When Amma got married she quit her job with the then Andhra Pradesh government and moved from Hyderabad, where she had been working, to Calcutta. There is one thing that she always told us and that is before she came to Calcutta she never cooked. She began working at the age of seventeen. My grandfather died very young leaving behind a family of six children and his wife. Amma was the eldest, she was seventeen. She got a job at the Treasury Office in Kakinada, Andhra Pradesh, her home town. It was initially a temporary position that became a permanent full time one in a year. She joined evening college in Kakinada and took her B.A. and then went on to do her Masters in History from Andhra University through the distance learning mode. It was because of this that Ammamma did not let her cook.
Amma got married when she was 29. I still vividly recall Ammamma, on one of her visits to our place in Calcutta, telling me that Amma was determined not to marry till her younger sisters were married and her two brothers had completed their school education. The gentleman she had got engaged to was a cousin of one of her colleagues at the Treasury Office in Kakinada. They were engaged for almost a year before they got married. The marriage took place in Kakinada and Amma came over to Calcutta quitting her job. She began working again, this time in Calcutta, when I was about 9 years old and was able to manage a little on my own and care for my sister too.
Appagaru had been living outside Andhra Pradesh (it was undivided then) for some years. He was born in Jeypore in the Koraput district of Western Orissa and lived in Visakhapatnam before moving to Bhubaneshwar and then Calcutta. Even when he was in Bhubaneshwar he often came to Calcutta on work and liked the city. He was Secretary to the geneticist John Burdon Sanderson Haldane. After Haldane passed away he toyed with the idea of relocating to Hyderabad or Port Blair, spent some time in both places but did not like them. He had met Prashanta Chandra Mahalonobis a number of times before and once he was in Calcutta he was offered a job by the eminent statistician to join the Eka Press at the Indian Statistical Institute, Calcutta.
When Amma arrived in Calcutta, the home in which Appagaru lived was shared by his dear friend from his school days, Shastri mama as we addressed him, and Sahu who had been with him in Bhubaneshwar. This was her first encounter with a kitchen. She often told us about her experiences in the kitchen as she tried to cook, of how she had to struggle. She did manage, she said with some help from Appagaru and because of her keen interest in learning. This was the reason why she made sure that my sister and I learnt it all very early. The inland letter from Ammamma would take time to arrive with recipes and tips so Amma started reading recipes that appeared in English magazines. She would keep cuttings of the recipes carefully in folders. Later on Appagaru would get all of them bound into volumes. There were quite a number of such bound volumes of recipes that Amma had collected over years.
Amma’s kitchen managed to rustle up Telugu delicacies in Calcutta. There would be difficulties in scouring and getting certain key ingredients but that did not stop her or us from having staples of the Telugu kitchen. As the lockdown set in and life changed so much for all of us, all over the world, a number of my friends and acquaintances decided to try their hands at cooking. I started sharing a few recipes, staples of my kitchen, of Amma’s kitchen. I liked the feedback I started receiving. My friends would be waiting for my recipes, recipes that would also have a small note on my lived experience, on my memories of growing up in Calcutta, simple ones that seemed to strike a chord. Among the many recipes that I shared, one of them was a chutney, what in Telugu is called a pachhadi, made with coconut and green mangoes.
Andhra cuisine is really hot, with chillies forming a key ingredient. Pickles, chutneys and podis (lentils powered with spices) form an important part of the cuisine. A typical meal will have at least one of these along with dal, curry and curd. The pickles, chutneys and podis are mixed with rice, to which is added some sesame oil or ghee, mixed well and had with a raw onion that is bit into with each mouthful. Our neighbour’s daughter who came home for lunch every Sunday some years ago would eat the pickle differently though. She would sit with some of Amma’s homemade pickle after her meal was done and eat and lick the pickle slowly, relishing every bit of the hot pickle. Her eyes would water and she would go on savouring every bit of the pickle ignoring it all, lost in the taste of the pickle.
Growing up in North Calcutta, I was very often asked if we ate rice at home. The general idea was that Madrasis (that is how South Indians were referred to when I was growing up) only ate idlis and dosas. Andhra Pradesh is the leading producer of chillies and rice in India while Telangana is the leading producer of millets. Popular legend has it that during a famine everything went waste and only chillies thrived. I am not sure about that, but I do think the high temperatures have something to do with the consumption of so much of chillies as part of the diet.
Amma’s kitchen in Calcutta slowly came into its own as she began getting condiments, spices and things that would be needed for the kind of cuisine she was used to. Appagaru’s kitchen was a bachelor’s one, the only thing it did have in the late 60s Calcutta was a cooking gas connection and a Laxmi deluxe gas stove. When Amma reached her new home, the kitchen needed work, it needed things. Some of what she needed was available in Calcutta, but getting them required some travel, to the centre of the city, to the Esplanade area where there was a shop in the Metro Gully (the lane beside Metro Cinema) that had supplies a South Indian kitchen would need. The stone mortar and pestle, though, was not available in Calcutta. It was left to my uncle, Amma’s brother, who, on one of his trips to visit his sister, tugged one along. It was a very heavy luggage that the young man brought all the way from Kakinada in Andhra Pradesh; he was furious as he had to pay for the rubbu rollu. The ticket collector in the train compartment insisted he did. This experience was the subject of our family stories and Amma and Appagaru often spoke about it. It also goes to show how important that mortar and pestle was for Amma’s kitchen.
