As Women's History Month 2022 comes to an end, I wonder about the women mentors in my life. I've always looked up to the women in my life. They have shown so much resilience despite the oppression and misogyny that exists. Often their stories weren't widely shared in my family. My grandmother was one of those important figures in my life. Most of my depth about food comes from my paternal grandmother, who we unanimously called Granny. (One of my aunts came up with this name and so all of her grandkids called her Granny, not Dadima the traditional Hindi name for your paternal grandmother.)
Granny was born as the eldest child to poor farmers in a small Gujarati village in the Kathiawad region of Gujarat. Her parents named her Amruta, but the villagers called her Bachu, a small child. This is the name that stuck with her for a lifetime. She was illiterate in the formal sense, not by choice but by circumstance. Yet, she somehow managed to fluently speak Gujarati, Hindi, and Marathi and understood English.
Granny came to permanently live with us in the states when I was 4. She brought her delicious cooking with her. I loved her cooking, and she loved that I loved it. When my cousins revolted at the sight of oro and rotlo, I would ask my grandmother to make it. Oro is a fire-roasted eggplant cooked with ghee, spices, onion, tomato, and garlic. Rotlo is a flatbread made from bajara (pearl millet), which grows in abundance in drought-prone areas of Gujarat.
Granny had a ton of opinions on how to eat proper Kathiawadi food. Although I didn't know it at the time, her cooking and instructions on the appropriate way to eat Desi food have influenced how I cook. The irony is she never shared the recipes or techniques to cook the dishes. She would say, "How do you eat rotlo without lasan ni chutney?" - a paste made from red chili powder, garlic, salt, and jeera. "Rotlo always needs to be eaten with ghee." Her definition of "with ghee" meant dripping in ghee. The top layer of rotlo had to be crisp like chips, but the bottom should be bready and chewy.
Her opinions were so intense about food that I have memories of her critiquing food at all the weekend dinner parties we went to over the years. She would advise me to eat before I go to Auntie X's home, she's never learned how to cook, or Auntie Y won't make enough food. Why did she have so critical? Sometimes her comments came off as mean-spirited to me. These Aunties were often working two jobs to support their families, and the second one was managing the household without little help from their husbands.
Over time, I learned that her critical nature wasn't about the person cooking the food but the tough crowd she had to please at home. Our grandfather, her husband, Dada, was a restaurant owner. He expected the best and tastiest food from her. She was flexible and would try any cuisine as long as it was vegetarian; he was the opposite. He refused to eat non-Indian food. Curries had to taste exactly like what he knew. If not, they would go back to the kitchen or meet the floor.
Because Granny was so young (12- 14) when she left her family to move to Mumbai with her husband, she learned how to cook from her neighbors and cousins. At the time, Mumbai was
surrounded by various ingredients compared to her arid village that would run out of vegetables and water. I imagine it was probably hard t
o learn for a demanding family, especially in a new environment with many foreign ingredients.
Her language of love was cooking
for others. She would make extra food and pass it out in the neighborhood and amongst family and friends. One of the beneficiaries was my best friend's intercultural Persian and American family. They would always rave about the food, but I was unsure if they loved it, probably my shame about my food. Most of the food was village food daals, curries, and rotis that could not be found in any restaurant in the 90s. Granny said feeding people is the meaning of life. She would tell me to make sure you feed people- bo punya - it's a very virtuous deed.
These days I frequently cook, trying to recreate my Granny's dishes to fit my lifestyle. Without any written recipes from her, I'm experimenting and relying on my taste to make her dishes. In these moments of zen when I'm in the kitchen, I channel her spirit and her numerous sayings. All bringing me closer to her spirit and her love of food.