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Author at eighty

She is to Iyengar cooking what Meenakshi Ammal is to TamBram cooking. Octogenarian Kamala Narasiwodeyar has written a cookbook that ought to keep the flag of tradition flying high.


AT EIGHTY, one should think one has had enough. Not Kamala Narasiwodeyar. She has written a book on a subject she knows best — classic Iyengar cuisine. And touchingly, she has dedicated it to her nonagenarian husband. The book encapsulates a lifetime of cooking for an extended family. Kamala, who felt that today's generation was losing out on an entire culture, decided to put her accumulated knowledge in writing. Rather, she dictated and her granddaughter Rashmi Bharadwaj wrote down the recipes.

It was not a simple task. Like all veterans, Kamala measures the quantities by the fistful (kaikanakku and kannkanakku, as she puts it). Rashmi had to translate this into cups and spoons. The result is Traditional Iyengar Recipes of South India, a neatly produced book with a little under 200 recipes, representative of the Iyengar cuisine. The two women consulted the head priest of the Melkote temple on 10 recipes, to ensure authenticity.

The book is interspersed with practical advice and has a list of festivals, mentioning how and when they are celebrated and what dishes are to be prepared on the occasion.

"It is for girls like me that the book was written. We need to know about our own culture," says Rashmi, a graduate in engineering. The Iyengar diaspora in the West largely clings to tradition. "They don't know much Kannada and Tamil. Which is why we wrote the book in English."

Kamala, like most women of her generation, learned to cook at a young age. She first realised she was good when she won a stainless steel cup and saucer after participating in a Dasara competition some 40 years ago. She was thrilled, especially considering stainless steel was a prized item then.

When she moved to Bangalore, she entered another cooking competition just for a lark. She was given some sooji and ragi to make two dishes. With the first, she made a pongal, and topped it with ragi ladoos. Both were prize-winning items, but the organisers said they could give her only one prize, presumably to quell mutiny in the ranks.

For Kamala, food is medicine. "Iyengar food is food for the brain. It combines all the elements in the right proportion." Not surprisingly, she is a veteran at homemade remedies too. She gives me a turn when she coolly adds: "I can make a kashaya that can treat SARS. After all, it is just like pneumonia."

Her daughters (as well as others) still consult her on some of the more difficult preparations and measurements for masalas. They remember returning from night shows as children, when their mother would cook with the help of a kerosene lamp and a charcoal stove. It's not that Kamala has never eaten out. "Of course, I have. When youngsters invite me out to eat out with them, I do." But it would have to be only a vegetarian eatery and please, no garlic, thank you.

But daringly, her book has at least one recipe featuring onions. "That," she smiles, "is to suit modern times." However, it is dishes like Nallichettu, Goddu Chhatambd, Undelige, Porivalanga Unde, Manavara Ladoo, Doddipatre Moru Kolumbu, and the more famous classics like Puliogre and Ambode that give the book its identity.

So has she ever had cooking disasters? Certainly. "But I have always managed to repair them and make new dishes out of them!"

It is not just cooking she excels at. She describes how as a Station Master's wife at Pandavapura, she would take the train every day to Mysore, go to Vontikoppal to learn crochet. And this was apart from looking after her home and four children.

Today Kamala does not cook every day. "I must say my daughter-in-law is a very good cook." But she does cook for occasions. "I like it when everybody comes for a family get-together. Then I also make something for them."

Has she ever got bored of cooking? "Never. Even today, if my husband, in the middle of the night, asks for such and such a dish, I am prepared to get up and make it."

Kamala's book costs Rs. 252. You can e-mail her at kamalawodeyar@rediffmail.com. You can also contact iyengarcooking@yahoo.com.

SUGANDHI RAVINDRANATHAN

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