Mithali Raj recently became the first women cricketer to be given the Major Dhyan Chand Khel Ratna award. This is an excerpt from Recipes for Life by Pune-based writer Sudha Menon. The book is part memoir and part celebration of food and mothers.
I was in New Zealand for the Women’s World Cup in 2002, when I was diagnosed with typhoid and hospitalized. I was just nineteen years old then. I still remember how traumatic it was to be in isolation in an alien country, without my family around. I was lonely and lost, because even my coach and manager were not around and it was terrifying.
I remember waves of homesickness would overcome me, especially at night, and I would weep, thinking about my family and how good it would be to just go home. One night I went to bed miserable and dreamt I was at home and that Mummy was making my favourite fish fry. The dream was so real that I could actually smell the fish frying and feel it in my mouth but like all good things, this too ended. I woke up and discovered that I was still in the hospital and the fish fry meal was just a dream!
I was never too fond of food. Since I was a child, my attitude was you eat to stay healthy and it is a task that you have to do every day. But over the last two decades, as I travelled across the world playing cricket tournaments and spending long periods of time away, I discovered that the familiar food you eat at home is all about comfort and the love with which it is made. While on my travels to other countries, I often find myself craving the spicy food that I eat at home, but it is not easily available there.
The first thing I do when the team packs up is call Mummy and tell her to have my fish fry or mutton curry ready by the time I reach home! The amazing thing is that Mummy is a vegetarian who has never eaten meat but makes the tastiest non-vegetarian dishes. In fact, she learnt how to cook non-vegetarian food when I started playing cricket as a little girl and the coach told her I needed to eat fish and chicken for protein to build my stamina.
Gradually, my brother and father too started enjoying non-vegetarian dishes, but my brother recently turned vegetarian again. The joke in the family is that now my father has to wait for me to return to get a non-vegetarian meal; Mummy simply won’t cook it for him alone.
Among my top favourites from her vast list of dishes is a fiery red chilli and coconut chutney that she makes to accompany dosa and idli. I have tried the same chutney in a number of south Indian tiffin places but nothing compares to the taste of what Mummy makes. My friends and teammates love it and request her to prepare it when they visit. In fact, some of them who live in Delhi and Lucknow have taken the recipe from Mummy. Mummy herself learnt the recipe from my paternal grandmother.
Before she got married, Mummy belonged to a family where the women did not spend too much time in the kitchen but focused on their education and other interests. Later, she
became a part of my father’s Mudaliar joint family where everybody contributed in the kitchen, and so, she never really learnt how to cook. It was only when my parents moved out to set up our home that she learnt how to cook. It was difficult for her, especially the part where she had to cook non-vegetarian food for me. Being a vegetarian, she couldn’t even taste the food herself. But she mastered it, and soon became adept at making three to four variants of each vegetarian and non-vegetarian dish so that her kids didn’t get bored of the food.
When it comes to great food, there are two festivals I particularly look forward to—Ganesh Chaturthi and Krishna Janmashtami—because Mummy makes sweets that I really enjoy, even though she reduces the amount of sugar so that my diet does not go off track. In fact, I argue with her about this, saying a sweet dish is not a sweet dish if there is no sugar
in it. Mummy’s puran poli is something I can overdose on anytime. These are not the kind of polis available in Maharashtra and Gujarat, but much thicker and are stuffed with a preparation of jaggery. Mummy always packs her puran polis for me when I have to travel by train for tournaments. I eat the polis for dinner while I am away, missing home and her food. In fact, I consider her puran polis my lucky charm and never leave home without a stash of it in my bag. I also adore the sweet puris she makes for us—she fries the puris and sprinkles powdered sugar on them as soon as they are out of the kadhai. Heavenly!
For Krishna Janmashtami, she makes five to six dishes, some sweet and some savoury, and after the pooja is done in the evening, we get to enjoy all of them. My favourite is her
When it comes to everyday food, my favourite is her dal palak, tasty and nutritious. I like that the palak is not mashed and pasty like it is in restaurants. I like her preparation of palak paneer because I like some crunch in my food. My idea of a great meal is a portion of rice, dal palak and ghee on top.
I now look forward to the familiarity of Mummy’s food. When we toured the West Indies last year, I found the food very bland, even when we ordered from an Indian restaurant. I would get really depressed seeing the food; this is normal because we are away from home for long periods of time and miss the familiar taste of home-cooked meals. On the way back home, I called Mummy from the UK, where we had a stopover, and requested her to prepare something which would be soothing to the eyes as well as to the taste buds. She understood exactly what I meant and when I walked into my house, I was welcomed by the aromas of my favourite fish fry and mutton curry.
Thank God for mothers and the food they cook for us.
1 kg fish (murrel) cut into approximately 16 pieces
3 tsp chilli powder
3 tsp ginger-garlic paste
1 1⁄2 tsp turmeric powder
Salt to taste
Oil for frying the fish, as required
Ingredients for marinade (ground into a paste)
2 small tomatoes, sliced
1 small onion, sliced
1 bunch coriander leaves
Few sprigs of curry leaves
1 tsp coriander seeds
2 green chillies
2 tsp tamarind pulp/white vinegar
Thoroughly wash the fish pieces in salt and turmeric water.
Grind the ingredients for the marinade into a fine paste.
To this paste, add chilli powder, ginger-garlic paste, salt and turmeric powder.
Mix well and marinate the fish in it, making sure the fish pieces are thoroughly coated with the marinade. Set aside for an hour.
Now fry the slices in batches of 2–3 pieces in a pan, adding oil as required.
200 gm fresh coconut pieces
9 red chillies
9 cloves of garlic
3 tsp of oil of your choice to pour over the chutney
Salt to taste
Grind all the ingredients to a coarse paste in a mixer. Take it out in a small bowl and pour the oil. Mix well before serving.
Sea Crab Curry
6 crabs, chopped in halves and legs separated
1-inch piece ginger
6–8 cloves of garlic
Half a lemon
Coriander leaves for garnishing
50–60 ml oil of choice for sauteing the masala
Milk of one coconut, extracted
Ingredients to be roasted and ground to a paste
1 small onion
12 green chillies
2 tsp coriander seeds
2 tsp cumin seeds
Salt to taste
Wash the crab pieces and legs in salt water and keep them aside.
Heat the oil in a pan, add the onion slices and fry for a couple of minutes.
Add the paste of the ginger and garlic and sauté for 3 minutes till it turns brown.
Now add the crab pieces and legs and sauté for a couple of minutes.
Add the prepared masala paste along with salt as per taste and a cup of water.
Let it simmer for 8–10 minutes.
Add the coconut milk and cook on a low flame for a few more minutes.
Turn off the flame when the curry turns aromatic.
Squeeze the juice of half a lemon and garnish with coriander leaves.
Recipes For Life: By Sudha Menon, Penguin Random House India, 256 pages, Rs399.
Excerpted from Recipes For Life, with permission from Penguin Random House India.