There are millions of online recipes at our fingertips but there are other millions hidden in the recipe boxes, hearts and kitchen drawers of grandmothers, aunts, cousins and parents!. Yes these “family recipes,” are a special part of your family history. Dishes cooked by our grandmothers and mothers are dear to our hearts.
Sabudana kichidi made by my paternal grandmother and Onion uttapam made by my mother remain etched in my memory and always bring a smile to my face when I recollect the memories interwoven with them. When lazing in the bed before getting up I still can get the smell of my grandma’s cooking, which she used to do pretty early in the morning, when I used to visit her during my school holidays. Foods evoke vivid memories of our childhood, of our relationships with family members.
This tradition of food is carried on from one generation to the other and can be traced for several decades’ right from the past to the present and onto the future as well. They remind us of long forgotten experiences and allow us to revisit feelings of comfort, satisfaction or excitement. Reliving of past family occasions be it holidays or birthdays or anniversaries or special events or reunions – the memories you often want to preserve, are connected to food. Some family recipes have been passed down for many generations and are known as “keepers” in our family.
“I realized I couldn’t go home every weekend for my mom’s yummy dishes,” says Shreya, who is about to enter Johns Hopkins University. She has recently started following her mother around the kitchen, taking notes on how to make her “masala chai”and tasty kachoris.
“Those specific flavours can instantly unlock a whole flood of emotions, memories and feelings of family, love, and comfort. And what more they are absolutely delicious.” says she.
For years, Shreya resisted asking her grandmother and mother for their recipes because of “the simple fact that no dish I put together will taste as good as my grandmother’s version.” During her summer vacation, Shreya tried her hand at her grandmother’s aloo kadju curry recipe.”Apparently my grandmother has a great deal more patience than I do.,” says Shreya. She further adds, “I do not consider it that important to preserve the recipes, but the valuable memories of family dinners which they conjure up in my mind is ever green in my memory. I am looking to the day when my kids will come to know of their great-grandmothers through the dishes they cooked. The recipe keepers were getting old, and it was time for me to go to India to learn cooking from them. I spent six months travelling to India from the US, venturing deep into the kitchens of my aunties and my grandmothers, armed with a notebook, a camera and sometimes a voice recorder, taking copious notes on how to make my favourite rasam, sambhar and many more. Of all the dishes I learned how to make my grandmother’s sabudana kichchidi really struck a chord.”
Shailaja, an IT professional, “One lucky day, when crispness could be felt in the air, my sister and I trudged home from school lugging our backpacks and opened the front door to a delicious smell of crunchy and mouth watering pakoras. To this day, every time I feel that first chill in the air I get a hankering for my favourite family snack. But there’s more to it than the smell or the taste—it’s the memories. Pakoras reminds me of my mom and gives me a sweet feeling of being connected to her, my sisters, and my maternal grandma—because she used to make it too. Says Shankari, “Whenever I look at the slightly bent old cast iron pot I remember Aunt Mita, who taught me to make crisp potato roast and gifted me her favourite pot as well. The cookbooks I collected on vacations are functional home decor that reminds me of the places I visited.”
Most women are influenced by their mothers, grandmothers and mothers-in-law in the kitchen. Each family has a treasure trove of recipes that are a reflection of these influences along with factors such as travel, interests, health, likes and dislikes. Some recipes evolve over generations and take on new avatars based on our individuality and personal style. Sometimes our cooking is also influenced by our neighbours and friends. When recipes are shared, Aloo paranthas are cooked in traditional Kerala household or Cheeni sambol, a Sri Lankan side dish, is String hopper’s new best friend instead of the korma in a Tamil kitchen. Over time, the borders blur and taste is all that matters. These newly acquired recipes will become common in their new-found homes and go down in the annals as family recipes after some time. Even if we are not over fond of the dish, it’s about connecting with past generations – the people who raised you and the people before them.
