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Have You Cooked With Your Mother? I Did

Last updated on: May 10, 2024 10:15 IST
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IMAGE: My mother carves a pumpkin with my elder daughter. Photograph: Zelda Pande

My mom didn't grow up eating or cooking Indian meals.

But she was a first-rate cook of Indian food.

Our home was known for Bhabhi or Chachi or Mrs Pande's simple, superb vegetarian food. It was nothing fancy or showy, but wholesome traditional food, that was so representative of Sagar, Damoh and Bundelkhand in Madhya Pradesh, where my paternal grandparents hailed from.

As a young, beautiful Estonian bride, who spent her childhood also in Sweden and Canada, she was keen to learn how to make the Indian food my father ate. He cooked it himself before shaadi, not always well, with tonnes of butter, and would not eat anything other than Indian fare, except the sporadic green capsicum pizza, toast and Creme Brulee.

After marriage she started filling up spiral notebooks (which I have kept) in her not-so-neat hand with step-by-step recipes -- plus cute little diagrams (the exact cut of the potato or the shape of a samosa) -- she learnt from my grandmother and my great aunt (my father's mausi) and even my aunt (my chachi). Recipes would occasionally arrive on blue aerogrammes too.

Preparations for lightly-spiced tarkaris, dals, all the types of Indian bread, garam masala, a selection of hot and dry snacks (her sev and chuda were the best I have ever eaten), a few guest specials like dahi badas, gulab jamuns, rasmalai (that she imaginatively flavoured with vanilla instead of elaichi), shrikhand (her extremely shiny and silky take, because she labouriously pushed it through a thin muslin cloth rather than a channi) for guests, were contained in those books that she referred to unfailingly.

Later, as her skills got increasingly polished, my mother moved onto to also consulting the only Indian cookbooks available abroad then, Mrs Balbir Singh's Indian Cookery and Premila Lal's volumes (interestingly many years later Premila Lal aka the late Kiki Watsa turned out to be the mother of my husband's dear school friend).

All who visited our home in the US, American or Indian, were served authentic asli Indian food, although she sometimes threw in a mushroom pie or an elaborately-prepared Western dessert from her fat The Gourmet Cookbook tomes like Charlotte Russe, Baba au Rhum, Ile Flottante (floating islands); walnut cake stuffed with whipped cream was her specialty.

Not all of it was a success. I remember poor Dr Bhaskaran, who was visiting from India, politely and patiently waiting for his dosa breakfast, while my mother was almost close to tears in the kitchen trying to figure out why the Gits packet would not produce perfect round dosas but was delivering tattered ugly little wads of dough. Her First Dosa Experiment was a disaster.

Even though we grew up in an era in America when a meal out of a box was the big new albeit tasteless thing (TV dinners, packets of mashed potato powder, canned corn soups, cake mixes, spam), and junk food and soft drinks abounded, none of that entered our home, except one pack of cookies a week and we could each choose a 10 cent pack of candy on Fridays, I think it was, after school and the library.

All our meals were homemade and we went to restaurants rarely. Puris and alu or gobhi accompanied us on road trips across America and we invariably checked into hotels that had kitchens attached and my mom would comically land up with her kadhais, spatulas, belans, besan, aata, spices, peanut oil, enveloped in a pungent cloud of Indian masalas, to the bewilderment of the prim American guests.

IMAGE: My mother Piret Pande. Photograph: Zelda Pande

When we moved to India, she expanded her Indian repertoire considerably, learning pickles, Diwali sweets and savouries, umpteen more types of snacks and delights. And tried to recreate the Western stuff that was barely available in Ranchi then.

She would spend months, consulting various scientific manuals, making cheese and the result, when it was finally unveiled, was always some unpalatable hard green rock of dried milk that could kill someone, and that experiment was a resounding failure, no matter how many times she stubbornly attempted it. She sometimes baked bread from scratch.

She had a sweet tooth, like me, and cookies, apple pie, pound cakes were the norm, although my sister made those too, to perfection.

She loved India, and Jharkhand particularly, dearly and all the challenges India presented, be it navigating public transport, buying a house, taking wheat to a chakki, whitewashing the exterior of our home herself, raising cows or tending to her own khet (fields).

