How Meenakshi Ammal made vegetarian cooking accessible to generations of homecooks

‘Samaithu Par’ was published almost seven decades ago and is considered an important guide to traditional Tamil Brahmin cooking.
How Meenakshi Ammal made vegetarian cooking accessible to generations of homecooks
How Meenakshi Ammal made vegetarian cooking accessible to generations of homecooks

Every few pages of S Meenakshi Ammal’s cookbook ‘Samaithu Par’ holds a note from the author. Some dwell on preservation, such as removing the seeds from water lime pickle to increase its shelf life. Others, taste: “Use pure ghee only,” the note under the recipe for Mysore Pak reads. It’s a few extra lines of teaching that vary with each recipe, yet it’s also the kind of afterthought so often gleaned when learning how to cook from elders. It’s something experience has taught her, and, more importantly, it’s something she’d like to share with you.

Though ‘Samaithu Par’ was published almost seven decades ago, the book is considered an important guide to preparing traditional recipes of the Tamil Brahmin community. Meenakshi Ammal faced personal and professional hardships in her journey to write three books under the ‘Samaithu Par’ umbrella, one that her granddaughter-in-law, Priya Ramkumar, continues today.

But back in 1951, when Meenakshi Ammal compiled the 350-recipe book with dozens of sambar and rasam varieties, pickles, payasam, uppumas and rotis, there was no friendly note to tell her that her book of vegetarian recipes would stand the test of time.

Meenakshi Ammal’s journey

Even as a child, Meenakshi Ammal had a knack for cooking. She was born into an orthodox family near Madurai, and was about 19 years old when she got married. But just a few years later, her husband died suddenly. Around 21 years old then, she was left to care for her two-year-old son, her seven-year-old brother-in-law, and her mother-in-law.

Despite the responsibilities heaped upon Meenakshi Ammal at a young age, her growing cooking prowess was apparent. Relatives would often seek her out for culinary tips, and she was constantly writing down recipes to send near and far. “She never used to let any guest go without feeding them,” her granddaughter-in-law, Priya Ramkumar tells TNM.

It was only after the boys had grown up and had left for college that Meenakshi considered writing a cookbook, an idea that was encouraged by her uncle, KV Krishnaswami Iyer, a prominent Chennai figure.

Regional Tamil-language cookbooks were largely unheard-of in Meenakshi Ammal’s time, Priya says. Recipes weren’t written, but rather passed down through generations of women in an oral tradition, from grandmothers and mothers to daughters and daughters-in-law.

According to Priya, Meenakshi faced skepticism from those around her – Why would she write a book of recipes that were familiar to so many South Indian families? But she forged ahead and wrote the Tamil version of Samaithu Par, which was self-published in September 1951.

‘Cook & See’

Meenakshi Ammal died a little more than a decade after Samaithu Par’s release, but not before writing two more books under the same title. English editions of the books were published in 1968, with the title translated to ‘Cook & See.’ The books have since been translated into Hindi, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam.   

“Many of these recipes are original. I don’t want them to be lost,” says Priya, who entered the family publishing business in the early 90s and eventually added two more titles to the series.

At just under 300 pages, ‘Cook & See’ Part 1 is a no-nonsense text, with a no-nonsense premise: “Traditional South Indian Vegetarian recipes.” The book begins with a shopping guide for visitors, offering Tamil translations to those “with no knowledge of Tamil.” Then, under two sections titled ‘Main Cookery’ and ‘Tiffin,’ she delves into everything from pachadies, poriyals and thuvaiyals to pongals, idlis, dosas, and more.

According to Priya, the book became a must-have for students and brides travelling away from home for the first time, when “you can’t just call up your mom or mother-in-law.”

The legacy continues

Priya Ramkumar never got a chance to meet the woman whose legacy she would continue. In some respects, Priya’s connection to Meenakshi Ammal is the same as legions of homecooks who have parsed through pages of her careful instruction for years. She still refers to the books for some of her favourite recipes, such as paruppu urundai kuzhumbu and arasi uppumas, and even ones for special occasions and festivals, such as adhirasam.

“It’s so lucidly written,” she says, “Other than she being a very good cook, she was a very methodical person.”

Priya now runs a blog, as well as a Facebook page, Twitter account and Instagram, all in hopes of preserving her grandmother-in-law’s recipes. The original cookbook remains an important historical text, but instructional cooking has largely moved to the internet after an explosion of YouTube cooking videos, says food historian and columnist Vikram Doctor.

“I think these videos are the real heirs of Meenakshi Ammal,” Vikram says, in an email. “The people doing them are doing what she did – documenting their cooking knowledge and explaining it for others who want to make them the same way. It is literally Cook and See, just in a slightly different medium.”

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