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The fragrance of fresh spices being ground in the kitchen each morning served as our alarm clock. We surfaced each morning to the slow, rhythmic sound of the ammi or the grinding stone that mum always used to bring out the flavours of all her masalas. She used the ammi as opposed to the mixer since the slow grinding of chutneys and masalas on the stone brought out theflavours, oils and spice combining them and giving a beautiful soft texture simply not attainable by a machine. Sometimes, I wake up and lie listening to the silence – a void that was left by her passing. The ammi misses her too.
Eating at her well-laden and strategically placed table was like opening your heart to her. It was her way of watching you lovingly as you ate, letting you talk, coaxing you to try some of her baked crab shells. You got up feeling light at heart but full of love, like your woes were replaced by a meal of hope.
Even when the tragic loss of my brother and her last born gripped her in an unspoken gloom, it was her deep bond with cooking that brought back the light. When I casually mentioned that I’d like to record her timeless recipes in a book so all of us have access to the recipes of her heart, her large beautiful eyes lit up in years. She got busy penning these delightful culinary treasures from the different regions she’d lived in. Her last few years were spent in lovingly gathering and writing these, often taking us back in time sometimes amongst the beautiful garden of her home in Chennai – sometimes by the bluest seaside bagging the best catch with the fishermen, or narrating from her family cooks tales at the many homes she’d been in, picking up the art of soulful cooking.
Her entire repertoire of recipes spans South India, Ipoh, Penang, Singapore, Indonesia and Europe. This book contains some, which have been carefully selected by us – her family. These are mostly simple, home-styled and easy to cook, yet alive with the aromas, flavours and textures that she collected during her extraordinary journey through life.
We use these almost always as a bonding and reliving of the beautiful and wholesome memories and have come to believe how deeply food affects us. In sharing them we hope you enjoy the warmth and joy that emanates from a perfectly glazed juicy roast chicken or a flavourful fish sambal that your family and friends have gathered over.
“A recipe has no soul. You, as the cook, must bring soul to the recipe.” – Thomas Keller
This is my mother’s story. Food holds a history for everyone. For my mum, it began in the melting pot of cultures and cuisines - colonial Singapore. She was born and raised here in a mix of Indian, Malaysian, Chinese, Indonesian and Europian cultures and cooking. Eldest of the seven siblings, she had the privileged place in the kitchen and her time after school was often spent alongside the family cook who had a flair for marrying traditional Tamilian delicacies with Singaporean and other Southeast Asian flavours. It was here that ma experienced her first flames with food and soon learned the little secrets that lay embedded in fresh ingredients and exotic herbs.
Fueled with her new passion, she soon found herself putting together a potpourri of simple and ingenious dishes for the family, displaying an inborn talent that even the cook came to rely on. Boarding school in Bangalore didn’t stop her from continuing her chemistry with cooking, and her holidays at her ancestral village in South India were spent experimenting and learning the spicy flavours of the South.
The saga of expressing love through cooking continued through her life, and we, her family, were fortunate to experience that love waft into our lives each day. I am the fourth of the five siblings (four sisters and a brother) who took complete advantage of our mother’s affection.
Then came her connection with continental cuisine and French delicacy that became part of her life. She had our father, who, at the time, was completing his Masters in Engineering at the Imperial College in London, and the infamous English weather, to thank for that. She enrolled herself at the famous Cordon Bleu Cooking School to add a feather in her cap. The French soups and freshly baked bread brought warmth to the cold English days, and it was here that mum’s love affair with traditional French cuisine, and its techniques, began.
Mum and dad brought up not just us, but everything around them, with love. One of these was a charming farm in Madurai. Each morning, dad would be stationed at the portico of the farmhouse, on his favourite chair reading the newspaper and sipping a steaming cup of filter coffee. Mum, seated next to him, would be deftly chopping, dicing and slicing the vegetables she planned to use for the day. Their conversations ranged from tending to my mother’s precious jasmines and tuberoses to discussions on the political state of the country and more. I would often stand by the doorway and watch them interact with love and mutual respect.
Over time, we left the nest one by one, and her entrepreneurial side emerged. She started a catering business, which naturally flourished. With the birth of her grandchildren, Anush, Sanjit and her favourite, Avantika, all her attention, warmth and love was showered on them. It was now their turn to sample her culinary magic and build a wish list of their own.
From her extensive library of recipes, she made everything – from baked crabs to biryani. It was easy to understand why our brother’s friends dubbed her the ‘best mum’; and why our home was an open house, where the aromas of whatever was being crafted in her kitchen first greeted visitors.
Local markets were always one of her guilty pleasures. Accompanying her to one was like taking a child to a candy store. Her eyes would twinkle at the very sight of fresh produce, varieties of meat and other local offerings.
My mother passed away in 2010 and we inherited a memoir of devotion and love, bound by each priceless recipe. Watching her cook over the years, we came to realise that her relationship with food was all about unique experiences, magical moments and immeasurable grams of love.
This excerpt is from Ammi – An Expression of Love by Prasanna Pandarinathan
Ammi is a cookbook memoir that is an ode to my late mother. She loved cooking and experimenting. ‘Ammi’ is the short form for ‘ammi kallu’ in Tamil – a traditional, South Indian stone used for grinding coconut and fresh spices. Early morning rituals in my mother’s kitchen were always accompanied by the slow, rhythmic sound of the ammi – this vivid memory is how the book got its title. Ever the traditionalist, my mother eschewed the more convenient mixer- grinder, always preferring to use the ammi, since the slow grinding of chutneys and masalas on the stone beautifully brought out the flavours, oils and spice, combining them and bringing out an enhanced, earthy flavour and silky texture, simply not attainable by a machine. My mother always had a deep love for cooking, but
it actually dived down when my brother passed away and she was shattered. I needed her to get out of it and therefore suggested something she was always fiercely passionate about. I pushed her to start writing down the recipes, which she anyway used to, but stopped when this tragedy happened. She slowly started getting back to writing, on my request.
That’s also when the idea of Ammi was born, and I made a promise to her. I started working on the book over five years ago, as I knew it would take time to sift through the 400 recipes my mother left behind and thoughtfully select the ones that would best convey the story of my mother and our family, through her cooking. I had 108 recipes in mind for the final book. During this process, I started studying food photography in New York City. Here, I started taking photos and writing down memories and anecdotes, as well as testing and retesting the recipes. The mix of recipes are a lot of my favourites, my dad’s favourites and some from the rest of my family as well, which have been curated and put together. They include recipes which were cooked during special times in our family’s lives, and also some everyday, comfort food. It’s been a fulfilling, educative, challenging and rewarding experience, and I hope you enjoy this book as much as I’ve enjoyed putting it together!
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