Recipes for Life is Sudha Menon’s tribute to mothers and the warm memories of their food

Food = unconditional love = mum. For author Sudha Menon, this is an accurate and succinct summary of Recipes for Life, her latest literary venture.
Recipes for life is author sudha menon's most recent literary outing, and perhaps most delicious
Recipes for Life is author Sudha Menon’s most recent literary outing, and perhaps most delicious

The book has its genesis rooted in the tang filled spice bottles from the author’s late mother-in-law. Post her unfortunate demise 5 years ago, Sudha Menon discovered nobody in the family had any recorded recipes of her mother-in-law’s (aai) much loved khichdi masala or pickles. The recipes passed down several generations were gone in the blink of an eye.

The universe came through for Sudha Menon when she chanced upon a 2016 packet of her aai’s khichdi masala at the back of a spice drawer. The still fresh aroma fueled her to write the book documenting childhood recipes, giving us Recipes for Life. 

“The idea for this book was in my mind for a long time, since there’s no tradition of recording recipes in India. So I decided i wanted to celebrate our mothers and all the splendid women who cook for us with so much love. Food is such a big part of our community, so I thought – why should it be just about my family? It should be a universal thing,” says Menon. 

While the book certainly captures the essence of ‘maa ke haath ka khaana’, it’s also so much more than that. Recipes for Life celebrates not just the culinary world, but also the stories that are integral to its origin. Through the pages of the book, one discovers the other side of a celebrity’s glamorous lives, and that’s certainly the book’s biggest win. 

Indian filmmaker ashwini iyer tiwari has also contributed to sudha menon's recipes for life
Indian filmmaker Ashwini Iyer Tiwari has also contributed to Sudha Menon’s Recipes for Life

This is evident in the recipes the celebrities have chosen to share itself. Of the 30 different famous personalities featuring in the book, not one has deviated from the simplicity and taste of their mother’s cooking. Each recipe comes with a personal story, making this book deliciously heartwarming. 

Sudha Menon recalls the story of Mary Kom in particular, saying, “She grew up with very little. Her parents were landless labourers, she spoke to me about growing up in a little village in the hills. Meat was a luxury for her. So to this day when she thinks of comfort and hungers for home, she thinks of her mother’s ability to cook up delicious meals with whatever was in their little garden. Her father would catch fish from the local lake, which her mom would use as fermented fish.”

Recipes for life explores the deeper stories associated with food for celebrities like mary kom
Recipes for Life explores the deeper stories associated with food for celebrities like Mary Kom

While the book may have started out as a simple hunt for nostalgic culinary memories, it evolved tenfold along the way. With food being such an intimate part of our lives, there’s so much to be gleaned simply from hanging out with our mothers. Their strength, resilience, and unconditional love is perhaps the true secret to their delicious cooking. 

In the case of Indian women’s cricket team captain Mithali Raj, for example, her mother’s shift in cooking style was an obvious choice made for her daughter’s wellbeing. In spite of being a vegetarian, she learned how to cook non-veg food to ensure her daughter gets the right amount of protein from the tender age of 9.

In recipes for life, author sudha menon speaks of mithali raj and her mother's food memories
In Recipes for Life, author Sudha Menon speaks of Mithali Raj and her mother’s food memories

There’s also stories of less than modest means to be told, coming from surprising sources. For cricketer Irfan Pathan, her enquiry of his favourite meals yielded a much different answer.  

Of the conversation, she says, “It was a telephonic conversation because of the pandemic, When I look at that conversation I feel like I was a little insensitive perhaps. I asked him what were some delicious meals your mother has made for you. There was a pause, and then he said ‘for us it was luxury if we could get two square meals. Ammi could only afford to give us one meal, usually dinner, usually moong ki khichdi.’ If they were lucky, there would be dhaniya chutney and some batata sabji.”

However, Recipes for Life reminds us to cherish these memories of our mother’s love. Through Irfan Pathan’s story, one experiences the bittersweet satisfaction of a hot roti dipped in sugary tea, where love and comfort feature as key ingredients. 

The book is peppered with several such anecdotes from different celebrities’. Through it, Sudha Menon has managed to make celebrities and their lives so much more relatable. No matter where you come from and where you are, the sincerity of your mother’s love and deliciousness of her cooking will remain ubiquitous. 

