In conversation with bestselling author Sudha Menon where we talk about her latest book Recipes for Life – Well-Known Personalities Reveal Stories, Memories and Age-old Family Recipes (Penguin Random House, 2021).
Sudha Menon is the author of some brilliant non-fiction books, including Legacy, Gifted and Devi, Diva, or She-Devil. She is the founder of the popular Get Writing and Writing With Women workshops series and a motivational speaker. She is also a model, and a diversity and inclusion ambassador.
Her latest book, Recipes for Life – Well-Known Personalities Reveal Stories, Memories and Age-old Family Recipes (Penguin Random House, 2021) is an interesting collection of recipes shared by eminent personalities.
Remember how our mothers and grandmothers would spend time in the kitchen, sharing their stories and exchanging recipes from each other’s homes without writing them down? Between chopping, sauteing, grinding, and frying a variety of ingredients, and the aroma of home-cooked food laid out on the dinner table, families forged bonds that withstood the test of time. Now the connections we made through oral storytelling have disappeared because of rising of modern-day nuclear families where children see their parents once in a couple of months.
The truth, however, remains that no matter how many countries we travel to and live in, or how many expensive meals we eat at Michelin-star restaurants, the magic of our mothers’ cooking never fades away. In Recipes for Life, Sudha Menon attempts to recreate those memories and the magic of the food we grew up with and cherish. The book is replete with stories, anecdotes, and recipes from the homes of some of India’s much admired and accomplished people.Book Blurb
Team Kitaab is in conversation with best-selling author Sudha Menon as we discuss her latest book and her writing journey so far.
Team Kitaab: Author, columnist, and writing coach are all that you are widely known as. Which role is the closest to your heart?
Sudha Menon: I am no author, model, actor, and writing coach, and no matters what else comes up in my life, I will always love my author identity!
I was a journalist for 24 years before I turned author, giving up a very cherished career because the pull of writing a book with my name on the cover could no longer be ignored. The columnist part happened because when I was writing my books, a part of me missed writing for newspapers and magazines.
I turned writing coach when I set up what was India’s first writing workshop, Get Writing, in early 2011, almost immediately after the launch of my debut book, Leading Ladies. On a book tour to promote my book, I would often be approached by people in bookstores or at book launches, asking for tips and advice on writing. Many spoke of their compelling need to write about something in their lives and when enough people had told me the same thing I knew there was something missing there, a need in the market. Creative writing is not something that most schools or our educational system were doing seriously or enough, at that point.
I was nervous announcing the first edition of ‘Get Writing’, there was no precedent for me to follow, no guarantee that people would pay money to attend something that was not a tangible skill. I am glad I followed my instinct because 40 people turned up for that first workshop in Pune and I had to politely turn away a few more who came in late. Get Writing has been running across cities for almost 11 years now and it has been one of the most fulfilling things I have done in my life.
Team Kitaab: Discovering a new genre of women’s stories and capturing such beautiful books in that, how was this idea born? And how did you shape it to reach its current form?
Sudha Menon: My fascination with women’s stories, perhaps, came from the matriarchal family I grew up in. My earliest memories are of visiting my mother’s ancestral home in a tiny coastal village in Kerala where a trio of women, my great aunts who had chosen to remain single, ruled the roost. They were fiercely independent women who all had their passions and followed those passions and when they were not doing that they supervised the tilling of their land, managed the household, made delicious meals for themselves, and had great fun in life.
One of them traveled to Mumbai at the age of 18, alone and without knowing a single soul in Mumbai, and made a career in nursing for herself, rising up the ranks to become an indispensable part of any hospital she aligned herself with.
That great aunt was the reason why so many families in our village got a livelihood because she organised for young men and women to come to Mumbai, got them trained in whatever profession they wanted to follow, and then supported them till they got employment.
I was fascinated by the stories of the three great aunts and my biggest regret today is that I was too little to ask them questions about how they managed to live all by themselves in a society and a world that was so male-dominated.
