Home Is Where the Vazhapu Kootu Is

Deepa Iyer writes about the contradictions of being a modern woman in the kitchen.

Patti and Mom cook every single meal, every single day. In the kitchen, they are concurrently queens and overlords, but also inmates shackled by hissing pressure cookers and sputtering mustard seeds.

They discuss food constantly, compulsively – like crazed spies plotting the downfall of an empire.  Did you add turmeric? Did the milkman come? Are the mangoes going bad? Is the gas cylinder leaking? Should we chop pomegrantate? Should we make molagu kuzhambu for lunch? Do we have eggplant in the fridge? Should we make pongal for dinner? Is the pickle ready? Is the dosa batter soured? Shall we make pulao for lunch tomorrow? Can you call Chandran the tree climber to harvest coconuts from the tree? Did everyone have filter coffee? Did you eat enough? Why did you take so little on your plate? Is there enough salt in that dish? Shall we have another round of filter coffee? Should we fry appalam? Is there leftover chutney from yesterday? Should we toss the old rice, or soak it to have fermented gruel (pazhankanji) for breakfast tomorrow? THE MILK BOILED OVER, cue mad scramble.

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They have strained milk into yogurt daily and boiled butter into ghee weekly for their entire lives, wherever they are in the world. They have crossed international borders smuggling yogurt culture from India, concealed carefully in little jars hidden in South Indian coffee filters in their handbags. They travel with luggage stuffed with mixes of lentils and rice, small rice cookers, pickles, dosa pans, and dosa batter.  If I unintentionally divulge that I enjoyed something at a restaurant (most recently, aamras), I am often flabbergasted to find the same dish on the table the next day — a sacrificial demonstration of “We can cook anything. We love you. The restaurant doesn’t.”

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My grandmother, mother, and I are not quite a triumvirate. I live in San Francisco, and when in Bangalore, I often have work or travels to other parts of India. I am not quite a sous-chef (that role is a constant tussle between the two of them), but I am sometimes co-opted to prep veggies or wash dishes in between meetings. Part of me — the financially independent part that asks inconvenient questions on gender-based division of labour — is wary of transforming into a home-bound acolyte. I enjoy cooking — but I was frightened by their messianic zeal to feed the masses, petrified of catapulting headfirst with them into the dense, suffocating pepper-smoke that wafts from roasting chillies.

Love of food, however, trumps all. And their food is mouthwatering, capable of tempting hardened ascetics into gluttony. More importantly, it is part of a lineage I remember and adore – my mother, my grandmother, my great-grandmother. And presumably all the women before that, squatting on humid floors to chop and sweat and grind and boil each meal into existence.  

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On my latest travel to Bangalore, I carefully annotated hundreds of their more specialized recipes. My notebook includes a “Kootu and Kozhambu” tree diagram categorized by ingredient, worthy of a corporate slide deck. I translated vague pinches, fistfuls, and other hitherto unknown forms of measurement (for example, Patti’s vocabulary for a “coarse grind” in the mixer was “oru TRRR”). And I gently nudged them to embrace occasional laziness. In other words, if we have seven dishes leftover from yesterday, it’s OKAY not to cook afresh today, and it’s OKAY if Dad washes the dishes too. 

And so, on this trip home, I came into my culinary inheritance, and it will serve me well during bouts of homesickness for motherland and ancestry. My grandmother did the same when she first came to Bangalore as a young bride in the 1950s, desperately yearning for her hometown, Thanjavur. This vazhapu kootu (banana flower stew) is a recipe that she learned from her mother as a young girl. To me, it will always taste of the graceful sweep of a curved palm carrying rice morsels across banana leaves, with freshly fried vazhakkai chips and plenty of Uthukuli ghee. Now, I just need to discover where to procure a banana flower in San Francisco.

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Make Deepa's family recipe for vazhapu kootu.

Deepa is always hungry and loves to graze, whether in Thanjavur, Bangalore, San Francisco, or London. She works at Omidyar Network, a global impact investing firm.

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