations of passionate cooks- the kind who pace through their kitchen at super speeds and have two dishes done by the time I chop three carrots; the kind who can never bring themselves to get a cook to help them even when they’re ill; the kind who think they haven’t truly “entertained” unless the table laden with at least 7 dishes is almost empty and all the guests are seated in the hall groaning about how stuffed they are.
So, safe to say I spent my formative years watching mom excitedly plan how much to feed her sisters and cousins (and their respective families) during our weekends in Dubai. But more importantly, I longed and impatiently waited with bated breath for us to to go to meet my maternal grandmom during my annual summer holidays from school.
My summer holidays were generally the highlight of my year as a child. I would stay at grandmom’s place for two months straight, not wanting to visit anyone else or go anywhere else. I would watch tv and play badminton outside, watch my granddad tend to a new bunch of plants and trees every year and look through my mom’s and aunts’ wedding albums.
But most importantly, I would relish in the kind of culinary mastery most chefs would not get to savour on the daily.
My ammama is quite literally the coolest and funniest grandmom ever, and an absolute pro in the kitchen. Her passion for all things epicurean started at the tender age of 8, when she would pay off all the maids in her family kitchen so they let her experiment with the food without any help. And she spent many years in North India after her marriage because of granddad’s work, so her hold over North Indian and South Indian food is both impressive and absolutely delightful.
As a child, I remember my cousin brother and I sitting on the floor of her spacious kitchen, tucking in crisp dosas with mutton coconut stew because we were too hungry to have to walk a few steps ahead to the dining area. I would fill my compartment plate (and eventually run out of compartments) during lunch everyday because she would have made so much food and my greed would force me to try all of it.
Her food is magical. My mom is a brilliant cook herself (genes), but there’s something about Kerala, about serving a spoon of steaming rice and curry from ammama’s utensils that to this date makes me smile and wonder when I’m going to visit her next.
The last three years have been fairly important for me because that’s when I really discovered how much I enjoyed cooking as well. Being experimental and fairly open minded in nature and not just in the kitchen, my dishes do range from Lebanese falafels to Korean pajeon but every now and then, I go back to my roots and whip up a simple and comforting mutta kootaan with boiled eggs, perfectly yellow on the inside enveloped in a velvety, creamy yet spicy gravy to mop up with rotis or mix with white rice.
When I visited Kerala the last time (about two months back), ammama had added a few more utensils to her artillery. And one fish curry made in her clay pots convinced us (mom and I) that we had to get onboard the clay utensil train.
And so we set out- Ammama, Mom and I to a bunch of little stores from where we amassed a decent collection of clay and stone utensils, with no concern for our luggage limits while heading back.
This stuff is low key amazing, to anyone who loves cooking. The food stays moist and doesn’t get dry even if its been cooked a few hours in advance, it can withstand the heat of a gas stove fairly well, for hours on end if necessary. And all said and done, there really is something about the taste of a chemmeen curry (prawn curry) or cabbage thoran made in it.
Further, google also tells me the clay imbibes any food prepared in it with all the minerals naturally found in the utensil. So there may just be some health benefits for the kinds who look into that sort of thing.
The stone mortar and pestle is one of the best buys I’ve made in a very long time. Its easy to use, its uses range from grinding spices to making a pesto or chimichurri for the table and I have been loving the salad dressings and marinades I’ve made in it so far. Its a must buy just for the sheer utility and of course the added satisfaction of pounding something and getting all your frustration out after a long day.
(I’m not as violent as I sound, I swear)
Does my food taste like ammama’s now that I have the pots and pans she has? Absolutely not. But having and using them is a reminder of her passion for it and how fortunate I am to have had that passed down. And hopefully, that genetic curiosity about what goes into a dish and what can be done to replicate it will result in a lot more experiments in these pots and pans that she’s sent my way.