When I became a journalist in the very late eighties I came in contact with so many feisty, fabulous, successful women and I was fascinated by their stories as well. The world knew only the façade they put up but I wanted to go behind that façade and find out the real women they were and the things they believed in. I wanted to know what they were doing that allowed them to be confident and self-assured so that I and so many young women like me could follow in their footsteps and empower ourselves.
My books, Leading Ladies and Devi, Diva, or She-Devil are books that anyone can pick up to know how we women can reclaim our space, our voice, and our agency.
Team Kitaab: Though we all know you have captured some amazing women and their stories in your books, is there any story that changed your life?
Sudha Menon: I will never forget my meeting with Gandhian Elaben Bhat. I traveled to Ahmedabad in 2010 while writing my debut book, Leading Ladies. That meeting remains imprinted in my memory forever.
Sitting across from the diminutive, soft-spoken, khadi-clad woman as she told me her extraordinary story of setting up SEWA (Self Employed Women’s Association), I marvelled at her grit, determination, and strength in taking up the gargantuan task. With 1.6 million-plus women members, the poorest of the poor, SEWA is today the largest organization of informal workers in the world today and I never forget that it came from one woman’s determination to get justice for the poor and the downtrodden.
Team Kitaab: Can you tell us a bit about your latest book ‘Recipes for Life’?
Sudha Menon: The idea of this book actually germinated from two deeply personal experiences in my life. In the summer of 2016, my father passed away from a sudden illness, sending my mother into a deep depression from which we struggled to pull her out. I took her to the UK where my sister lived, in the hope that a change of scene would help but it did not.
I had almost given up hope of ever getting through to my mother when, one day, I found she was actually responding to some conversation I was making with her about the food she grew up eating during her childhood in Kerala. Suddenly the spark was back in her eyes as she told me about the sumptuous meals her trio of aunts cooked up every day, using fresh, seasonal produce from their farm. Out came stories of plucking drumsticks from the tree to make sambar and plantains to make a quick thoran when unexpected guests dropped in.
And before I knew it we were chatting about food every afternoon and my pen raced across the pages of my notebooks that filled up with her recipes and slowly but surely Amma’s mood improved till, one day, she told me she was well enough to cook a sadhya for us. The Amma of old was back in our midst and I had a book idea that I knew would be very precious.
2016 was a dark year in our lives- at the end of that year my mother-in-law, a homemaker who cooked fabulous CKP (Chandraseniya Kayastha Prabhu) food for her family for over 50 years, passed away from dementia and with her went away the recipes that had come down to her from her own mother and mother-in-law. The summer after she went away, when I yearned for her khichdi masala, pickles, and garam masala, I realized that no one in the family had written down her recipes because we simply assumed she would always be around.
I realised then that most Indian families don’t document their recipes and so we end up losing huge parts of our culinary history and traditions due to the practice of only orally passing recipes down the generations from mothers and mothers-in-law to daughters, sons, sisters, daughters-in-law.
And thus came the idea of writing this book. For me, it is part a food memoir, part a celebration of our mothers and their generosity, and part documentation of family recipes.
Team Kitaab: Among all your interviews, one common thing that has come across a lot for this book is your belief that food is an integral part of our culture. Can you share a bit about your own experience and relationship with food while growing up?
Sudha Menon: My favorite memories of food will always be about Amma, a fabulous cook who first learnt the rudiments of cooking from a trio of aunts who ruled the roost in our ancestral home in Malapuram. When she got married at sixteen Amma and came to Mumbai she learnt Palakkad cooking from her mother-in-law.
My favorite memories of Amma’s food will always be of the summer rituals of making a variety of pickles- kadumanga (baby raw mango pickle), nellika(gooseberry pickle), tart lemon pickles, and lemon squash from the lemons that grew in n our tiny garden patch. When the roses in the garden bloomed in abundance she collected the petals, filled them up in glass jars with rock sugar, and left them out in the sun till the sugar melted and the whole thing became a glorious, delicious mass. Amma would spoon this into our glasses of milk or smear them on our chappatis and her four children and husband were in bliss.
