Be it baking evoking a homey feeling or the familiar popping sound and the strong aroma of whole spices being roasted, food is a great connector. There is so much joy when families gather around favourite dishes. Over the years the shared love for food connects generations. Food tends to be a comfort place, one that sits at the centre of every culture. Stories of how our grandparents and parents cooked and how that special flavour and taste can never be replicated is common in almost every culture.
Sometimes people follow every step to when cooking a family favourite. From assembling to marinating and cooking, every step is carefully replicated.
During winter my husband’s grandmother used to roast liver-stuffed chicken with seasonal veggies, later his aunt used to make it and now he does, exactly in the same manner. That’s how special family recipes are. Family recipes also offer a view into what the earlier generations consumed and how tastes have evolved over time. Food indeed connects one generation with the other, creating a deep sense of pride and comfort.
Here are stories of three families from three different countries with a common thread tying them, how family recipes have connected them across generations. Interestingly, in all three accounts grandmothers have played a pivotal role in developing a genuine love for cooking among their grandchildren.
Fatteh chickpeas is one of our favourites
In Arabic, ‘fatteh’ refers to flatbread. It can be fresh, toasted, grilled or even eaten stale. It is quite a popular dish in the Middle East, especially in Egypt, Lebanon and Palestine, and interestingly combined with different ingredients based on the country. The Levantine version starts with the bread topped with chickpeas, yogurt and olive oil. “It’s simple yet so delicious and happens to be one of our family favourites,” said UAE-based Lebanese expat Tarek Mneymneh.
“As such Lebanese cuisine is quite diverse. We have recipes ranging from vegan to those made with meat and chicken. Since my father is from Beirut and mother from Tripoli, our family kitchen is even more diverse in terms of cultural influences on food, ranging from Lebanese to Syrian and Turkish. Add to that my maternal grandmother’s culinary prowess and it became a true melting pot."
“My grandmother was a great cook who could make everything from ‘hummus’, ‘tabouleh’ to far more complex dishes like ‘mulukhiyah’ (a classic Middle Eastern stew) and stuffed vine leaves with equal flair. Besides her incredible culinary skills, she had a great taste palate that helped her to perfectly balance the taste in every dish. And I think I might have inherited her taste palate that now guides me while cooking,” he added.
By the time he was a teenager, Mneymneh had started cooking too. It started with putting together a quick dish for friends using whatever was available in the fridge. “Back in those days, you couldn’t order food in a click. We were in a friend’s house in the mountain region in Lebanon, parents had stepped out and we were feeling hungry. So, I cooked a quick dish using some onion, zucchini, potato and some spices. That was the start. Since then, I have been adding my own tweaks to family recipes using different spices and everyone seems to enjoy the dishes. Now I cook almost every day for my children. Some of the dishes that they like include fatteh chickpeas, red beans in tomato sauce with rice and lasagne, among others.”
Besides bringing families together around the dining table, food also helps to get glimpses of the past, how ancestors ate and what kind of evolution has happened over the years. For instance, Mneymneh shared how his ancestors mostly consumed vegan food, eating meat twice or thrice a week because access was a challenge. Now meat is easily available and hence consumption has also gone up. “Since there is no dearth of recipes in Lebanese cuisine, cooking full meals using only vegetables wasn’t difficult. In fact, nowadays despite easy availability of meat, many families including mine are keen to have certain vegan days in the week,” he shared.
“I think in the past people from many other cultures also ate more vegetarian food and there are certain influences common across cultures. When I went to do my Master’s in the US and sorely missed home-cooked food, one day I ate palak paneer (cottage cheese cooked with spinach) in an Indian restaurant, and it immediately reminded me of Lebanon although we don’t use that cottage cheese variant. Yet, there was a strong connection somewhere, possibly because we use spices such as cumin and cinnamon in our dishes and spinach too,” Mneymneh added.
Here’s Tarek Mneymneh’s fatteh chickpeas recipe:
2.5 cups (500 gms) of chickpeas (canned or cooked), drained and rinsed
1/3 tsp cumin powder
2 loaves of Lebanese bread cut into wedges
250 gms or 1 cup of plain yogurt
250 gms or 1 cup of labneh (Turkish recipe)
2 small cloves garlic crushed into a paste
3 tbsp olive oil
1/4 cup (40 gms) pine nuts
1) Preheat the oven to 175C/350F.
2) Put the bread wedges on a baking sheet and bake for 10 minutes, or until golden and crispy. Remove from the oven and set aside.
3) Put the cooked and drained chickpeas in a small pot along with 1 cup of water and simmer over medium-to-high heat for about 10 minutes or until they are tender. Strain chickpeas, reserving some of the liquid, season with salt and cumin powder.
4) Meanwhile, put the yogurt, labneh, garlic paste, and a good pinch of salt in a large bowl and whisk until thoroughly combined.
5) Just before serving, place a small frying pan with olive oil over medium heat and toast the pine nuts just until their colour changes. Remove from heat immediately.
