Granny Diaries: How A Recipe Book Uncorked Family History

Food is a powerful way to bring the past back to life.  
Old Recipe Book Kerala
Old recipe books, especially handwritten ones, offer interesting glimpses into the lives of their keepers. Photo: Ashima Narain

On every trip to my grandparents’ homes in Kerala, I sit down, fountain pen in hand, to copy family recipes. It’s the mundane, everyday preparations that interest me: the ingredients for garlicky dal tadka, ten-minute chemmeen curry, and the beef cutlets that my brother can never get enough of. From my ammama, my maternal grandmother in Alleppey, I learnt to coarsely grind the coconut for avial, to make molugapodi from scratch, and the perfect olan, a light coconutty stew of white pumpkin and red gram. In Calicut, where my father’s parents live, I gorge on perfectly made appams, piles of chilli-smacked mussels, and shoals of fried sardines. “We’ve wiped out an entire eco-system,” my brother would joke after every other meal.

During my most recent visit to Calicut, my pestering for precise recipes led to the recesses of an old wooden cupboard, where a notebook stuffed into an old file waited for me. A silverfish scuttled out of the tattered Scholar Deluxe Original 200, with its faded blue-green cover. The file had sat beneath a pile of earthen cooking pots and porcelain plates for decades, patiently preserving Niroja Sumitran’s handwritten recipes, newspaper cuttings, and pressure cooker warranty cards. It contained hundreds of recipes. Some were neatly entered in convent-cursive handwriting, headings underlined, Ts neatly crossed. Others were hastily transcribed from shows on the radio and Doordarshan, on the backs of old wedding invitations, used calendar sheets, and business cards. I had struck gold. I reached for it greedily—and promptly dropped it.

Niroja, my grandmother, cackled like a hyena as I scrambled to gather the sheets that she had carefully updated for over 40 years. “What are you going to do with this file?” she asked, as I recovered the last, yellowing leaf from underneath the cane sofa.

How could I tell her that this notebook was a precious family heirloom, more important to me than any silk saris or gold I may one day inherit? After all, food is glue that binds our family. Quality time for the Sumitrans means cranking up the music, drinking in the afternoon, and cooking a meal together. Everybody (the men included) is assigned tasks. While slicing onions, grating raw papaya, and marinating the meat, we recall the dinners in Chennai where I grew up, swap stories about Mumbai where I now live, and gossip about distant relatives. Around 4 in the afternoon, lunch is eventually served. This is why the smudged recipes in the file mean so much to me.

“I mean, what are you going to do with this notebook?” she persisted. “Hopefully, I’ll get exact measurements for the date-ginger pickle,” I said, hastily retreating to the porch of the house. On the steps by the neatly trimmed rose bush and curry leaf plants, I pored over the sheets of paper, twice as old as I am.

To me, recipes have always been more than instructions about how to make a great dish. Traditional recipes, in particular, offer insights into the communities that devised them. Examine them carefully, and they yield secrets about a people’s past: their colonial allegiances, religious doctrines, taboos, and sinful indulgences. Scanning through my grandmother’s file felt like reading her personal diary. There was a recipe for tender mango and lime pickle that she got from her mother in Cannanore, before she moved to Mumbai when she got married in 1960. There were instructions on how to make meatloaf (with garam masala) that I imagine she sought out to impress her husband as a newlywed. There was carrot cake to feed her bratty sons when they got back from school, and nourishing stews that she prepared for my mother when she was pregnant with me in 1986.

Meat Loaf Kerala

Meatloaf. Photo: John E. Kelly/Foodpix/Getty Images

I was struck by how her handwriting resembled mine, by the brisk tone of her recipes, and the eclecticism of her tastes: the recipes in her collection ranged from spaghetti Bolognaise and dhansak to caramel custard and pork sorpotel. Many of them, I know, were treasured gifts from neighbours and dear friends she’d made during her time in Mumbai. She left for Calicut in 1994 when my grandfather retired.

There was something about the careless intimacy of that file that made my heart pine. The meticulous accounts of trips to the fish market and the magazine articles on how to “Dress up your home” made me wonder who my grandparents were in their 20s. And so, for the first time, I asked them about their life before me. I asked my 89-year-old grandpa where he had been born, worked, and lived. I inquired about my great-grandfather, who I knew from a single faded picture in the drawer of the grey Godrej cupboard in their home in Calicut. Finally, I put a name to the face.

My great-grandparents Bharadhan and Janaki, I learned, ran a successful hotel in Cannanore, a small town in the Malabar region of Kerala. “A hotel?” I squawked, unable to contain my surprise. “Choyi’s Sea Side Hotel,” Grandpa’s gravelly voice informed me, “had mostly British guests, who managed tea and spice plantations.” They exported cardamom, cinnamon, and pepper to England and other parts of the world. The hotel, which is now closed and hasn’t been with the family since the 1980s, had a long, winding driveway, around 30 rooms, and a row of single-room cottages with sweeping views of the sea. On humid summer evenings, Englishmen, tired from a long day of work, would socialise at the hotel’s restaurant: a dozen tables that were perched on a cliff. In the distance, the Arabian Sea glittered like the diamonds in Janaki’s ears. At the foot of the cliff, the ocean lashed dramatically at the rocky Cannanore coastline.

