Author Sudha Menon’s new book ‘Recipes for Life’, features over 30 essays from well-known celebrities and personalities with food memories and meaningful recipes.

Sudha Menon, author of the book Recipes for LifeSudha Menon
Features Food Sunday, September 19, 2021 - 12:33

Within the first few pages of Sudha Menon’s new book, Recipes for Life, she describes finding a bottle in her kitchen with the words ‘aai’s khichdi masala’ written across the front. Aai refers to Sudha’s mother-in-law Usha Vadgaonkar, an exceptional cook in the family who would often create fresh, homemade spice mixes for her loved ones. But after Usha passed away in 2016, Sudha found that she was deeply hesitant to use the last bottle given to her by aai. Sudha even called her sister-in-law to find out whether she had the recipe for Usha’s family-famous khichdi masala and other creations she would often whip up in her kitchen. Sadly, no one had thought to take down the recipes. 

“We just presume they’re going to be there all the time. It didn’t even strike me that I could take down her recipes,” Sudha said. For her, it wasn’t just the recipe that was lost, but a piece of her mother-in-law’s beloved legacy. 

The loss of family recipes over generations is not limited to Sudha’s experience. Perhaps, you were bundled out of the kitchen for getting in the way or maybe a preference for eating over cooking meant you stayed away from culinary pursuits altogether. Recipes are often passed on orally from generation to generation, Sudha told TNM in an interview. “In our families in Indian homes, we almost never take down anything,” she said. “I realised that when we fail to take down recipes and document them, we lose a precious part of our culture,” she said.

That idea led to her latest book, published last month, and featuring over 30 essays from well-known celebrities and personalities across industries. Each shares food memories and stories from their families, as well as meaningful recipes. “I didn’t want any fancy food. I just wanted simple everyday food that we eat. I wanted to use that as a means of bringing out emotion,” said Sudha, an author and writing coach, who interviewed each subject and wrote down their memories in first-person narrative. The list includes actor Vidya Balan, Kerala MP Shashi Tharoor, historian Manu Pillai, sports commentator Harsha Bhogle, boxer Mary Kom and more. 

Actor Vidya Balan and her mother

But Sudha had another personal reason for pursuing the project. She recalls her mother, Pramila Radhakrishnan, who was known for her prowess in the kitchen and had learnt from her family matriarchs, such as her aunts in Malappuram and her mother-in-law who was from Palakkad in Kerala. But as the onset of dementia began to take hold of Pramila’s memory several years ago, Sudha found early on that the memory of food briefly returned her mother to happier times. It was then that Sudha decided to take down recipes from her mother to preserve her culinary knowledge, even as the dementia continued to erode her memories. 

Each story is expertly told, evoking a swirl of memories with food and cooking at its centre. For designer Anavila Misra, she recalls visiting her paternal grandmother’s house, where she would make a delectable sarson ka saag, her mother’s signature paneer pakode and her maternal grandmother’s sooji ka halwa. 

For cricketer Irfan Pathan, memories of childhood took him back to mornings where hot rotis, with the sheen of oil, were dunked into cups of chai before school. His family’s financial situation meant that “having three meals a day was a big deal for us back then, and so this humble breakfast was much anticipated.”

Though each story was unique, in hearing and recounting these narratives, Sudha began to notice a common thread weaving through these memories. “I think the one thing that kept coming up was the mother was not just feeding the child,” Sudha said. “She was also teaching them life lessons... Mothers knowingly or unknowingly have conveyed so many values to children.” 

The book is ultimately a reflection of that understanding. “What has finally come through is not just about a mother’s recipes. It is so much more.”

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