SINGAPORE: A warm smile and a firm handshake welcomes us into Vasunthara’s bright home. Then a quick lesson on Indian flavours: North Indian cuisine tends to have influences from Afghanistan, courtesy of the invaders. South Indian foods – pungent, sour, spicy. Now would we like to see her kitchen?
It’s a brisk, neat, well-used space that reflects its owner. High-end appliances sit on the counter: A Le Creuset cast-iron pan, a KitchenAid stand mixer. Often used, carefully kept. On shelves just outside sit scores of beloved cookbooks traversing India to Italy, cakes to curry.
Like docile students, we drink in the 36-year-old tuition teacher and food blogger’s nuggets of wisdom as she begins cooking prep. Always use your hands to choose seafood, she instructs. Turmeric has antiseptic properties.
It comes as a surprise to learn that Vasun only started cooking Indian dishes in earnest about two years ago. She had been afraid initially of the recipes.
If you don’t grow up in a household that cooks Indian food every day, and it’s an intuitive process for you, it is very intimidating,
she said. “Every region is different. There are so many spices.”
“When you go to Mustafa, there are two or three names for one spice. Sometimes they’re mislabelled as well… So I had to force myself to learn.”
But when she falls into the practised movements of cooking her grandma’s prawn ridge gourd curry, Vasunthara makes it look like an easy, rhythmic dance to the accompanying sizzle of spices in the pan.
“The smell of spices hitting oil is home to me,” she said. “When I’m cooking, it brings me right back to when I was five in my grandma’s kitchen.”
Watch: How she makes it (3:15)
THE TASTE OF CHILDHOOD
Though Vasun’s childhood memories are laced with the vivid flavours of her 81-year-old grandma Kamalachi’s cooking, she admitted they “weren’t really that close”. She said,
My grandma’s not much of a communicator. She feeds. That’s her way of communicating with someone and showing love, I should think.
Born ethnically Chinese but adopted into an Indian family as a child, Kamalachi loved cooking – and her skill in making South Indian dishes was honed by her husband, a picky eater who wanted to taste his childhood flavours from his native Thanjavur.
A recipe like prawn ridge gourd curry – which requires you to make your own masala paste from scratch – was considered humble fare, one dish to be served among others in an everyday home-cooked meal.
Yet Vasun conceded some of her grandma’s recipes are “not completely South Indian”, for the curious and innovative Kamalachi liked experimenting with flavours from other cuisines.
Though illiterate, Kamalachi was resourceful in her learning, picking up recipes and cooking techniques from television shows and the other ladies at the market.
So alongside her grandma’s Indian recipes, Vasun also still clearly remembers dishes like her Chinese kicap chicken (soy sauce chicken) and “really good” Malay nasi lemak. “A lot of times, she adapted dishes… She liked tasting different foods. And she’s creative enough to try it out and create her own recipes for it.
“I look up to that actually, that kind of personality.”
LEARNING TO COOK INDIAN FOOD “OUT OF DESPERATION”
But as a child, Vasun never cooked with “head chef” Kamalachi, who didn’t like people “messing stuff when she was cooking”.
She only began cooking seriously just seven years ago, after she got married and had a kitchen to call her own. Even then, she started out with Western dishes, for Indian recipes were too complex and daunting for a “noob cook”.
Her first attempt to learn recipes from her grandma came much later in 2015 – just before she left for Auckland, New Zealand for a year with her husband, who was posted there for work. But it didn’t go well.
“She’s not good at verbalising what she’s doing… She doesn’t talk much when she’s cooking. Maybe she didn’t have the patience, but I think she forgot quite a bit as well,” said Vasun.
“I don’t think I learnt much from her except for what she cooked for me. Then she left me with that flavour, that memory.”
It was only when she was overseas that Vasun truly buckled down to learn Indian cooking – out of sheer desperation, as there were no good South Indian restaurants to be found in Auckland.
“I used to crave South Indian food. It was not enough to have Indian food - I wanted South Indian flavours,” she said.
