Author and biographer Sudha Menon is known for her books which explore the ambitions, achievements and accomplishments of people from various walks of life through stories narrated by them. Some of her well-known books are Feisty at Fifty; Legacy: Letters to their daughters from eminent Indian men and women; Gifted: inspirational stories of people with disabilities; and Devi, Diva or She-Devil: The Smart Career Woman's Survival Guide; and Leading Ladies: Women Who Inspire India. She is also a model, actor, speaker, writing coach, and founder of ‘Get Writing’ and ‘Writing with Women’.
Her book, ‘Recipes for Life’ (published by Penguin), is a collection of food-related stories and memories of well-known personalities and age-old recipes of comfort food which were part of their growing up. Here she talks about how the idea of the book took shape and her experience of putting it together.
The idea of collecting recipes emerged while she was in London, trying to cheer up her mother who had turned despondent following the death of her husband. She had almost given up hope, when she found her mother responding to discussions about food her mother used to eat in her childhood.
How did the idea of writing the book ‘Recipes for Life’ emerge?
Suddenly the spark was back in her [mother's] eyes as she told me about the sumptuous meals her trio of aunts cooked up every day, using fresh, seasonal produce from their farm. Out came stories of plucking drumsticks from the tree to make sambar and plantains to make a quick ‘thoran’ when unexpected guests dropped in.
"I want to laugh when I see the ads these days for expensive moringa tablets for wellness", she giggled one day. "We grew up eating moringa in sambars and thorans almost three to four times a week from the moringa tree in the kitchen backyard!"
And before I knew it, we were chatting about food every afternoon and my pen raced across the pages of my notebooks that filled up with her recipes. Slowly but surely amma's mood improved till, one day, she told me she was well enough to cook a ‘sadhya’ for us. The amma of old was back in our midst and I had a book idea that I knew would be very precious.
Around the same time, my mother-in-law, who was suffering from dementia, passed away. A homemaker, she had cooked fabulous CKP (chandraseniya kayastha prabhu) food for her family for over 50 years. With her death, the recipes that had come down to her from her own mother and mother-in-law, were lost. The summer after she went away, when I yearned for her khichdi masala, pickles and garam masala, I realized that no one in the family had written down her recipes because we simply assumed she would always be around.
I realised then that most Indian families don't document their recipes. We end up losing huge parts of our culinary history and traditions due to the practice of only orally passing recipes down the generations from mothers and mothers-in-law to daughters, sons, sisters, daughters-in-law.
How long did it take you to put the entire content together?
The book had been in my head for four years or more but the bulk of the work got done in the last two years. The writing happened when the entire country went into lockdown during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
How did you go about choosing the people and the recipes? Was it difficult to pack in the wide range of Indian cuisine?
I instinctively went for the people who I knew would have interesting background stories and narratives. My instinct proved right regarding all 30 of the people I have written about. I did want to make the book as diverse as possible and as it turned out, the 30 people also happened to belong to different regions of the country. So I got great diversity in the recipes and the stories themselves.
Did you have to travel far and wide to collect the recipes?
I had completed some of my interviews for the book when the pandemic and lockdown happened. I panicked initially. But eventually realised that I could simply pick up the phone and talk to the people, since travel was ruled out. The silver lining here was that the people I wanted to interview were all stuck at home too and so, I got to really spend time talking to them about their childhood, the food that their mother cooked for them and their favourite dishes from their mother's repertoire. And because the topic was about mothers, most of the people in the book, some of the country's most accomplished, people, spent a lot of time talking to me.
Which recipe(s) did you find spectacular or attention grabbing in any way?
I was not seeking fancy recipes for this book. I was looking for simple, everyday food our mothers cook for us, food that have stories, memories and nostalgia attached to them.
And I got that in plenty: Mary Kom talking about her mother's Kopi Boot, Tan and Ooti; author Amish Tripathi talking about his mother's warm and gooey rice khichdi, with ghee, dahi, papad and a sprinkling of Buknu masala; actor Vidya Balan drooling over her mother's scrumptious Adai and podi; and top banker Uday Kotak reminiscing about his mother's Kathiawadi Mitho Bhaat and Adad Ni Dal; each one was a comfort food that we all try out at home.
For me food is all about something nice and comforting that we can cook up with whatever ingredients we can find at home. Made mindfully and with love, even the simplest meal can sparkle.
How did people react when they heard you were researching about Indian cuisine?
Writing this book was an eye-opener in many ways. To begin with, most people who I spoke to about writing this book wondered why I was risking my track record of having authored five fairly successful books by writing a "cookbook".
A very, very high-profile business leader who I approached so that she could connect me with another prominent business leader politely excused herself, saying that this topic was something she could not approach the gentleman for. And right there is the biggest problem facing every woman: cooking and feeding is perceived as an activity of no value, even by women themselves. What chance do we stand of bringing about change if women leaders who otherwise talk about the value women bring to the table, don't value the food that homemakers put on the table every day, for almost their entire life?
I did manage to connect with the male business leader who spoke with respect and awe about his mother who fed him such delicious, simple meals, which he still yearns for.
Any incident that you found particularly moving?
Cricketing icon Irfan Pathan won my heart with his humility when I interviewed him for the book. What were your favourite, most memorable meals growing up, I asked him. I could almost hear the pause across the telephone line before he said quietly, "We never had the luxury of two square meals a day because we never had the money for it. Most days, our main meal was a simple dinner of khichdi and potato subzi because it was nutritious and cheap. That meal became special if ammi had the money to buy dhania with which she made tasty dhania chutney. I always admired his brilliance with cricket but now I admire him for his grace and humility.
The book also has recipes shared by the interviewees.