Those were days before the the mixer grinder entered our home. The rubbu rollu was used to grind the lentils and rice to make the batter needed for crisp dosas and fluffy idlis. I recall my attempts at trying to learn how to use it as a kid and always marvelled at the dexterity with which Amma used it. It was a much needed part of a Telugu kitchen. Apart from the stone base and the stone pestle, the rubbu rollu also came with a longer wooden pestle. The wooden pestle was used to grind smaller quantities, for masalas and, most importantly, for pacchadis. When the mixie came into Amma’s kitchen in the early eighties, the rubbu rollu was relegated to the background. It just stood in a corner. In spite of that fact that the mixie made things much easier, Ammamma always said that the texture of the pachhadi was best achieved with the stone mortar, the mixie made it much smoother than it should be. There was a certain coarseness that was required for a pachhadi that best released the distinct flavours of a pachhadi.
The raw mango coconut chutney, what in Telugu is called mavidikaya kobbarayakaya pachaddi, is a simple one. It needs ingredients that are easily available in Kolkata. Add it to rice, with some sesame oil, mix well. The only difficult part of making this pachhadi is grating the coconut – the freshly grated coconut accentuates the taste. This is not my favourite though; there are a couple of others that top my list of favourite pachhadis and the first one that tops my list is the dosakaya pachhadi. The dosakaya is a yellow vegetable that belongs to the cucumber family, the Indian yellow cucumber; it has lots of seeds as one cuts into it and a slightly sour taste. There are some that might turn out to be a little bitter and hence are rendered useless in the making of a pachhadi. So, while they are being cut, it is important to bite into a piece to make sure they are not bitter. The vegetable is also used to make a dal and even a delicious pickle called the dosavakai. On my trips to Hyderbad, Ammamma made sure that dosakaya pachhadi was on the menu. We loved it.
Cut into cubes after the seeds are removed, coarsely ground with salt and turmeric to which some tamarind pulp has been added, with a tempering of mustard seeds, red chillies, fenugreek seeds, curry leaves, some asafoetida and black gram lentils, the taste of this pachaddi remains for a long while. One can just finish a meal with just this. Maybe some curd rice at the end, to balance all the heat. Amma did manage to get one from Burra Bazar in central Calcutta at times or from Lake Market, in South Calcutta, but the dosakaya that she bought in Calcutta did not have the sourness that is a prerequisite. Hence, the desire to have dosakaya pachhadi and rice remains just that. This is not the only pachhadi that I desire. There is another one, a favourite too – gongura pachhadi.
The green leaves of the gongura plant (Hibiscus sabdariffa), commonly called sour spinach or kenaf/roselle in English, have a slight sourness and are used to make a dal and a pacchadi as well. Unlike most other pachaddis which have shorter shelf lives, the gongura pachhadi has a much longer shelf life. The leaves are removed and fried in oil. Then they are ground to a coarse paste with salt to which is added a powder of roasted and ground red chillies, coriander seeds and fenugreek seed. A tempering of mustard, red chillies, black skinned lentils and whole garlic fried in oil is added to complete it.
When I was in school, I remember Amma getting gongura at times from the market at Titagarh in North 24 Parganas. Titagarh had a large Telugu-speaking community. The jute mills in the area employed a sizeable Telugu-speaking population who stayed on. On our trips back from Kakinada and Hyderabad, we carried slightly sauteed gongura leaves with us to Calcutta. Also anyone visiting us would make it a point to carry some for us. It was convenient carrying the sautéed form as the leaves would not rot. All we had to do here was add the sautéed leaves, the spice powder and grind them to a coarse paste, ready the tempering and add it to the ground pachhadi – gongura pachadi was ready. Ammamma made it a point to give us a large amount, to last for quite some time.
I have not seen the leaf in recent times anywhere in Kolkata and make do with a bottled variety that is available, at times in stores here which, of course, is a poor substitute for the homemade one. Even the ones I get occasionally from online sellers in the South, come nowhere near the homemade variety. I am just waiting for my next trip to my aunt’s place for some gongura annam rice and a raw onion to go with it, the sourness and hotness of the pachhadi accentuated by the pungency of the raw onion that tickle my palate even as I key in.
I have just referred to a few of my favourite pachhadis. There are others that have been part of Amma’s kitchen and later mine – tomato, usirikaya (Indian gooseberry), chintakaya (raw tamarind), pesarappu (yellow split gram), palli (peanuts), allam (ginger), ullipaya (onion), beerakaya thokku (ridge gourd peel), velakkaya perugu pachadi (wood apple and curd), anapakaya (bottle gourd), senaga pindi pachhadi ( gram flour chutney, also referred to as Bombay pachaadi), nuvvulu pachhadi (sesame seeds). I could add more to the list – coriander, mint, roasted aubergine. A hot mango pickle called magaai is at times transformed into a pickle by adding some curd to it, to be had with idlis and dosas. A podi could be turned to a pickle with some curd and a tempering of curry leaves and mustard seeds added to it.
Ugadi, the Telugu New Year, is marked by the eating of a pachhadi – the Ugadi pachhadi. Raw mango pieces, a little tamarind pulp, a few ripe banana pieces, some neem flowers, jaggery, salt, green chillies and water – that is the first thing that one is to eat on Ugadi. The pachhadi has multiple tastes, it is sour, bitter, hot, sweet and salty, much like life.