Although she'd never cooked until her early thirties, food was always an integral part of Archana Pidathala's life. The author of the self-published cookbook, Five Morsels of Love, shortlisted earlier this year for the 2017 Art of Eating Prize, cherishes memories of long, languid summers spent at her grandmother's home in the South Indian state of Andhra Pradesh.
Her grandmother, Nirmala Reddy, a cookbook author herself, asked her grandchildren every day what they wanted to eat for each meal. "She never once complained or felt overwhelmed by the incredible amount of cooking she did for us. And she always prepared all the dishes we asked for," recalls Pidathala.
Pidathala says her favorite recipes from Five Morsels of Love have the power to instantly transport her to back those blissful summer afternoons. Sometimes, she would watch as her grandmother chopped vegetables and crushed spices on a stone pestle, releasing a fragrance that stirred her appetite.
The pachchi pulusu (a tangy peanut stew), the anapaginjala pulusu (a hyacinth bean curry that her grandma loved) and her own personal favorite, the ulava charu (a slow-cooked, thick stew made from horse gram beans) were the flavors of her childhood. It was the eggplant biryani, however, that always brought home to her the ingenuity of her grandmother's cooking. "It was perfected after years of trial and improvisation," she says. "No special occasion in our family is complete without serving this dish."
The biryani calls for a rich curry thickened by sesame seeds, dried coconut and an array of Indian spices. The curry is then stuffed into an eggplant and slow-cooked. It turns out intensely aromatic, surprisingly light and bursting with flavor and texture.
At mealtimes during those summer afternoons in Hyderabad, Pidathala remembers gathering the children of her family close while her grandmother lovingly ladled food onto one large plate.
"Communal eating in this way wasn't uncommon in India. It happens in many families, though it is getting rarer today," Pidathala says. "These early experiences brought home to me how food can nourish the soul as much as the body, how it can create enduring bonds."
The five morsels in the book's title refers to these cousins, who bonded over such exquisite meals. They're represented in the recurring motif of the five grains of rice that prance across the soft yellow cloth-bound cover like snowflakes.
Her grandmother's death in 2007, barely nine weeks after she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, devastated the family. Pidathala, who had recently moved hundreds of miles away to Bengaluru to begin a career in IT, particularly reeled after the loss.
"I had always promised her we'd work together on an English translation of her cookbook, written in Telugu [a language native to Indian states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana]," says Pidathala. The simple paperback had seen three print runs since it was published in 1974. It was the kind of book that emigrants sought to carry back with them overseas. By offering an authentic taste of home, it helped them ache less for what they'd left behind.
"Ammamma, as I called her, had always wanted to reach out to a much wider audience, but I thought I had all the time in the world to make that happen," Pidathala says.
She spent the next few years immersed in the hundreds of recipes that her grandmother had painstakingly documented. They were everywhere — including on the backs of medical prescriptions and withered wedding invitations.
Deciding to translate parts of the original cookbook first, she added recipes that were childhood favorites. However, she struggled to quantify ingredients — something that her grandmother, like most other Indian cooks, did with instinctive ease. "I had no idea that recipe writing could be so nuanced," Pidathala laughs. "It was a fascinating journey, and every day, I was learning something new. But I had to measure and cook each recipe several times to perfect it. For someone who had never cooked before — that was the real challenge."
In 2013, with help from a friend, Bengaluru-based food blogger Chinmayie Bhat (who shot the photos for the book), she tried out dozens of recipes over the weekends. When the cook who had her helped her grandmother through the years visited Pidathala, the trio made a formidable team — they prepared and photographed 60 dishes in 5 days.
And remarkably, a book that focuses on a tiny slice of Indian cuisine — the fiery, chili-laden food native to the state of Andhra Pradesh — soon made an impression on people from around the world after it was self-published in May 2016. Pidathala personally shipped the book to readers in 40 countries. It was also stocked internationally by niche and indie bookstores.
Chen Kariv, a graphic designer and her friend, Hili Enzel, a high school teacher, were the first from Tel Aviv, Israel, to order the book from the author's web site. "Hili and I are food enthusiasts, and cooking meals is our way of hanging out together," says Kariv. "At first it was a challenge to identify all the special ingredients. It was a very different [cuisine] from what we know."
The duo were soon cooking for their friends. "It's a great way to explore other cultures, by trying to learn their flavors," says Kariv.
Today, Pidathala is an accomplished chef. "Although I began this journey to honor my grandmother's memory, along the way, I discovered her passion for cooking," she says.
As she ponders over writing a second cookbook, culled from her grandmother's notes over the years, she's grateful for reclaiming the kitchen as a place that embodies creativity, self-expression and love.
Kamala Thiagarajan is a freelance journalist based in Madurai, South India. Her work has appeared in The International New York Times, BBC Travel and Forbes India. You can follow her on Twitter: @kamal_t