Author and biographer Sudha Menon is known for her books that explore the aspirations, achievements and achievements of people from different walks of life through stories told by them. Some of her well-known books are Feisty at Fifty; Legacy: Letters to Their Daughters from eminent Indian Men and Women; Gifted: inspiring stories from people with disabilities; and Devi, Diva of She-Devil: The Smart Career Woman’s Survival Guide; and leading ladies: women who inspire India. She is also a model, actor, speaker, writing coach and founder of ‘Get Writing’ and ‘Writing with Women’.
Her book, “Recipes for Life” (published by Penguin), is a collection of food-related stories and memories of famous personalities and age-old comfort food recipes that were part of their growing up. Here she tells how the idea of the book took shape and her experience in putting it together.
The idea of collecting recipes came about while she was in London, trying to cheer up her mother, who had become despondent after her husband’s death. She had almost given up hope when she noticed her mother reacting to discussions about food her mother ate in her childhood.
How did the idea to write the book ‘Recipes for life’ come about?
Suddenly the spark was back in her [mother’s] eyes as she told me about the delicious meals her three aunts cooked every day using fresh, seasonal produce from their farm. Stories emerged of picking drumsticks from the tree to make sambar and plantains to make a quick ‘thoran’ when unexpected guests came in.
“I have to laugh when I see the advertisements for expensive moringa tablets for wellness these days,” she giggled one day. “We grew up eating moringa in sambars and thorans almost three to four times a week from the moringa tree in the backyard of the kitchen!”
And before I knew it, we were chatting about food every afternoon and my pen slid across the pages of my notebooks, which were filled with her recipes. Slowly but surely, Amma’s mood improved until one day she told me she was healthy enough to cook us a ‘sadhya’. The amma of yesteryear was back in our midst and I had a book idea that I knew would be very valuable.
Around the same time, my mother-in-law, who was suffering from dementia, died. She was a housewife and had cooked fantastic CKP (chandraseniya kayastha prabhu) food for her family for over 50 years. With her death, the recipes she had been given by her own mother and mother-in-law were lost. The summer after she left, when I was craving her khichdi masala, pickles and garam masala, I realized that no one in the family had written down her recipes because we just assumed she would always be there.
I then realized that most Indian families do not document their recipes. In the end we lose large parts of our culinary history and traditions through the practice of only passing on recipes orally from generation to generation from mothers and mothers-in-law to daughters, sons, sisters, daughters-in-law.
How long did it take you to assemble the entire content?
The book has been in my head for four or more years, but most of the work has been done in the past two years. The writing happened as the entire country went into lockdown during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
How did you choose the people and the recipes? Was it difficult to pack in the wide range of Indian cuisine?
I instinctively went for the people I knew would have interesting backstories and stories. My instincts turned out to be correct regarding all 30 people I’ve written about. I wanted to make the book as diverse as possible and it turned out that the 30 people also belonged to different regions of the country. This way I got a great diversity in the recipes and the stories themselves.
Did you have to travel far to collect the recipes?
I had completed some of my interviews for the book when the pandemic and lockdown happened. I panicked at first. But eventually I realized that I could just pick up the phone and talk to the people, since traveling was out of the question. The silver lining here was that the people I wanted to interview were all stuck at home too, so I could really spend time talking to them about their childhood, the food their mother cooked for them and their favorite dishes from their mother’s repertoire. . And because the topic was about mothers, most of the people in the book, some of the most accomplished people in the country, spent a lot of time talking to me.
Which recipe(s) did you find spectacular or striking in some way?
I wasn’t looking for fancy recipes for this book. I was looking for simple, everyday food that our mothers cook for us, food that has stories, memories and nostalgia attached to it.
And I have plenty of that: Mary Kom talks about her mother’s Kopi Boot, Tan, and Ooti; author Amish Tripathi recounts his mother’s hot and sticky rice khichdi, with ghee, dahi, papad and a drizzle of Buknu masala; actor Vidya Balan drooling over her mother’s delightful adai and podi; and top banker Uday Kotak reminisces about his mothers Kathiawadi Mitho Bhaat and Adad Ni Dal; each was a comfort food that we all try at home.
For me, food is about something tasty and comforting that we can prepare with all the ingredients we can find at home. Made with care and love, even the simplest meal can sparkle.
How did people react when they heard you were researching Indian cuisine?
Writing this book was an eye opener in many ways. For starters, most of the people I spoke to about writing this book wondered why I was risking my record as the author of five moderately successful books by writing a “cookbook.”
A very, very high-profile business executive who I approached so she could put me in touch with another prominent business executive, politely apologized and said this topic was something she couldn’t approach the gentleman for. And therein lies the biggest problem every woman faces: cooking and feeding is seen as an activity of no value, even by women themselves. What chance do we have to make a difference if women leaders who talk differently about the value women bring to the table don’t appreciate the food housewives put on the table every day for almost their entire lives?
I managed to connect with the male manager who spoke with respect and awe of his mother feeding him such delicious, simple meals that he still craves.
An incident that you found particularly moving?
Cricket icon Irfan Pathan won my heart with his humility when I interviewed him for the book. What were your favorite, most memorable meals growing up, I asked him. I could almost hear the pause over the phone line before he said softly, “We never had the luxury of two square meals a day because we never had the money for it. Most days our main meal was a simple dinner of khichdi and potato subzi because it was nutritious and cheap.That meal became special when ammi had the money to buy dhania with which she made tasty dhania chutney.I’ve always admired his genius at cricket, but now I admire him for his grace and humility.
The book also includes recipes shared by the interviewees.