6) On a serving plate, spread a layer of bread and arrange them evenly on the bottom, add a layer of chickpeas (with a sprinkle of its own liquid) followed by the yoghurt mix. Finally, top it with the warm olive oil in pine nuts.
7) Eat it immediately after combining the ingredients. Bon appétit!
Daal puri is our comfort food
Over two decades ago a 10-year-old girl attended a jam-making session hand in hand with her 80-year-old maternal grandmother. Besides the bond that children usually share with their grandparents, what also connected this girl with her grandmother is a deep love for food.
“From the age of eight or nine, I used to follow my grandmother around in the kitchen, always mesmerised by the way she went about cooking for the family with great love and prowess,” recollected Abu-Dhabi-based Indian expatriate Sagorika Kar, who is a Bengali from Kolkata. “I was even drawn to tools that she used in the kitchen. Some favourites included a brass spice holder, a traditional variant of stone mortar and pestle that we call ‘sheel nora’ in Bengali and the quintessential ‘boti’, which is a long, curved blade that cuts on a platform held down by foot.”
Explaining how a mix of culture has influenced her cooking style, Kar said, “Both my maternal and paternal grandmothers cooked exceptionally well. My paternal grandmother, a native from West Bengal, always managed to add a special touch to the simplest of dishes like fish curry with potatoes and bori (dried lentil dumplings). We fondly called it the ‘school jhol’ (jhol refers to curry in English) because back in the days my father and his siblings would eat this fish curry with rice before they went to school. She also used to make delicious ‘aloo chorchori’ (potato curry). On the other hand, my maternal grandmother, who came from East Bengal (now Bangladesh), cooked everything from simple to complex dishes with equal ease. Our favourites included everything from ‘bhetki fish fry’ (bread crumb coated fish cutlet), ‘chitol macher muitha’ (a Bengali fish delicacy) to ‘dal puri’ (stuffed Indian flatbread).”
In fact, the combination of dal puri with aloo chorchori is an all-time favourite in Kar’s family. “It is such a perfect combination because dal puri and aloo chorchori are specialities passed down by my maternal and paternal grandmothers, respectively. Over the years, it became comfort food for us. And after my marriage, it has now become a favourite in my husband’s family, too,” Kar shared. Now Kar adds her own tweaks to this family favourite. “I add extra spice or two like hing (asafoetida powder) for a distinctive smell. And asafoetida powder is a great digestive agent too.”
A self-confessed nomad who has moved from one city to another in India and then from one country to another, Kar credits her parents for keeping her closely connected with traditional Bengali food. “Having lived in cities such as New Delhi, Lucknow, Dehradun and Dhanbad, I’ve been exposed to various cuisines and that’s why I loved stuffed parantha and momos as much as haleem and a complete Bengali meal comprising ‘dal’ (lentil), fish curry and rice. In fact, when I was studying in college and then started working in Delhi, I used to regularly cook authentic Bengali dishes for friends. I still do, although now a few ingredients are difficult to procure. My husband and I love to dine out and whenever we like a dish, I make it a point to cook it at home adding my own twists.”
Here are Sagorika Kar’s dal puri and aloo chorchori recipes:
Bengali-style dal puri
1 cup chana dal (Bengal gram dal)
1 cup water
1⁄2 tsp oil
Salt to taste
1 tsp ginger paste
1 tsp red chili powder
1 tsp bhaja masala (see below)
Bhaja masala / spice mix
2 tbsp cumin seeds (jeera)
2 pieces dried red chili
2 pieces small green cardamon
2 pieces bay leaves
2 cups of maida (white flour)
2 tsp white oil / ghee
3⁄4 cup warm water
1⁄2 tsp salt
1) Soak chana dal in water for about 30 minutes. Then pressure cook the dal with equal amount of water for about two whistles or until cooked enough to mash easily. Do not overcook the dal since it will make the puri mushy. Once chana dal cools down, drain any excess water and mash it. It is up to you to mash it completely or leave it grainy.
2) Heat a frying pan, add all the ingredients for ‘bhaja masala’. Dry roast till slightly dark in roast, emitting a fragrant smell. Be careful to keep the heat on low to medium, so the whole spices do not burn. Once the roasted spices cool down, grind them into a fine powder.
3) Heat oil in a wide pan and add the ginger paste. Then add mashed chana dal and the ‘bhaja masala’ with salt and red chilli powder. Mix well. Cook for about 2 to 3 minutes. Remove the dal from the pan and transfer it to a bowl to cool.
4) Once it cools down, make small balls, and keep aside.
5) Knead white flour with ghee, salt and warm water into stiff but soft dough. Cover to let it sit for about 30 minutes.
6) Divide the dough into equal sized balls. Flatten one of the balls into three-four-inch diameter circle. Place a ball of spicy chana dal stuffing in the middle. Carefully bring all the edges of the dough to seal the stuffing well.