Fried Sardines Kerala

Fried sardines. Photo: Alfred Abad/Age Fotostock/Dinodia

My grandfather told me that Bharadhan’s father, Choyi, worked at the Seaside Hotel in the 1850s when it was run by an Englishwoman. But the kind lady fell prey to malaria and handed over the hotel to Choyi, before she sailed home to England. He renamed it after himself, invested in a new set of linens, and set about creating a new menu.

Listening to Choyi’s story roused my father’s memories too. Suddenly, he too had stories to share. Of collecting clams from the beach by Choyi’s, lolling about the hotel’s lawns, and cycling through the small town’s winding roads. I felt like I had stumbled upon a secret door. In a schoolboy-voice, he told me that his fondest memories of Choyi related to ketchup. “At that time, we didn’t have things like tomato sauce at home,” he said grinning from ear to ear. “It was restaurant food.” Between his jaunts to the shore and visits to numerous relatives, dad would devour entire loaves of bread with bottles of ketchup.

My own memories of Cannanore are patchy. As a child, I remember taking the train from Calicut to visit my uncle and aunt who stayed there. Over the short two-hour journey, my brother and I would play UNO, munch on cutlet sandwiches, and fresh pazhampori (banana fritters). Other recollections emerged: of moss-covered walls, a pier that stretched about a kilometre, and of my aunt Sushma’s home, which looked straight out of an Enid Blyton book. Uncomfortable lunches with other relatives I barely knew return. I remember squirming under their scrutiny of my gangly frame, dark brown hair, and the fact that I always had my nose buried in a book.

Turns out I, like the last three generations of my family, had scampered about Choyi’s lawns as a toddler. Hard as I tried, I could not remember the hotel, not even when I was presented with a picture of myself there. I am two years old, perched on a swing, with a significantly younger-looking grandpa next to me. Slender coconut trees loom in the background as I ponder the mucky puddle below my feet. I silently promise to make a trip back to Cannanore, to visit this hotel that I know will haunt me.

My grandfather never worked in Cannanore. He left in his late teens, a year after Independence, to seek his fortune in Mumbai. It’s a city I steadfastly hold on to, despite the searing heat, soaring rent, and swollen crowds. I could have moved to Bangalore with my parents when I was 19. Instead, I chose to fight traffic, treacherous landlords, and sleazy men at railway stations, determined to make the city my own.

I found parts of myself in all the stories I heard that day. As a food writer, it gave me a sense of affirmation to realise that my family’s relationship with food dates back a century. It validated my choice of career, my obsession with cookbooks, and my weakness for traditional kitchenware: the older, more worn-out and outdated the equipment, the weaker in the knees I get. The history lesson I got that day gave me a sense of comfort, but it also unsettled me: Why had I never asked these questions before? If I hadn’t stumbled upon that tattered old file, I might never have known of Choyi’s existence; never known my great-grandparent’s names; never known that my grandfather, like me, had once sipped on mugs of chilled beer at Cafe Mondegar in Colaba.

Great-great-grandpa Choyi’s most infamous creation, my father told me, was the Malabar pudding. It was a “modern” dessert that the savvy Choyi created to serve English guests. To make the pudding, mash one nendrapazham—Kerala banana that is larger, sweeter, and more orange than the fruit we’re used to—with a teaspoon of sugar and a tablespoon of warm ghee. Pack the glop tightly into a bowl and flip it over so it resembles a neat little mound. Then, crumble two freshly fried pappadums over the “pudding”. Serve at room temperature.

It sounded vile, as I imagine it did to the Brits who were its first guinea pigs. But I had to try it. So last week, I braved the wet monsoon weather and made my way to Matunga, a predominantly South Indian neighbourhood in Mumbai known for its silk sari shops, Malayalee temples, and fondness for filter coffee. From the railway station, I trudged past hawkers selling tender coconut water, chinese bhel, and chopsuey dosas, wound my way around coconut sellers and harried fruit vendors, until I found the small Kerala food-shop I was looking for. There, I purchased a packet of Guruvayur pappadums and three nendrapazhams, and took the train back home.

In my cosy little apartment in Santacruz, I set about making my first Malabar pudding. I peeled away the slightly battered banana, carefully mashing its peach-coloured flesh with my fingers. I fried three pappadums in an old kadai full of coconut oil, and warmed a generous tablespoon of ghee on the flame.

As I flipped the pudding over, I thought of Bharadhan and Janaki, my grandparents in Calicut, and wondered what Choyi was like. Sitting on my coffee table, his creation seems even more outlandish. I spent a few minutes gazing at the strange creation, soaking in the wealth of emotion coursing through me. As I placed the first spoon of the warm mush in my mouth, I tasted the warm ghee, felt my heart pound, and my eyes welled up.

Appeared in the July 2013 issue as “Granny Diaries”.


    Neha Sumitran is Nat Geo Traveller India's perpetually hungry Web Editor. She loves exploring food markets or better still, foraging for new kitchen ingredients. She hopes to have a farm near the mountains someday. She tweets and instagrams as @nehasumitran.

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