In my friend Meena Pimplapure’s Madhya Pradesh home, time seems to have stood still. Reading matter in the guest bedroom ranges from Enid Blyton to copies of Life magazine from the 1960s, when the house was built. The kitchen and the meals that pour forth from it have also remained unchanged for many generations, and a few years ago, at Diwali, I had the privilege to step back in time with the family’s cooks.
The first thing we did was go to the dairy at the back of the house to perform the Vasu Baras to honour the cows for the food and labour they provide. Over the next few days, I saw first-hand the importance of the dairy in a traditional Hindu kitchen such as Meena’s. Every morning there would be large pails of warm milk waiting for us in the kitchen. The milk would be boiled and left to settle. The cream that rose to the top was collected and saved for three days and then turned into the purest white butter, some of which would become ghee. The previous day’s milk was turned into yoghurt to be served at lunch and dinner.
In the past, Meena told me, the yoghurt was made twice a day as her father-in-law and husband refused to eat, at dinner, any yoghurt from the morning. Anything leftover might be hung for a few hours to make shrikhand and any surplus milk is turned into the creamiest paneer and khoya. A little later in the morning, the vegetables would arrive from the garden — the freshest bounty of tomatoes, peas, cauliflower, radishes, and ber — and determine the day’s menus.
For the Diwali period, extra cooks had been drafted in to help with the festive spreads and I was thrilled to watch them in action. I learned from them how to make chakli, a snack to which I soon became addicted, and gujiya, without which, Meena told me, “there is no festival”. I was astonished to discover that everything, absolutely everything, was made from scratch, even the sugar, specifically a type of sugar called bura shakkar.
I watched a cook called Suman take a cup of sugar and a cup of water and heat it as if making a syrup. She then heated the syrup to remove all the water, and sieved the remaining powder. This, she told me, has a much finer texture and better flavour than normal sugar. It also contains less moisture, making it ideal for sweets like laddoos. “If you make laddoos with normal sugar,” Suman told me, “the laddoos will stick in your throat.” Meena’s daughter-in-law showed me how to make anarsa, a biscuit made from rice flour and deep-fried in ghee. Actually, I should say she showed me the final stage of making it as the whole process of making the rice paste takes several days of soaking and fermentation. Meena gave us all a masterclass in making a delicate little pastry, seldom made at home nowadays, called chirote. In Meena’s kitchen — as in many others in India — change has come.
The younger members of the family, with busy metropolitan lives, don’t have time to follow complicated and time-consuming recipes like chirote and anarse. And with only a handful of permanent residents in the house, a full-time dairy, with dozens of cows and a team of cattle men, is no longer needed. Meena, though, says she won’t be the one to dismantle it. That, she says, is for the next generation.
For now, she’ll continue to eat yoghurt at every meal, fill her cupboards with ghee, and give away what’s left. When I think back to the day I watched a group of women making traditional Diwali treats, I remember happy hours watching nimble fingers kneading and the sound of soft chatter and bangles jangling; Meena keeping the younger generation in line, ensuring that the family recipes survive unaltered for at least another generation. Apart from thoroughly enjoying the few days I spent there, I was also reminded that there are few things that connect us to our families, our communities, our roots as powerfully as the food we make.
(The article originally appeared in Harper's Bazaar in its December 2017 issue)