Five Morsels of Love | Cooking with Archana Pidathala
May 30, 2018
ARCHANA PIDATHALA BLAZES HER OWN TRAIL IN A FAMILY TRADITION OF COOKING AND WRITING
INTERVIEW & PHOTOGRAPHS: ROHAN KAMICHERIL
t’s a brilliant Bangalore morning when I ascend to Archana Pidathala’s aerie of a Bangalore apartment. Pidathala, greeting me at the door, is apologetic for the chaos of the morning. "I don’t know what these people are doing,” she says, perplexed, about the sound of hammering floating into the apartment from the scaffolding of a nearby high-rise that’s under construction. Despite the faint ruckus in the air, the apartment is a picture of well-regulated hubbub. She tucks a tress of her long black hair behind her ear as she surveys the Sunday morning scene. Her son Arjun is sprawled on the living room floor doodling on a sheet of newspaper. I can smell the aromas of food already cooking in the kitchen.
Pidathala is the author of Five Morsels of Love, a beautifully produced book of recipes and reminiscences based on a Telugu-language cookbook (and its half-completed second edition) written and published by her late grandmother, Nirmala G. Reddy. The book, which Pidathala, bucking convention, published herself, began as an attempt to complete an English translation of Vanita Vantakalu, her grandmother’s original book. At the time Pidathala was working for a technology company and knew little about cooking. The thought of reimagining the project from her own point of view had never occurred to her. As she became more immersed in the idea of cooking from the book, though, and more enmeshed in the memories of cooking with her ammama, as she calls her grandmother, it occurred to her that the book was something that she could—perhaps even should—take on in her own voice.
Though Pidathala confesses to having been a novice in the kitchen when she started the book, she now inhabits the practiced ease of an experienced cook as she reaches into various cupboards in her kitchen, pulling out spices, rinsing lentils, soaking a fistful of dried tamarind in a bowl of hot water to extract the tart flesh from the pebble-like seeds and knotted fibers. Rather than shy away from the memory of her initial difficulties with cooking, Pidathala uses it as a goad to be specific and evocative as a writer, to provide the kind of guidance that she found useful when she first started cooking. She tells me about first reading Elizabeth David and being struck by the affinities between her evocative writing on the cuisines of Italy and France and the spare, telegraphic, way in which her own grandmother had committed her recipes to paper.
"I couldn’t do a four-line recipes that was still comprehensive. I had to do a book like this for my own sake."
“I wasn’t such a confident cook when I was writing the book that I could write a book like that,” she says, widening her eyes in a look of goggling amusement. “I couldn’t do a four-line recipes that was still comprehensive. I had to do a book like this for my own sake,” she confesses—one that included all the detail that a beginner cook would need to conjure the tastes and textures that a seasoned Andhra cook could take for granted.
That impulse—to connect, to educate—comes through with force in Pidathala’s accounts of the domestic scenes of her youth spent at her grandmother’s home in Kurnool, in the part of Andhra Pradesh that her Reddy family originally hails from. The book takes great pains to explain the textures, smells, and sounds that a cook should be on the lookout for as a dish progresses. Small but helpful breadcrumbs to help the uninitiated cook find their way through an unaccustomed cuisine. Still, Pidathala says, she resisted the urge to even out all the culturally specific elements in the book. Many particular flourishes of her grandmother’s recipes remain—for instance, her references to “gooseberry-sized” quantities of ingredients, a traditional touch that Pidathala felt evoked something specific about the way that her grandmother cooked.
Pachchi pulusu, the first dish that Pidathala tends to, is one of the simplest in the book, and one of the most surprising and satisfying for that simplicity. A thin broth whose piquant, slightly sweet flavor depends upon a robust mix of crushed peanuts and tamarind, it’s a dish that comes together in a matter of minutes. Though the recipe in the book has the home cook simmer the mixture briefly, Pidathala confesses that she often eats the pulusu raw with rice. “It just takes a couple of minutes,” she says. “So it’s always made fresh—never ahead of time.”
“You have to build layers of flavor ... Sometimes you prefer it tangier, sometimes you want it a little sweeter.”
With her hand immersed in the small bowl of milky brown liquid, she explains the way that the dish comes together. “You have to build layers of flavor,” she says, as she patiently massages chopped onions and green chillies into the liquid, gently releasing their flavor. “You start with a tamarind base then add the powdered spices, the chilli, and so on—and you keep adjusting as you go. Sometimes you prefer it tangier, sometimes you want it a little sweeter.” Every cook’s version will taste unique to their own predilections.
The other main component of the afternoon’s meal is the Andhra dish called pulagamu. “It’s sort of like our community’s version of khichdi,” Pidathala explains—a dish of rice and lentils. She starts the pulagamu by gently sautéing split green gram in ghee, till the lentils shine and turn gently aromatic. She tips in a small measure of short-grained white rice. Though the rice is sold under the commercial Hindi name of sona masuri, Pidathala tells me that it’s really the same variety as bangara thigalu, a variety native to the area around Kurnool—whose name means “golden thread.” Water gets added to the pan along with a flourish of spices sizzled in hot oil and the mixture is covered and left to simmer away till it’s cooked.