7) Flatten this into small circles making sure the stuffing doesn’t come out.
8) Two options of frying: Traditionally, you can deep fry it in oil like a ‘puri’.
Option of our family: We roll it bigger and shallow fry it like a ‘paratha’.
2 chopped green chilis
1 tsp ginger
2 dried red chilis
1/3 tsp nigella seeds (kalonji)
A pinch of asafoetida powder (hing)
1⁄2 tsp dry mango powder (amchur)
1 cup water
Salt to taste
3 tbsp cooking oil
1 tbsp fresh coriander leaves (chopped)
1) Peel the potatoes and cut into small cubes (about a 1.5 cm). Wash well and soak in cold water.
2) Make a paste of green chilis and ginger.
3) Heat oil in a pan and add nigella seeds, dried red chili and hing powder. When nigella seeds start to crackle add the green chilies and ginger paste and stir. Cook for 2 minutes till the raw smell of ginger goes away.
4) Now add potato cubes and salt. Cook for 4-5 minutes on medium heat until it becomes slightly golden in colour.
5) Add the dry mango powder now. Season with more salt if needed.
6) Add warm water and close lid to simmer till potatoes are cooked. You can also pressure cook to quicken the process.
7) Once the potatoes are fully cooked, add chopped coriander leaves and serve hot with dal puri.
Lemon pie became a family favourite
When UAE-based Italian expat Marcello Rivetti was growing up in a small village in northern Italy, lemon was always present in the kitchen. His grandfather and father grew lemon at home. Even today Rivetti’s father-in-law grows lemon in a small patch of kitchen garden. Unsurprisingly, Rivetti’s family used home-grown lemon in many dishes, among which lemon pie slowly become a family favourite.
“My family started making lemon pie almost four generations ago. Over the years, each generation has added their own tweaks. For example, my grandmother’s lemon pie was simple yet extremely delicious. My mother adds vanilla and lemon juice for flavour. I use gluten-free flour since my daughter is allergic to gluten, while my youngest son uses extra sugar. It’s a recipe that has connected four generations.”
Even as family recipes connect generations, the version cooked by the earlier generations always seem extra special. “No matter what I do something seems to be missing in the lemon pie when I compare it with my grandmother’s version,” Rivetti agreed. That’s the challenge of replicating a family recipe. However, Rivetti also pointed towards a bigger challenge related to seasonality.
“Every Sunday our big family of 12 to 14 would gather for lunch at my grandparents’ home. Whatever my grandmother cooked was completely in sync with the season. While our favourites were ravioli and meat stew, my grandparents always offered seasonal vegetables, fruits and nuts. In summer there would be fresh apricots from the garden, while apple, pear and chestnuts were a common sight during winter. So, now when we are unable to perfectly recreate certain family recipes, the ingredients are to be partially blamed because a lot depends on the ambience, environment and the way produce is grown. Nowadays, most vegetables and fruits are available all year round, which was not the norm earlier,” Rivetti explained.
A chef by profession, Rivetti credits his grandmother as his biggest culinary influence. “From the age of five or six, I was absolutely fascinated by the way my grandmother managed her kitchen, how she assembled and marinated ingredients and even the way she regulated the heat while cooking. I was keen to learn her skills and thus, I was always ready to help her in the kitchen. That’s how I slowly started cooking. Crème caramel was the first dish I made, and my grandmother was so pleased.”
Now Rivetti makes it a point to cook at least thrice a week for his family and some of the favourite dishes include spaghetti with tomato sauce, meat loaf with roasted potatoes and cakes – most of which his grandmother taught him to make. When asked if he encourages his children to cook, Rivetti said, “We don’t encourage them, but they are welcome to try their skills. In fact, my youngest son takes a keen interest in cooking dishes and then posts photos on Instagram.”
Here’s Marcello Rivetti’s gluten-free lemon pie recipe:
For the base:
100 gms of soft unsalted butter
70 gms of sugar (better to use raw or cane sugar)
250 gms gluten free flour
1 tsp baking powder
For the filling:
Juice of 2 lemons
Approximately 1 tsp grated lemon zest
300 gms of sour cream
300 gms of fresh cream
20 gms of corn starch
80 gms of sugar (better to use raw or cane sugar)
Half vanilla beans (optional)
1) Place all the ingredients for the base in a bowl and mix until it becomes a firm dough.
2) Leave the dough in the fridge for half an hour.
3) Place all the ingredients for the filling in a bowl and mix until it becomes smooth and creamy in texture.
4) Leave the filling to the side and bring the dough out from the fridge.
5) Place the dough into a cake pan of a 28/30 cm diameter and flatten it across all the edges of the base.
6) Pour the filling inside and flatten the dough.
7) Place in a preheated oven and bake at 200C for 40 minutes.
8) Leave in the oven to cool down to room temperature because it is then easier to remove the lemon pie from the cake pan.
9) Enjoy at room temperature or cold.
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