For my next blog I was going to recreate Mutton Biryani from Ammamma’s original recipe, add a beautiful picture of the biryani on a white dinner plate and share the love and connection I felt to Ammamma while I made this dish. So I dug up my storage boxes and pulled out the recipe books and cards that I have from Ammamma and Ma. I never made it to the cooking part.....
Seeing recipes written in random pages of a diary, separate sheets of paper, as a footnote in an old housekeeping magazine, or on the back of a greeting card brought up strong emotions. Their handwritings were very similar and while Ammamma’s writing was more relaxed, Amma’s looks as if it was written in a rush. I know Ma used to write hurriedly as she tried to follow along and note down the recipe from a cookery program running on the television and she would omit certain ingredients that were hard to find or something that the family might not eat. I went through each of the pages and cards and read each recipe…..rava laddu, padavalakai kootu, milk maid toffee, lemon pickle, meringue pie, and so many more. As I read through these, I found that amidst recipes of tarts and tandoori chicken were precious memories of home and family, put on paper by Ammamma and Ma. Ammamma had noted down how I brought the house down bawling on my first day home after my birth and how she thought I might be like Ma when I grew up. Ma had noted down the date and time of my brother’s birth, when daddy would be coming to pick her up, what she was feeling on a certain day, shopping lists, and so much more.
What is it about family food recipes and certain foods itself that gets our emotions involved? Ammamma and Ma might have noted the recipes just for themselves without thinking of passing it on as a family keepsake. But I find that the act of writing, keeping, giving, receiving, or inheriting recipes may be a very emotionally charged experience. I have never made mutton biryani exactly the way my grandmother made it or the way it is written in her recipe, but when I was given that recipe I felt very blessed and have since cherished it safely. Most of us need only look at a recipe given to us by loved ones to understand the emotional reaction to family recipes- the way certain foods remind us of dear family members and memorable family gatherings, as well as family traditions and cultural heritage.
In reflecting upon the recipe collections that belonged to Ammamma and Ma I realized that it gave me an opportunity to acknowledge meaning to those sheets of paper written or cut out to be kept over a life time, carefully or negligently held to be used at some time. For them, they were a means of self-expression, a small picture of their interests, a chance to discover new aspects, and a way of showing love for their families.
We all have memories encased in recipes that stir up our emotions, and that now after generations seem like a link. Like smells and tastes, recipes -- either stored away in the mind, carried out by instinct without proper instructions or measurements, or carefully saved in recipe books, or inserted in diaries -- have the ability to touch our emotions and memories. Everyone makes mutton biryani…....but there is more emotion in family recipes or recipes handed down by word of mouth. Along with instructions, you get the little tips, "do it like this", "don’t worry about that", "look for this", which you don’t get from cookbooks. That same mutton biryani recipe has been passed down and used either in its entirety or as suitable by daughters, aunts that married into the family, sisters-in-laws, and daughters-in-laws. I find that family recipes are like a repository of sorts of complex subjective experiences. A single recipe, endlessly tried or never attempted, may embrace diverse and divergent meanings to different people who relate to it out of chance or out of duty, at different moments in time. It holds a different place of value for whomever interacts with it.
So find a family recipe, ask grandparents, parents, or aunts and uncles to share their version of a favorite dish, and make it with a fresh introspective that includes reflections on yourself and the person you are thinking of. Think of the emotional ties as you interact with the recipes and imagine in those quiet moments, the warmth and embrace of family.
My Ammamma’s Mutton Biryani recipe:
1 kg mutton
1 bunch pudina
6 green chillies
2 inches ginger
10 pods garlic
Coconut 1 tsp
Cinnamon, spices 1 tsp
Rice 3 pavs
4 cups water
Grind all the masala. Cut the meat into pieces. Put ghee, and fry the meat with chopped onions, required salt. Cook for 20 mins. Wash the rice, drain it, fry the rice with spices, add the mutton, cook for 5 mins. Your biryani is ready.
Meaning- Mother’s mother
translation- snake gourd dish
translation- measure used for rice
translation- clarified butter