Nearby, another dish is filled with a curry made with goat meat—usually called “mutton” by English speakers in much of the subcontinent. The portions of tender meat glisten in the thin orange gravy, butting up against little islands of quartered potatoes. “I hope you don’t mind that I made this already,” Pidathala asks with an endearing earnestness. “It just helps to have things done ahead of time.” Though she’d eaten meat growing up, she hadn’t always cooked it—or shopped for it. She recalls the first time she asked a friend to take her to the mutton market in Bangalore. “I was so surprised by how clean it was!” she exclaims.
For a country so renowned for its vegetarian cuisines, it’s almost impossible to pass through most town centers in India without seeing meat for sale. Stacks of overfilled chicken cages and hanging goat carcasses are common fixtures in many markets. As she adjusts the salt in the mutton curry, Pidathala talks about the complicated place that meat occupies in the Indian diet.
“Our idea of vegetarian food was so broad that even if we skipped meat it was okay. No one missed it.”
“In the West it’s almost mandatory for meat to be a part of every meal,” she says. “When I was growing up, though, we would just have it on Sundays.” She pauses for a second, as if scanning a bank of memories, and then adds, “and even then, some Sundays we didn’t have it.” With a rich palate of spices and ingredients to hand, meat becomes just another component to add variety to a week’s eating. “Our idea of vegetarian food was so broad that even if we skipped meat it was okay,” she recalls. “No one missed it.”
Nonetheless, Pidathala does eat meat, and there are several recipes for meat dishes in the book, the inclusion of which hasn’t been without controversy. She tells me, incredulously, that even now, many people won’t buy her book because of the meat recipes in it. “You have no idea how many of my own friends haven’t bought the book,” she says. “They ask me to do a vegetarian edition!” Regardless, twenty-one out of the hundred and six recipes in the book are for dishes that include meat. “Sure, some people won’t buy it,” she admits, “but I wanted this to be true to what we ate at home.” The book, in its way, carries the burden of being an accurate representation of the cooking of her grandmother and the community that she belonged to.
The book also represents a continuation of another tradition for Pidathala, one of women writers who found success by stepping outside the bounds of conventional publishing. Like Pidathala, her grandmother published her book herself, distributing it among friends and colleagues. The youngest of nine siblings, Nirmala G. Reddy learned how to cook only after she got married. The first thing she made was mysore pak, the intensely rich South Indian sweet made out of ghee and gram flour. Entirely self-taught, her abilities and acclaim steadily grew from there.
She points to a square of sunlight by a balcony door and tells me that that the little patch of brightness was where many of the photos for the book were shot.
Pidathala remembers the stacks of books that littered her home when she was young. “When I was growing up there were always piles and piles of the book around.” The last print run went to press when she was three years old. Over the years her grandmother had sold or gifted over fifteen thousand copies of the book. “And she did it all herself,” Pidathala says, beaming. “Which is why it was so important for me to do it myself, too.”
Though the telling of it is short, it’s easy to reconstruct the significant obstacles that Pidathala has had to overcome to produce the book and get it out into the world. Enlisting the help of an editor, a designer, and a photographer, she set about cooking and testing all the recipes in the original book, styling the food so that it could be photographed, and working with the designer to come up with a book that was beautiful and well laid out. She points to a square of sunlight by a balcony door and tells me that the little patch of brightness was where many of the photos for the book were shot.
Pidathala, who is a fast, gesticulating talker, has a winning persuasiveness that shows little wear from the number of times she has probably had to put it to use. Unlike a conventional cookbook writer, she doesn’t have the luxury of leaving logistical concerns about the book’s success to someone else. She performs the time-consuming and laborious work of stocking stores herself, often relying on the goodwill of friends traveling overseas to send books to stores in cities like New York and San Francisco, where buyers at independent institutions like Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks and Omnivore Books have been fans since shortly after the book first came out. And so it is that, piecemeal, buoyed by the response of early supporters, and an almost underground traffic of the handsome turmeric-colored tome, that acclaim has grown for the book and for Pidathala. She has been featured in the New York Times, on Milk Street Radio, and shortlisted for the 2017 Art of Eating Prize. In the process of becoming more familiar with a piece of her own family history, Pidathala has become an archivist and vocal proponent for a vibrant and overlooked niche of regional Indian cooking.
As she brings the various components of our meal to the table, though, she’s content to play the doting host. She looks faintly relieved to have orchestrated all the pieces of the meal harmoniously, but a shadow of worry plays at the corner of her smile. She grimaces comically and puts her index finger to the side of her mouth, in a classic Indian attitude of contemplation. “Now I’m worried that there isn’t enough food," she says, eyeing the generous feast laid out before us. “It’s always okay to have more,” she explains. “But it’s not okay to have less.”
Find the recipe for pulagamu from Five Morsels of Love over here.