I was tormented by not having eaten… I used to wake up my hubby in the middle of the night because of hunger pangs. And because I missed it so much, I tried to recreate it.
Without anyone to turn to, Vasun took an almost academic approach to decoding Indian recipes.
Starting out with the dishes she loved, she searched out chefs who were authorities in cooking those specific foods. Using their recipes, she would proceed to cook – Googling any ingredients or steps she didn’t know along the way.
Then, she would begin the painstaking process of tweaking the recipes to match the flavours of the childhood dishes she remembered so well – relying on her strong taste memory.
Watch: Ditch the spice pre-mixes, and shop fresh (3:09)
“I remember my first pizza and prawn mee, and things like that,” she said. “But for some reason, when I was living overseas, the memories of (my grandma’s) food came back much stronger than any other food.”
With time on her hands and no pressure to cook perfectly, Indian cooking became far less intimidating.
“There’s no hurry. There’s no one to feed. I mean it’s just me cooking. And so that’s how I discovered how to cook out Indian spices and masalas.”
THE VALUE OF HOME-COOKED FOOD
But even after she returned to Singapore, Vasun was still dissatisfied with Indian dishes sold in many restaurants.
Because she had begun to appreciate the nuances and techniques in Indian cooking, she noticed that many Indian restaurants had a similar taste to their dishes – because of premixes. She said:
Traditionally, there’s no such thing as premixes. My grandmother used to dry (her) spices… Then they brought it to the mill nearby to grind it. Every family probably had their own spice mix.
Because of each Indian family’s unique spice mix, the same dish could taste very different across families. Vasun thinks this diversity and uniqueness in flavours is lost in many commercial – and even home – kitchens, because premixes are now so commonly used for convenience.
“When I explain to people that I make things from scratch, they’re always like, ‘Where’d you get the time?’ It’s so much work, you see,” she said. “I completely understand that… It’s just that I’m very greedy. I can’t settle for less.”
“But I don’t think everybody is able to do it especially if you have kids tugging at your clothes. Indian food is very demanding. Even among people around my age, I tend to be one of the few people who cooks at home on a regular basis.”
Because restaurants tend to cater to a general palate, Vasun says also it’s difficult to find humble, everyday fare like her grandma’s prawn ridge gourd curry outside.
And as the younger generation of Indians cook less, her concern is that Indian dishes here will become increasingly homogenised, and these simple but “real, hearty” family recipes will be lost.
KEEPING GRANDMA’S RECIPES ALIVE
It’s an issue close to her heart, especially because she can no longer learn recipes from her grandma now even if she wanted to – as Kamalachi currently has late-stage Alzheimer’s disease. She hasn’t been in the kitchen for years, and can’t recognise her family members, let alone recall recipes.
In the past two years it got very hard to see someone physically deteriorating, mentally as well, where they return back to being a child,
said Vasunthara. “She’s really quite a shell of her former self.”
Thinking back to her failed attempt to learn cooking from her grandma, she reflected that unbeknownst to them, she probably already had the disease then.
“Definitely I have regrets that I didn’t learn the recipes from my grandmother,” she said. “Because she didn’t write down recipes, it’s based on her memory. These things were lost over time.”
So even as she acknowledges how troublesome and daunting cooking at home can be for the busy younger generation, she also hopes more will take the step to approach their grandparents or parents, and “get curious and try cooking” the dishes they grew up with.
“To be a good cook, don’t you have to know what you grew up with? I mean, I can cook cuisines from all over the world, but ultimately, I still come back to the food I grew up with,” she said.
And as Vasunthara takes the lid off the pan to reveal the simmering golden curry, enveloping us all in a fragrant embrace of spices – it certainly feels like a warm welcome home.
With a smile, she leans in for another sniff. “That’s the smell of my childhood.”
This is part of a series on vanishing home recipes (read more here).
Know an old-time home cook we could feature? Contact us at Facebook.com/CNAInsider, or Lam Shushan on Twitter @ShuShanCNA