Five Morsels of Heirloom Love: Archana Pidathala's Incredible Journey

Five Morsels of Heirloom Love: Archana Pidathala's Incredible Journey

#1000Kitchens is a series that takes you into kitchens all over the country, documenting heirloom recipes that tell a story. In this instalment, we visit Archana Pidathala, author of Five Morsels of Love, an Andhra cookbook based on her grandmother's Telugu cookbook originally published in 1974.

The front door swings open and Archana invites us into her home with a wide smile. Her tall frame draped in a soft, purple-bordered cotton sari and hair swept into a loose bun, she bursts with an energy that fills the room; an exhilaration that comes from having climbed the proverbial mountain. 

We sit down, and she offers us freshly prepared filter coffee (of course!) and pulls out a worn-for-wear Telugu cookbook. This is the original cookbook, the one at the beginning of the story of Five Morsels of Love. Vanita Vantakalu, her grandmother’s cookbook, was written in 1974, with close to 120 recipes, selling 15,000 copies over three reprints. It was always Archana’s grandmother’s (Ammama’s) dream to bring out an English edition. And in 2007, when Ammama passed away, and her loss was felt most intensely, Archana volunteered to translate her cookbook to English – no mean task for someone who didn’t cook very much at all, she tells us. But as we look around her house, all the greats of the cookbook world line her walls. It’s hard to believe that she only began cooking a few years ago. “I’ve only picked these up over the last three years, since I started working on Five Morsels,” she smiles. “I started out of compulsion, but now I find I love them. They've opened my eyes to the philosophies of cooking sustainable, seasonal and local produce. I can’t believe how much my grandmother’s cookbook has changed me.” Thumbing through the pages of hard-bound editions, she points out which ones are made with the most beautiful paper, the ones with the best design, and which the most moving stories.

In comparison, the cookbook from 1974 has a modest cover, and inside a hand-written index. “After the book was released, Ammama received feedback from her readers that the book needed an index, and in the remaining few copies, she hand-wrote the index herself.” 

Ammama was a very unusual woman. At 37, she self-published a cookbook, and used the money to send her daughter to medical school.  She was 43 when Archana was born; her oldest granddaughter, fondly called ‘Ammulu.’ Archana insists that they had a most special bond. Ammama single-handedly made 700 ladoos for her beloved Ammulu’s wedding. Oddly enough, Archana published Five Morsels of Love just a few months short of her own 37th birthday. Archana laughs wide-eyed with surprise and delight, as the realization dawns on her. The universe is funny, and food brings people together in strange ways. 

A stack of old photographs show Ammama at various ages, elegant in saris and glass bangles. Here, she is gazing seriously into the camera. In another, surrounded by her five grandchildren, a glimmer of soft contentment flickers behind her steady gaze. In a third, she is admiring her well-stocked fridge. “Ammama loved her refrigerator!” Archana squeals with laughter. “Who else would take a photograph with her fridge?” 

Archana decided to self-publish in keeping with the spirit of Ammama’s decision to self-publish 42 years ago. Talking to Archana, one gets the feeling that it has been a long but rewarding adventure. “I had no idea what I was getting into. When I told Sonya (Balasubramanyam, her editor) that I hoped to complete the book in three months, she kept a straight face.” Three years, multiple re-writes, several rounds of recipe-testing, and one gorgeous cookbook later, Archana and her editor are close. Sonya joins us for lunch and Archana has made Sonya’s favourite tomato chutney. She also has a gift for Sonya – The Tenth Muse by legendary editor Judith Jones. There’s a compliment in there somewhere. “The interesting thing is,” Sonya says, “We only met twice over the whole course of writing and editing. Most of the hard work was done over marathon Skype calls, that often stretched into six hours at a go.” Bangalore traffic has been known to induce unconventional work styles. 

But three years of writing and research has made Archana adept and quick in the kitchen, cooking for family, friends and her son’s school without hesitation. Her local grocer is bewildered as she spends 40 minutes choosing identical-looking brinjal for an eggplant biryani she is preparing for a cookbook club lunch tomorrow.

Five Morsels of Love is based on the cuisine of Rayalseema, a hot and arid region of Andhra Pradesh. Dried coconut, tamarind and wild greens make frequent appearances, ingredients that don’t require too much water and are hardy enough to grow in the resilient landscape of the Rayalseema region. Famously fiery, most dishes use black pepper as the primary source of heat, an ingredient that predates the chilli in India.  

Today, Archana has cooked Ulava Charu, a slow-cooked horse gram stew that is reduced over three hours, and Anapa Ginjala Pulusu, hyacinth bean curry.

From being overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of addressing her grandmother’s life’s work, Archana today is bursting at the seams with joy – the experience radiating like a glow. “Now I understand the love and patience and care she took with us. When I’d go home from college, she’d have all my favourite food laid out for me. She’d mix it and feed me, while mum would protest saying she’s 25! She can mix her own food! But now I get it, what it is about cooking and feeding your family.”

Recipe - Anapa Ginjala Pulusu
Hyacinth Bean Curry
Serves 6

Masala
1 tbsp shredded, dried coconut
15 garlic cloves, peeled
1 tsp coriander powder
½ tsp tumeric powder
2 tbsp red chilli powder
½ tsp salt, or to taste
 
2 tomatoes, quartered
2 tbsp yoghurt
200g rice
560 g peeled hyacinth beans, washed
a pinch of turmeric powder
15 g tamarind soaked in 60 ml of hot water
 
Tempering
1 tbsp vegetable oil
½ tsp mustard seeds
½ tsp de-husked, split black gram
½ tsp cumin seeds
2 dried red chillies, broken in half
10-15 fresh curry leaves
 
1 tsp sugar
salt to taste
2-3 tbsp chopped coriander leaves, to garnish
 
Method
Grind all the ingredients for the masala with a splash of water to a fine paste in a mixer. Remove and keep aside. In the same mixer jar, blend the tomatoes and yoghurt to a smooth puree.
Wash the rice a couple of times and drain. Add 1 litre of clean water to the washed rice and mix well. Drain the rice, reserving the milky water. (The rice is not needed for this recipe, but you can cook it separately to go with the dish.)
Pour the reserved rice-water into a pressure cooker and add the hyacinth beans with a pinch of turmeric powder. Pressure-cook the beans on high heat to one whistle. Once the pressure settles, open the lid and add the freshly ground masala and tomato-yoghurt puree. Pressure cook again on high heat to two whistles. Turn off the heat and let the pressure settle.
Mash the tamarind by hand or with a fork, and sieve the liquid into a bowl. Squeeze the tamarind to extract as much liquid and pulp as possible. Reserve the tamarind extract, and discard the fibre and seeds left behind in the sieve.
To make the tempering, heat the oil in a small, heavy-bottomed pan over high heat until very hot. Add the mustard seeds. When they splutter, add the remaining tempering ingredients in quick succession. Take the pan off the heat as soon as the split black gram turns golden; this should only take a few seconds. Add the tempering to the curry in the pressure cooker along with the tamarind extract, sugar and salt, and let it simmer uncovered for about 5-10 minutes. Garnish with coriander leaves, and serve hot with steamed rice. 

About 1 kg of hyacinth beans will yields 4 cups of peeled beans
Cooking the hyacinth beans in rice-water helps to mellow their strong aroma. You can also use plain water.

 

Words by Anisha Rachel Oommen and photos by Aysha Tanya; Illustration by Shikha Nambiar of Sunny Skies Starry Eyes, a brand that offers a variety of illustrated stationery products inspired by her travels.

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