Amma’s Onam and Vishu sadhyas were epic. Preparations started days in advance with the puli inji, kaalan and pickles made days ahead. She woke up at dawn on these days and the kitchen was a flurry of activity with the avial, kootu, olan, pachadi, sambar, and other staples prepared over the next few hours. The payasam would quietly simmer in a corner of the kitchen, away from the tart, spicy curries and to this day the entire family and the dozens of people she invited to lunch with us swoon over her paal payasam and parippu pradaman.
Amma is no longer able to cook because she is frail now but her eyes still light up when we ask her for her recipes.
I grew up in a family of very modest means and my mother had precious little to raise her four children but I learnt about compassion, kindness, generosity, and the value of sharing from just being around her. No needy person ever returned home disappointed or empty-handed from our home. And no one was sent home hungry. Amma was so generous that even the lady who picked up the trash or the postman who carried our mail in the blazing afternoon heat were treated to Limbu paani or a portion of breakfast.
Team Kitaab: Now that we are talking about food so much, please let us know your favourite dish and why?
Sudha Menon: Amma’s drumstick sambar poured over a mound of steaming hot rice, with her cabbage thoran on the side and a couple of pappadums crushed into it is my favorite. Not just because it tastes like heaven but it feels like home. Having it takes me right back to my childhood, to more innocent times when life was simple and joy came from just being around your family. Eating this is like feeling my mother’s warm hug.
Team Kitaab: This book is a unique combination of stories and recipes. Which is your favourite out of all of these mentioned in the book and why?
Sudha Menon: This book started out as a book featuring our mothers and the food they cooked for us but it took a life of its own and became a fascinating journey of discovery for me. I realised that through food the mothers and grandmothers in this book taught their children precious values and life lessons.
Growing up in a family that was hugely financially challenged, Irfan Pathan talks about his Ammi, Shamim Banu, who walked every afternoon to the cricket ground with green tuvar ki khichdi to feed her teenage sons who trained there to follow their dream of playing to the country. She had no money to buy them expensive protein-rich food but she still made sure she gave them a banana and a glass of milk every day so they had the energy and strength to play.
Irfan says in the book his most cherished memory of his childhood is of sitting with his siblings and parents and eating the humble fare Ammi could afford- fresh, hot rotis smeared with oil that they dipped into their tea before going off to school.
Mary Kom’s story of growing up eating fresh, seasonal, organic food from the tiny vegetable patch behind their mud house and of fish caught from the neighborhood pond or lake gave me a peek into the lives of people who are very much part of our country but we know so little about. I thought I was well-traveled and knew about food but realised I knew nothing about the food, culture or tradition of our own brothers and sisters who live in the north-east and, indeed, in other parts of the country.
Suhasini Maniratnam’s story of growing up in a Tamil Iyengar joint family in a village near Rameshwaram was enchanting and a lesson in integrating with the community in which we live. Reading her mother’s recipes of Vaazhaipoo Paruppu Usili (banana blossom and lentil subzi) and Sambar with pearl onions took me right back to summers in Kerala when my grandma would prepare this for us.
Team Kitaab: Do you think the perception of women has changed over a period of time with the help of social media, and the rise in digital platforms?
Sudha Menon: I am not sure what you mean by this question but social media and digital platforms are double-edged swords. While on the one hand it has been used to spread awareness and shattered stereotypes around women, it has also been used to viciously troll, pull down, and destruct women’s reputations and identity.
Team Kitaab: Do we see you experimenting with genres? If yes, which one.
Sudha Menon: After writing a number of books around women and leadership, and a couple of motivational books such as Legacy and Gifted, I switched tracks to write Feisty At Fifty, a part funny, part deep look at my adventures as a woman of fifty plus. It was accepted very well indeed, especially by women nearing that age or already experiencing the stuff I have written about in it.
Team Kitaab: Please let us know a bit about upcoming projects?
Sudha Menon: I have just launched Recipes For Life and have my hands full with promoting it right now. Also, I am finding a lot of interesting work coming my way in my new avatar of model/actor, so this year will be spent chasing that dream.