Sitamma's kitchen is a special place. As a child, I loved huddling in a corner, near the rice sack and watch her cook. This part of the house was warmer than the rest, what with two stoves going, but in the wee morning hours, the warmth was cosy and comfy.
Pouring the boiling hot porridge made of ten different protein ingredients into a large pan, she would let it cool, meantime asking me if my morning hunger was bearable or if she should just give me some plain milk. I would not answer instead I would look at the cooling porridge, then at the stew on the stove, the frothing lentils and the cut vegetables on the board on the floor. Waking from near my mother’s bosom and moving onto that warm kitchen corner was an everyday ritual, which readied and strengthened me for the less protective, less loving schema of my day. I find it difficult now to reproduce in retrospect and to articulate that particular feeling of security Sitamma’s kitchen gave me.
The vessels would be lined up in height order in neat, unchangeable positions. Rice, tamarind, red chilli had a separate corner and were stored in sacks. If it was found that a rat had made its way into the kitchen, then the sacks were immediately downed into huge vessels, which could be tightly sealed with lids. But that was very rare. The sacks were available for me to lean on every morning. the fragrance of her kitchen is something I am unable to replicate in my own. I store the same ingredients, yet that earthy, fertile, sumptuous smell of Sitamma’s kitchen is missing.
Unlike the monotonous, uni-colored, uni-metal kitchen vessels I possess, Sitamma’s pots and pans were cast in a variety of vessels. That curious mixture of hues and colors her vessels offered are inimitable. “Ever-silver” (stainless steel) vessels were not many in number. Each dish was cooked in a specific vessel made of a specific metal/material.
Rice was made in a Vengala panai-bronze pot. When the glub-glub-glub sound of rice nearing its boil reached Sitamma’s ear, she would pick out just one grain of rice from the pot and check its softness. “One rice grain’s consistency can speak for the entire pot of rice,” she would say and add, “what I mean is, just one utterance from you can throw light on what kind of person you are.” Of course, I understood nothing much less understand how one could touch boiling hot rice right off the stove.
Kozhambu was made in an Indoleum (aluminium) vessel or in Kall chetti i.e vessel cast in Ma Kal, a particular type of soft stone with which one could write on the floor, make kolams too. When Sitamma poured out the reddish brew from the black stone pot, I would say, “Paatti, doesn’t it look like Goddess Kali’s red tongue flowing out of her black mouth?” only to have my ears tweaked.
Oh! But I must tell you about Soin rasam. Rasam was made in Iya chombu, a tiny vessel made of lead. Iya chombu rasam is a brew fit for the gods. Laced with hand pounded cumin and pepper, garnished with curry leaves and coriander, the Rasam’s aroma would rouse your appetite strongly enough to devour a horse. When orange bubbles frothed near the vessel’s rim, Sitamma would heat a large tablespoonful of ghee in an iron ladle. When the ghee simmered, she would throw in some mustard. Tossing lightly she would immerse the red hot iron ladle with spluttering mustard seeds right into the bubbling rasam A huge ‘sssoooooooooin” sound emanated while the hot iron ladle tempered down with a hiss earning it the name. This soin rasam was very popular, what with its ghee and the taste of lead.
However it was the ku-chuk-chuk dosas which were my all-time favourite. What I thought was a ploy to make me eat dosas by naming them ku-chuk-chuk dosas turned out to be a valid nomenclature. Sitamma called the flat pan she used make dosais “Thandavalam” literally meaning railway tracks. Apparently the poor helped themselves to the discarded parts of the railway track, which were flat, smooth and excellent conductors of heat to make their dosas. Sitamma had a thandavalam in her village. “They hold heat for long. I can make upto four dosas even after the fire goes out. They never break.” So all dosas made on the tracks were called ku-chuk-chuk-dosas.
There are a lot more things I wish to dish out about that special place. Indeed lot many things other than just Kozhambu, rasam and curry got made in Sitamma’s kitchen. I think my recipe for life was written in Sitamma’s kitchen. The riotous variety of vessels combined with Sitamma as the chef added flavour, not just to meals but to my appreciation of life. What more could anyone ask for?
Sitamma's Kitchen was published in The Hindu on February 16, 2003.