Not many of us take the effort to collect and record the recipes from our grandmothers, mothers and mothers-in-law. We often get a recipe on the phone and scribble it on a piece of paper. We just pin it on to the fridge for a week or two and forget about it as soon as the paper disappears from there. Some recipes perish along with our culinary icons, and all we can do is only reminisce about what great cooks they were and miss the dishes they cooked for us. Some recipes are so simple with such few ingredients that publishers or authors of cookbooks might think of them as insignificant. For instance, my grandmother’s mushroom gravy has just five ingredients but is one of the star dishes from her kitchen. It does not even have a proper name and I would not know where to begin looking for it in recipe books.
My grandmother, who turns 90, next month, is the culinary matriarch of my family, who is not only the guardian of kitchen heirlooms but also recipes and the stories behind them. These stories speak a lot about my family history as the photo albums, which are placed in her living room. We pass on the food tradition, cookbooks, recipes, habits and cooking utensils as well that carry with them historical details as unique as our genetic code, from one generation to the other.
But many of us don’t think of recording that history because, after all, what’s so interesting about something as quotidian as how you fix up your cup of coffee? For my dad, every morning that he adds a swirl of honey in his cream-filled coffee, he keeps alive a piece of his late great-uncle, who never drank a cup of coffee without a drop of honey. If you are interested in your family’s cultural legacy, the best place to start is food because it is one of the last fragments of ethnic traditions to go.
At a family get together a few years ago, my mother presented everyone with a family cookbook that she had compiled. On each page, she included the story of why the recipe was important to her and a little bit about the person it came from. These dishes remind us of happy times when we enjoyed each other’s company over home-cooked meals and conversation; and the moments when our most important priority was each other. Even trying a fun new recipe together or setting a table for a book club event becomes a culinary presentation in memory. Food links you back to the moment in the kitchen when your grandmother, mother or grandfather let you sneak a taste of the tasty chole batura, gulab jamun….. They are indeed invaluable moments of love, which I am lucky to have had experienced.
Families today find it difficult to preserve the food connection with their busy and demanding day to day schedules. How is it possible to make a meal from scratch when you have to don various hats of working in the office, picking up the kids, cleaning the house, doing the grocery shopping, and maintaining relationships with your dear and near ones? We are unable to do the same things in the kitchen that our grandmothers did twenty or thirty years ago. But now there are innovative and simple ways to treasure the culinary expertise and value family traditions that have been passed on for generations.
Yes, documentation of these family recipes keeps some part of the legacy of our emotional ties alive. Remembering, collecting, recording and passing down the recipes your loved ones have passed on to you is a wonderful way to honour and immortalize your family. Several are the scrap books and binders which are highly creative that are freely available in the market these days. You can even add photos, drawings, or handwritten notes from other family members to record every aspect of your memories about the recipe. With Story Scans getting popular and talking images, preserving of family recipes has never been easier. All it needs is scanning the recipe and recording the story behind each of them. It can be loads of work, yet it can also become the most rewarding work you have ever done with and for your family.
Preserving family recipes is saving and honouring our heritage so that future generations can continue to strengthen those ties. In a rapidly changing world, culinary traditions may soon be the only constant link to our unique cultural identities. Family recipes are to be treasured as our old family photos. Every time you remember your loved ones, recreate one of the dishes from your collection and let the memories from the good old days embrace and comfort you. A family recipe book is a meaningful gift to a daughter/son or niece/nephew who is getting married and relocating to start a new life. .
Our collection of numerous recipes in the past; several cook books and old food magazines are similar to historical time capsules. Nothing reverberates of home like the very thought of a buffet table with hot familiar dishes during a family function. We crave for welcoming choices; repeated helpings; and the laughter of heart to heart carefree talk that continues for long throughout the day. These dishes are reminders of the love and sweat involved in its preparation. There may be shortcuts for working with computers but definitely not for cooking. Our Family Recipes were simple by today’s standards of what’s being shown on the cooking shows. Simple ingredients like jeera, dhaniya, garlic, onion … would turn an ordinary vegetable into something delectable. These legacy dishes and food traditions are wonderful sources of nostalgia.