For the author, the book was also her saviour amidst the crippling pandemic and ensuing lockdown. She speaks of the book as one would of a friend, and rightfully so, for it kept her sane. The daily interviews, collection of stories and warm chats with mothers are what kept her from ever experiencing the pangs of loneliness. So much so, that she managed to complete it before the first wave ended! 

In recipes for life, author manu pillai shares his mother's recipe for mango blossom chutney
In Recipes for Life, author Manu Pillai shares his mother’s recipe for mango blossom chutney

Before the pandemic descended on the world, Menon actively travelled about and interviewed celebrities and their mothers in person. This gave her the opportunity to dig deeper than recipes, bringing out the stories behind them.

“I went and met Nikhat Khan, and for some reason the conversation turned to Zeenat ammi. She spoke about her own journey, and it became a book about discoveries of personal journeys. Even though I’ve known her from before, that day I sat down and spoke with her and she spoke to me about growing up in Varanasi. She spoke about eventually getting married to Tahir Hussain. When she married and went into their home, she won her mother-in-law’s heart with her food. The entire family fell in love with her food from Benaras,” adds Sudha Menon of her interviewing days. 

And Zeenat Hussain’s legendary food has rightfully turned her house into THE place for Eid, with anyone worth their salt having heard of her succulent shammi kebabs. For her son and popular Hindi film actor Aamir Khan though, it’s his mother’s besan ka halwa that truly satisfied those 2 am cravings. 

It wasn’t all sunshine and roses, however. Given Sudha Menon’s status as a prolific author, there was an unexpected amount of pushback over writing a simple ‘cookbook’. Aside from being told it would be a waste of her talent, the biggest surprise came in the form of a performatively woke woman. 

Menon says, “It was disturbing to hear this come from a woman, saying that cooking, food, and recipes does not have weightage. The other half of her is constantly talking about homemakers not getting their due and how we should do something. By saying this, you’re talking down to 50% of the women in the country.”

For actor suhasini maniratnam and her mother, recipes for life served as a warm reminder of old times
For actor Suhasini Maniratnam and her mother, Recipes for Life served as a warm reminder of old times

Fortunately, that didn’t do much to deter the author, who was far too immersed in the delectable array of recipes and stories coming her way. The decisiveness ends when questioned about her favourite food though, finding it hard to pick just one of her mother’s recipes. She finally settles on a pearl onion sambhar, and a cabbage toran and pulissery accompanied with some steaming hot rice and pappad. 

Recipes for Life was a fulfilling journey for the author because it gave her not just 30 new friends and their rare stories, but also the gift of their mothers’ companionship. According to her, the biggest takeaways from this journey were the importance of love and mindful cooking. She also credits the unresponsive people encountered along the way, for it taught her how to be a lot more patient, disciplined and to take the disappointment in stride. 

What’s next for Sudha Menon? “There’s an idea knocking around in my head, but it’s too premature to discuss. But rest assured, it will be heart touching, because it’s all about making people feel better.” 

And we can’t wait! 

Pramila Radhakrishnan’s recipesAmma’s aila curry with raw mangoes

Pramila radhakrishnan, sudha menon's mother
Pramila Radhakrishnan, Sudha Menon’s mother

Ingredients

  • 500 gms bangda (mackerel), cleaned and filleted
  • 1 raw mango, cut into cubes
  • Red chilli powder, as per taste
  • 4 tsp coriander powder
  • 1/4th of an onion, chopped
  • 2 sprigs curry leaves
  • 2 tsp coconut oil
  • Salt, to taste

Method

  • Cook the fish and raw mangoes together with salt and chilli powder in a pan. Amma uses the traditional Manchatti — earthenware used for cooking in south Indian homes — and swears these vessels enhance not just the taste but also the nutritional value of food.
  • Roast the coriander powder, onion and curry leaves in coconut oil on a low fire till it becomes golden brown and aromatic. Cool, grind to a fine paste, add to the fish and mango and boil for 5-7 minutes. Pour a spoon of coconut oil over the curry.
  • Serve with steaming hot rice. This curry can also be made with pomfret, surmai or any fleshy fish that you prefer.

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