Both in India and the US, she regularly cooked Western meals for us three kids. We were a noisy, unruly, smart-ass bunch, who were always hungry. Lunches were potato pancakes, scrambled eggs, soups, egg macaroni, sandwiches, apple fritters, salads.

My mom sometimes experimented with the vaguest of stuff, endless reprocessing of leftovers (wasting food was anathema given her 'DP complex' as my father called it) or venturing into Territory Unknown -- doodhi pudding (ugh), McCormick meat sauce powders (minus the meat) on top of our pasta, porridge/dalia with no sugar only bananas, dishes made from the foraged food Adivasis ate like flowers and bamboo.

Once, soon after we arrived in India, she decided to sample guiya or arbi (sticky potato), not realising it was not a vegetable you could eat raw -- she was always chewing away at stuff raw while she cooked, cauliflower, potato whatever -- and thought she was dying and was planning to write out a note telling us to not touch the vegetable that she had just eaten, in case it proved fatal.

I never actually cooked with my mother, like The New York Times article I recently saw about an Indian daughter and mother creating a culinary storm in the kitchen together.

I cooked for my mum and she cooked for me and she always gave me a perfect cup of tea in bed, who no one has done ever since. She was interested in the things I had learnt to cook and I wanted to make sure I knew how to flawlessly cook what she made. Her style was always pretty healthy. She cooked with the most minimum amount of oil or butter.

Later she would whip up all kinds of special things for my daughters; her sev and jalebis were favourites with my elder, and khare alu (masala stuffed or bharwan potatoes) or gankar (liti or roasted wheat cakes) and bharta (roasted eggplant) with the younger. Her khare alu was actually an extended family fave.

So, we did end up spending quite a bit of time in the kitchen together, me helping her, especially as she got older. It was an occasion to chat and we had long discussions about family issues -- she was a quiet, low-key but energetic person with a very special wry sense of humour (that my elder daughter inherited).

When my mom was a few years past 60, she diagnosed herself with Parkinson's disease. She did indeed have it and her diagnosis was later medically confirmed. She slowly faded away, unmourned, although it took many more years for her to actually pass on (in her beloved Ranchi).

She could no longer cook although she bravely struggled to do so and I tried to cook for her. Kitchen conversations gradually lost their structure and she could no longer figure out who I was.

But people live on with you, after they go, right beside you, through our memories, that bring them close by, and even through recipes.

Every time I make a batch of chuda or a kadhai of khare alu (I am using her full range of kadhais from the cute baby miniatures to the maxis) or spinach soup, sometimes with one of my daughters nearby, it's a little ode to her.

While I loved her range of Indian khaana -- her raseela phool gobhi (cauliflower with gravy), her gankar and bharta, her khare alu and her lovely soft chapattis fresh off the flame and into my plate -- this unpretentious spinach soup is also representative of my mother and her cooking. It's spartan, unfussy, not flashy, yet it's oil-less, hearty and tasty. I make it often.

Spinach Soup
Photograph: Kind courtesy: Axel Pettersson/ Wikimedia Commons

Bai's Spinach Soup

Serves: 4


  • 1 bundle spinach (about 250 gm), stems removed, finely chopped
  • 1 onion, finely choppped
  • 150 ml dahi or yoghurt
  • Salt to taste, about 1½ tsp
  • 1½ tsp black pepper powder
  • 2 hard boiled eggs, peeled sliced
  • 4-5 cups water


  • In a saucepan, boil the spinach with the chopped onion and the water over medium heat.
    After it comes to a boil, lower the heat, season with the salt and the pepper and add the yoghurt and the eggs.
    Simmer for a few minutes more.
    Take off heat and serve hot with a salad and a side of bread.

Do you have a special recipe of your mom's?

We all think our moms cook the best.

Indeed they do!

Indian families are packed with supercooks taking the best of food traditions forward and these cooks, their tribe and their recipes need to be celebrated.

What was the most special dish your mom ever cooked? Send us the recipe and her picture.

To share your Mother's Recipe with us, just mail us at (subject: My Mother's Recipe) along with your name, your mother's name, the recipe and her photograph.

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