The Art of
Table Talk and Shalini explore the role of women and inheritance today, with a side of India’s favourite condiment.
There is something universal about grandmothers being great cooks. There is always that plate of food, that somehow only she manages to master. A Masterchef, if you will. A title that isn’t given by prestigious institutions, but wide-eyed grandchildren. Grandchildren, whose unknowing taste buds are somehow worthy of these painstakingly created plates of food.
I’m excited today. I’m speaking to Shalini after ages. Coworkers in our past life and now rediscovering a new realm to our friendship, we’ve enjoyed many conversations exploring our ever-changing perspectives on life. Conversations that mostly tend to revolve around women, food and more recently, our shared love for our grandmothers. We settle into our Zoom call (“Can you hear me? You’re on mute.”) and get straight to it.
“Summer holidays were always in Rewa. And every summertime story there begins with mangoes”, Shalini begins. I hide a smile as I am reminded of a personality test, I took once. It told me I have strong leadership skills because I prefer the alphonso. I know, right? Almost, on cue she goes on to share, “But in my Nani’s house, it was always the local mango or desi aam. At the start of the holiday, we would each be given a bucket-full and had the freedom to consume them, at our chosen pace over the course of our stay.” We laughed as I imagined little Shalini meticulously maintaining an aam hisaab or a ledger to monitor mango consumption. But that’s mango for you. One of the few things that still remains seasonal, it’s arrival heralding the start of summer days. And while Shalini was busy managing her aam hisaab, her maternal grandmother or Nani, would be busy transforming the mango beyond its fruit form. The quintessential aam ka achaar or mango pickle, a fiery mix of raw mangoes, freshly ground spices, oil, plenty of salt, all set in ceramic jars left to stew. But it didn’t end there. Shalini shares how the aam ka achar was “basic” because each grandchild got their own favourite pickle made. Her favourite was the not-so-common katthal ka achar or raw jackfruit pickle. Her Nani would start the process before the children arrived so that come summer-end, it would be ready in jars to be taken away.
While the art of pickling fresh food in brine or oil goes back centuries (starting off with the humble cucumber), India’s sheer variety sets it apart. A dab of pickle revives a day old dal-chawal like nothing else. Smack it between two butter-lathered pieces of white bread and that’s your 4 pm snack taken care of. Scoop up a mixed vegetable pickle with a crumbly, deep-fried savoury biscuit (mathri anyone?) and that’s a solid tea time snack. Pour over some tangy lemon pickle onto soft, steamed idlis (savoury rice cakes) and that’s a saviour on a day your chutney goes wrong (guilty). Heck, I’ve even added my mum’s red-chilli thecha (red chillies pounded with garlic) to a pasta sauce to wake it up!
But I snap out of my pickle-reverie because it is no surprise that Shalini and I share this pyaar for achaar. It binds the Indian subcontinent in ways that are still unravelling before us. The art of pickling passed down from generations through poetry, prose and song, in so many ways represents community, womanhood and home.
“Nani’s courtyard was the only constant growing up. So, when people would ask me where I was from, I was often tempted to share that I was from my Nani’s courtyard!” shares Shalini with a laugh. It was in this courtyard that Shalini saw her grandmother spend hours grinding fresh masalas in a traditional sil-batta or mortar and pestle. It was here, over a chulha or open fire that her grandmother would create dishes that were centuries old, with precision and cadence. It was here that her grandmother took charge, a role not commonly seen in other parts of the house. And it was here that Shalini would spend hours watching her grandmother, never always realising that she was witnessing a slice of history that was aching for inheritance.
“I’ve realised I have to be a better version of myself before I make a katthal ka achaar!”
Shalini lost her grandmother to cancer a few years ago.
Today, she relies on the collective memory of her family to recreate her grandmother’s recipes; one of the few but important ways to honour and acknowledge the profound impact her grandmother had on her. “I’ve realised I have to be a better version of myself before I make a katthal ka achaar!” she confesses with a laugh, implying that a mere recipe is never enough to recreate food we are emotionally attached to.
But the tone of the conversation changes as we take a closer look at the notion of “nani ke haath ka khana”. Did it come at a cost that is often invisible to us? It colours the emotion, the nostalgia and questions the sepia-tinted images of all the women that came before us. Shalini shares how she often thinks of all the moments her grandmother gave up to be in the kitchen. How she often feels a strand of tension when faced with the dilemma of preserving age-old family recipes that need hours in the kitchen versus celebrating the new role a woman plays in a household today, outside the kitchen. What does preserving age-old tradition mean for us? Would we grow into grandmothers who spend hours in the kitchen, fastidiously cooking heirloom recipes? Would our Nani’s have spent hours pickling if they had a choice?
I often think of my grandmother and wonder why she never sat me down to share her recipes. I feel guilty for not paying more attention, for not asking more questions. But after this conversation, I find myself looking at those missed moments differently. I wonder if my grandmother secretly hoped I wouldn't have time to sterilise pickle jars and grind masalas at home. As I make myself a quick pickle sandwich (bread butter with a ambe-halad lonche made with fresh green chillies and mango-ginger) I wonder if everything is meant for inheritance. Perhaps some memories are just meant to be stored in jars. And as they sit there, stewing patiently in the juice of nostalgia, the take on a fiery red that deepens with each day.