Her glistening eyes give you a feeling of comfort, whereas the wrinkles on her face and hands give a glimpse into the years she’s spent nurturing her family, cooking for them, staying up late in anticipation to just hear your voice while you work in a distant part of the world. She held you as you cried and she continues to get excited every time you pick up the phone to say ‘hello’…
A grandmother’s love overflows in the form of words, actions and especially through food.
We have been receivers of a rich and flavoursome gastronomical experience ever since a young age, which were exclusive to our homes. But priorities changed, commitments came and adulthood rang in with a loud siren, where we had to shift and establish our roots outside of a place called home.
While we crave to get a taste of our grandmum’s recipes, UAE-based chefs are no different: “Food, and cooking in general for me, has always had a strong root in nostalgia. Having moved to the United States from Egypt at a very young age, many of my strongest early memories revolve around food especially my grandmother's cooking. Anytime we would go back to visit, she would work for a day in advance to prepare such a huge and wonderful meal for us to all share together. That coming together, the love put into food and how it can be translated and carried over, even carried in you for years, that for me shows the power and hold that food can have over us,” said Chef Omar Basiony, LDC Kitchen + Coffee.
Preserving good food
How does one preserve the aroma that came from your grandmother’s kitchen? Or, how can one recreate the recipe? A lot has changed in the past few decades, especially in terms of cooking, techniques and even ingredients. Distance means loss of the unique, after all.
For most of us, a recipe is a set of instructions written down to be followed. But to some, it’s more of a family tradition. And I use this term especially because there are recipes which have been handed down from generation to generation.
Executive Chef James Kang of Asiana Hotel has fond memories of his halmuni (grand mum) cooking kimchi pancake or kimchijeon. “This is one of the most popular Korean comfort foods. There is a version of it in every household, and although it is quite common to make on special occasions, it’s also one of those dishes that can be made any day of the year. With the exception of the fermentation process of the kimchi, it is otherwise quite quick and easy to make, and I personally love making it for my family.
“It all comes down to your relationships and what you’re sentimental about. Being a chef, and having a genuine passion for food is what connects me to my roots and traditions. It brings back memories of my childhood and the precious time I spent with my grandmother. Now that I’m no longer living in Korea, I still get a taste of home every time I make one of her recipes, and I consider it a legacy that I hope to pass on to my children,” added chef James.
And like him, living your days as an expat can dig up a fond memory.
Marc Daniel, a 28-year-old digital marketing executive based in Dubai, from Goa in India, said: “I still prepare my grandmother’s vindaloo curry. It is my favourite dish and is quite distinct from what you get outside, especially because she uses a traditional mix of spices, which is home-made. I do feel like since it’s been passed down over several generations, it is best preserved by keeping it a secret within the family. And what you get elsewhere is quite unmatched from what you get at home, especially because people resort to ready-made mixes and other ingredients.”
Some say ingredients, but for some it’s the struggle of time, especially while one is juggling a day job/s or maybe even more.
“I remember a time when my mother made a sweet gravy dish, which tastes best with steamed rice flour cakes or what is commonly known as puttu in Kerala. We were quite young at the time, but we weren’t so fond of it then. Growing up, I truly understood the value of it, especially because I lack the time to perfect the dish, mainly because it uses fresh coconut milk,” said Saira Anish, a Dubai-based physical therapist from Kerala in India, based in Sharjah.
Use social media as a tool
While most of us are on social media, there are, perhaps, ways to use it preserve these ‘grandma’s recipes’ for longer periods of time. A short video of your grandmother cooking, or a video call to jot down the recipe, or if you found a page out of your grandmother's belongings, a simple lamination would do the trick. But of course, travelling was quite a problem given the pandemic since last year…
COVID-19 and recipes
When the pandemic struck in 2020, most of us did brush up on our culinary skills. But, how many of us went back to our roots to try out one of our grandmum’s recipes?
