From Sambaar to Sadya

The first time i cooked, I was in class 8. It was the summer vacation and I had gone to be with my mom in Goa [Aside: My mom worked in Goa for a few years. My brother and I lived in Chennai with my dad and went to Goa during our vacations. They tried very hard to get my mom transferred to Chennai since my dad’s wasn’t a transferable job. But it was in vain, and she had to quit and come back. But that’s a whole other post, maybe even a two-part]. My aunts, my mom’s two sisters, had also come over for a couple of weeks. It was they who decided that it was time I started cooking. And so they taught me to make rice and sambar.

I don’t remember loving it. It was just something that my aunts taught me how to do, like say, sewing a button, or tying shoelaces. And it was not like i cooked on a daily basis after that. There were times where I would cook a dish or two (read rice and dal)…or make (really clumpy) dosas. Once I remember making a mix-veg gawd-awfulness for my brother and his friend who had come over for combined studies, and unwittingly stayed for lunch. I remember making interesting dishes for S.U.P.W* class! Rasgullas, vegetable balls in chilly garlic sauce, and god knows what else. But all those times, I don’t recall any strong emotional connection with the food except that of hunger.

I think I really attempted cooking on my own during my PG. And I was horrible…by which I mean terrible, terrible! And all my friends were wonderful cooks, whipping up delicious meals quickly and effortlessly. I felt like an absolute idiot, and for a time was so conscious of my terrible-ness (terribility?) that i totally refused to cook anything beyond Maggi.

Then, somewhere i got over it. By the time I moved back to Hyd. to work, I was looking forward to having a kitchen of my own to experiment in. And that really is when i started turning out decent, edible dishes. I enjoyed playing with flavors. It helped that I had a willing guinea pig in the form of my flat mate. To my parents’ great amusement, I would call home every once in a while to get my mom’s recipe for Chole or dad’s recipe for fish curry. It was also around this time that I started dreaming of cooking a sadya.

But here is the problem: I hate following recipes (which is just a nice way of saying that i’m too lazy and undisciplined to follow one). Except when I’m baking, i usually never bother actually looking at quantities for the ingredients. Most times, I’ll just skip straight to the method section and figure the ingredients along the way. I’d like to attribute this aversion to one thing I met continuously when i was learning to cook: the damn “salt to taste.” The way I figure, you’re anyway giving me your recommendation for all other spices, so why can’t you for the salt? (And the “preheat oven to 180” is what kept me away from baking for the longest time.)

This random, look-only-at-the-Method-section approach worked fine for most things. But a sadya comprises traditional dishes, which need to taste a certain way. You know what that means: I’d have to follow a recipe. As you can imagine, the thing kept getting “put off till next year,” if you know what i mean. Until, that is, this year. Starting this year, we decided we’re going to celebrate all the festivals at home, because, you know, we wanted Maatu to grow up with memories of these festivals, just like we did. And guess what is a major Malayali festival? And guess what is a big part of this Malayali festival?** Yes, the time had come for me to face the sadya.

The first step was to decide on the menu. Even i knew a 24-dish sadya would be madness (and/or suicide, considering this was my first attempt at a sadya). But still, i decided on an ambitious menu hoping i would at least land on a tree***: parippu, sambar, olan, cabbage thoran, avial, pulinji, maanga curry + rice and curd, and paal paayasam. Of these, i’d only ever made sambar and olan before (not counting parippu, curd and rice, because i would be frauding by counting them).

I started looking up recipes…and let me just tell you, it is scary, like terrifying, how many ways there are for making each of these dishes. How in the hell was I supposed to pick one?! I would read them, and try to imagine the taste, and try to compare that imaginary taste with the memory of the taste of the same dish when made by my mom/my mil. Why didn’t I just ask them, you ask? Because i wanted to do it all on my own (and also because i’m an idiot, but the former reason sounds more grand). When it came to pulinji, i gave up the search and finally asked my mom. I was still reading through recipes on the night before Vishu! But since the ingredients were roughly the same, i had the forethought to cut the vegetables in advance.

Vishu morning, I wake up at 5:30, and after the whole Vishukkani thing, plod into the kitchen. I must have coffee if i don’t want to burn, cut, and scald myself, i decide. While the milk is boiling for the coffee, i figured i’ll just prep – you know, take stock of my surroundings, etc. There’s the turmeric, i’ll need that; the chilli powder, there’s enough, jeera, dhania, am not likely to need but we’ll see, sambar powder, almost finished, salt, i’ll definitely need that “to taste” and yes, suga…wait, what?! sambar powder, nearly over?! Where am i going to go for that now?! its 6:00 am!!! *panic panic* Google search “instant sambar powder” *panic panic while the results load* Edible garden – yeah her recipes are usually simple. Fresh sambar powder recipe. Yes, this sounds do-able. Wait a minute, what’s this – Vishu Sadya Recipes. Oooo. Ummmmm.

Suffice to say, lunch was ready by 9.00 am, and paayasam was ready by 10. Everything tasted good (if i may say so myself). We had loads of leftovers which finally got done only by the weekend. But really, how very satisfying. I had confronted the sadya, and now we were friends. I can finally say that i cook good.

Hope everyone else had a happy happy Vishu too.


PS: A very, very special thanks to Nags. I followed your avial (with really minor variations), cabbage thoran and maanga curry recipes. And of course, the instant sambar powder.
And also to S, for cutting vegetables with me at 11:30 pm the night before, and for motivating me like no-one else could have.

*Socially Useful Productive Work. What? You never had it at your school?
**The answers are Vishu, and Sadya, btw.
***Aim for the sky and you will at least get to the top of the tree.


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