By Neha Kirpal
Sudha Menon’s sixth and latest book Recipes for Life: Well-Known Personalities Reveal Stories, Memories and Age-old Family Recipes (Penguin eBury Press, 2021) is a collection of stories, recipes and anecdotes through which she hopes to preserve India’s culinary legacy and heritage.
With a foreword by Michelin-starred chef, author, filmmaker and humanitarian Vikas Khanna, the book has famous sportspersons, authors, designers, actors and entrepreneurs sharing various memories about food as well as some of their favourite recipes.
We caught up with Sudha about her favourite comfort food, learning about our culture and traditions through food, her cooking experiments during the pandemic, and more.
How did you decide to write your latest book Recipes for Life?
The idea germinated in my mind a few years ago when, as a family, we were trying to pull our mother out of the morass of grief she had descended into after our father, her companion of 50-plus years, passed away. Over days spent with her with one-sided conversations, I realised one day that amma would engage with me when I spoke about food and memories of her growing up.
I started to talk to amma about food every day and those conversations stretched into hours and filled up multiple notebooks of recipes. Amma’s mood improved, she discovered her joy and I was determined to make her recipes and memories into a book.
Later that year (2016), my mother-in-law, a passionate cook who pampered us with amazing food, passed away of dementia and with her went family recipes that had come down to her through the generations. None of us had bothered to write them down. This only increased my determination to write a book that documents family recipes because so few Indian families ever do that. Food is an integral part of our culture and to let that go away uncelebrated is a tragedy.
What process did you use to put the book together and how long did it take?
I did it the best possible way – talking to people and listening to their stories of growing up with food their mothers, grandmothers and family cooked for them with love. It took me over a year to put this together but the story had been in my head for years.
What were some of the interesting findings and recipes that you came across when collating the book?
Through the people in this book and their stories I learnt about different lands, different traditions and cultures and how we forge bonds of love through food. Mary Kom’s story of growing up in an underprivileged family in a tiny village in Manipur taught me about the food and culture of that region. I thought I was well-travelled and knew about food but through her recipes I learnt we all know so little about that part of our country. It was crazy to realise that I had not even heard about some of the herbs and ingredients they use in their food.
I learnt too how so many of the people in this book picked up values and life-enriching beliefs from their mothers by being around them in the kitchen. So many of them talked to me of learning about kindness, sharing, compassion and generosity from their mothers in the process.
Food is an intrinsic part of a place’s culture, geography and tradition. What is your personal connection with food?
Growing up in a matriarchal family with a trio of great aunts who chose to remain single, my summer vacations were full of stories that they narrated as they fried up lip-smacking delicacies in the ancient kitchen of our ancestral home in Kerala. Over bubbling pots of sambar, avial or the sizzle of freshly sliced plantains sliding into hot coconut oil, I learnt so many things from them, the most important being the value of agency and independent thought.
From my own mother who fed so many needy people through her life, dipping into her own dangerously low resources, I learnt the value of sharing, giving, compassion and inclusion.
I never thought I would become a woman who would enjoy being in the kitchen because I simply don’t have the patience for long hours of cooking. But when I became mother to a tiny soul who depended on me for sustenance, I miraculously started enjoying cooking for her.
My daughter, Nayantara, has probably eaten more cheese sandwiches and dal-palak-rice than any child ever but I cooked that with much love and she remembers it to this day.
The reward for me is that even though she is now a Le Cordon Bleu trained chef running her own patisserie, she still asks for my moong dal khichdi when she comes visiting.
What are some of your favourite memories of food?
My favourite memory of food will always be of rushing home from school, flinging my school bag on the sofa and rushing into the kitchen to polish away a plateful of rice with amma’s drumstick or pearl onion sambar. She knew I loved pappadums and so they would be ready too and I would crush a couple into the rice and devour the food. Even today, a hot meal made by amma will headline any favourite foods list for me.
Which is some of your favourite comfort food?
Amma makes delicious raw mango pulissery and erissery, which, along with rice, pickles, curd and pappadum is the best pick me up ever for all seasons and reasons. Even a simple mulakushyam of dal and ash gourd with a dash of coconut oil, mixed into rice and her mango pickle is the best meal for me. Almost like hugging her close and feeling her boundless love.
Many people got into cooking seriously during the pandemic. What were some of your food experiments during the lockdown?
I cooked up a Malayali meal almost every day, following amma’s recipes and finally getting down to discovering joy in cooking. I made idiyappam and stew, kootu curry, avial, appams and vegetable molee, idlis, dosas, sambar and graduated to experimenting with other regional cuisine. It was great fun while it lasted and eventually I just got tired of washing all the vessels!
You are also a model, motivational speaker, inclusion ambassador and a founder of two writing workshops. Tell us more about your role in these areas.
When I turned 50 over four years ago, I decided to make the rest of my life the most memorable journey. I promised myself I would do something new every year. Just before the pandemic, I made my first foray into modelling with a Facebook ThumbStopper series for Dove. The minute I faced the camera and the director said, “Action!”, I was hooked.
Over the last year and a half, I have done several big brand ads including Renault, Liberty Insurance, SBI Life, Haier, and so on. A secret dream has always been to be on television and that happened with a cameo in Nagesh Kukunoor’s popular Disney Hotstar series, City of Dreams 2.
I am very passionate about my speaking role because that is what gives me the platform to talk about the issues that I am very involved in – women and leadership, diversity and inclusion. Over the past 11 years, I have spoken on these topics at top corporate houses and prestigious management and educational institutions.
My writing workshops are a byproduct of my author journey: I started Get Writing to give wings to the writing dreams of aspiring writers and Writing with Women so that women from diverse backgrounds could find a safe space to share their experiences without fear of being judged or labelled. These two are among the most fulfilling things I have accomplished post my journalism career of 23 years.
‘What’s cooking’ next?
Right now, I am neck deep in promoting my new book and speaking assignments but some web series and ad projects are happening simultaneously.
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