25-year-old Dubai-based expatriate Richa Joseph from Kerala said: “There is a prawn masala curry which my grandmum used to make, which still continues to be extremely special in my family. When I tried it out first hand, it was a complete disaster. But staying alone does have its perks and that was the time I got to perfect these recipes. Today, I can cook it up without a reference because it’s now stored completely in my memory.”
For 31-year-old Dubai-based social media manager Zeid Shnaneh, who comes from Jordan, ‘grandmum recipes’ are a surefire way to connect with one’s roots and traditions.
“As someone who highly prides himself for being Jordanian, indulging in and cooking the traditional dish of Mansaf [lamb cooked in fermented yoghurt and served with rice] is a sentimental activity, because this recipe was passed down from my grandparents and parents. Mansaf is a reminder of my family, culture, and country, and since my mum couldn’t travel here due to the pandemic, I tried making it at home myself, and it was quite a success,” he told Food by Gulf News.
But how do our grandmothers feel about this?
Food by Gulf News were able to get in touch with a few grandmums, who do feel like their family recipes are getting lost with time, especially due to extensive work timings or time difference in general, while being away from home for the new generation.
“Honestly, with technology constantly changing, it’s been quite challenging to perfect the taste. I remember when my mother used to make parathas (flatbreads) for us … I can still feel the taste, you know? Especially because every ingredient was home-grown or made from scratch. Today, everything is readymade and even the spices are ground using a blender. In my time we used to use the batu giling or what is known as Metate (grinding stone). Times have changed, and it is such a fast life. Although recipes have managed to remain the same, it’s the techniques which have bought in a great difference, which can also be felt in the taste of the food we make today,” said 86-year-old Rajasthani grandmother Brijesh Barnie, who lives in Coimbatore from the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
“It honestly depends on those who likes to cook and those who don’t. Because cooking is often looked as a chore, it is quite hard for people to look at it as a labour of love. Now that everything is available on YouTube, people don’t really focus much on family recipes as long as they have something to eat every day. As for family recipes, I think it is important to preserve them because it was always carried out with a different memory of the dish in each generation,” explained 75-year-old Santhamma John residing in Kerala.
For 65-year-old Chennai-based grandmum Vimala Kannan, the best way she felt to preserve her grandmother's recipes were by starting her own social media page titled @vimalas_sizzling_samayal. She said: "Generations such as the millennials and gen Z have had a lot more exposure and access to cultures and cuisines from across the world - all thanks to the internet and social media - as compared to the older generations. This has influenced their pallet to a large extent, making them more experimental when it comes to cooking and trying new food.
"While experimenting with food has been exciting (I myself have tried food in countries such as the UK) I realized that while our authentic recipes may take up different forms (with a blend from different cultures), they will never fade away. But I would like to urge youngsters to preserve their families authentic recipes - because you will never find another like them. The best way to share your love for food with the world, these days is via social media - which is why I started this page with the help of my grand kids," said Kannan.
Most of the recipes are authentic south Indian recipes which I learned from my grand mom and mother in law. But I'm also trying my hand at different kinds of cuisines. My grand kids came up with this idea is a testimony that these generations want to learn, preserve, love and value these recipes," she further added.
Personally, I remembered my own grandmother’s recipe for boiled-then-mashed tapioca and fish curry, or what is popularly known as kappa and meen curry in Kerala, out of the blue.
In a recent conversation with my grandmum and mum, I was on the lookout for the recipe, just because of a sudden craving.
“Amma, how do you make kappa and meen curry?” I asked my mother over video call, who was in India.
“I’ll ask Ammachy (my grandmum and her mum) … her version tastes much better than mine,” she replied, leaving her video camera turned up to the ceiling. I held on, as I was determined to not drop the call till I got the family recipe. And after a lot of fumbling and frozen screens, I finally got a written recipe and now the decision of making it lies ahead.
Today, my grandmum can’t remember most of anything you tell her. But, if you ask her what ingredient goes where, at what step of cooking, and for a few of her recipes, she will explain without any hesitation of forgetfulness.
And that’s what good food is all about … memories.