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'I was surrounded by my mom's good food'

Last updated on: April 06, 2022 10:11 IST
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For model and photographer Prasanna Pandarinathan putting together a cookbook of her late mother's fabulously special recipes brought her mother back to her.

Sifting through her mom's vast collection of food notes, meticulously testing the dishes Nirmala Pandarinathan once made so lovingly for family and friends and shooting the perfect pictures was why Ammi: An Expression of Love took five years to put together.

IMAGE: After her mother passed away in 2010, Prasanna Pandarinathan spent five years working on her first cookbook Ammi: An Expression of Love, a collection of recipes from her mom Nirmala Pandarinathan's kitchen.Photograph: Kind courtesy Prasanna Pandarinathan

Good food is fuel for the soul.

It brings back fond memories of good times, of the people you love and connects you with your roots.

For New York-based model turned photographer Prasanna Pandarinathan, known as Pressy to her friends, good food, while her mother lived, was a blessing she could always count on.

"My mom always used the ammi kallu. Every morning at 6.30 am, we could hear the sound of the grindstone and that's how the kitchen started," she remembers of her growing up years with her late mother Nirmala Pandarinathan.

Nirmala was born into a Tamil family but raised in a mix of Indian, Malaysian, Chinese, Indonesian and European cultures and Pressy often shuttled between India and abroad in her childhood and youth.

After the death of their only brother in 2006, Pressy, the fourth of five siblings, in a bid to take her mother's mind off her grief, convinced her to write down her favourite recipes and promised to publish them some day.

Speaking about the void her mom left behind when she subsequently passed away in 2010, Pressy adds sadly, "The ammi misses her too.".

Pressy kept her promise and is now proud to present her first cookbook, a labour of love and learning, filled with nostalgia.

'In memory of our mother, Nirmala Pandarinathan, for whom cooking was an expression of love', Pressy writes in the introduction to her first cookbook Ammi which is filled with tasteful pictures of mouthwatering food and handpicked recipes from her mother's repertoire.

"We all grew around our mom's love for cooking and obviously we took it for granted. But now, I really miss it... I miss her," Pressy tells Divya Nair/ over the telephone from Paris, where she is on work.

You were a model before you became a photographer?

When I was a model I was always surrounded by people from the industry. I had friends in production. I enjoyed the whole process of editing and processing pictures.

I had these relatively expensive, brand new cameras at home. And no one was using them. I was in New York at the time so I decided to go ahead and shoot portraits and landscapes.

I was always interested in art and the visual medium. That's how my journey started. It was a natural progression.

The cookbook led to me discover food photography.

How do food photography and fashion photography differ?

Food is very different from fashion, fine arts or landscapes. Before I started working on the book, I went back and studied food photography. I did a course in New York.

IMAGE: Ammi, compiled by Prasanna Pandarinathan and published by Rupa Publications, features 108 recipes from South Indian and Southeast Asian cuisine. The cookbook is filled with stories, intimate details that blend heritage with nostalgia. Photograph: Kind courtesy Prasanna Pandarinathan and Rupa Publications

What's the story behind the title of your book? Why did you title it after a grindstone?

My mom always used the ammi kallu. At home, we had a wet and dry kitchen.

Every morning at 6.30 am, we could hear the sound of the grindstone and that's how the kitchen started.

I was living in New York and would often travel to our home in Bangalore. And my room was upstairs just above the kitchen.

Sometimes when I came home late at night, I'd just want to crash and it would be so noisy.

If you have used the ammi kallu, you will know that it's so different from the mixer/grinder. When you slow grind your flour, chutneys or spices, the taste and texture is so distinct.

I missed all of that. That nostalgia.

Right from grinding idlis, to dosa maavu to chutneys, my mom would use it (ammi kallu) a lot.

But when my mom passed away, and I came back home, I realised there was no noise. There is no ammi kallu to wake me up. And that really hit me hard.

That's when I realised how much I missed it, how much I missed her.

Pressy with Nirmala Pandarinathan

IMAGE: Prasanna with her mother Nirmala Pandarinathan. Photograph: Kind courtesy Prasanna Pandarinathan

Did your mother always write down her recipes?

In 2006 my brother passed away. He was her only son and the youngest in the family. It affected her a lot. A year later, I wanted to help her out of her grief.

Since she was so passionate about cooking and I thought pushing her (to write down her recipes) and getting her back into the kitchen (would help).

I made a promise to get it documented and publish it. That's how it happened.

Who else in your family has inherited your mother's culinary skills?

I was surrounded by my mom's good food and cooking, so I never felt the need to learn (to cook). I took it for granted.

The book has now led me to start cooking. But the only thing I have largely cooked is my mom's food.

What were the challenging parts about publishing this cookbook?

It took me a long time, five years, to complete the book -- a (certain) period of time to get the recipes and pictures right. Then find a publisher. I had to re-photograph some of the recipes. I travelled between New York and India to shoot.

I went through all the recipes -- back and forth, tested and retested.

There were so many measurements. My mother would say 'a pinch' of this, 'a pinch' of that. I had to get all that right.

By the time the book was ready in 2020, the pandemic happened and it was delayed further. So, there were a lot of these challenges.

But I am grateful for all the experiences. The book got me closer to my mom and I fulfilled my promise. It's been a fulfilling experience filled with learning and love.

How did you shortlist the recipes?

My mother had over 400 handwritten notes of her recipes. I took favourites of my dad's, sisters's, niece's and my mother's.

Some were heirloom recipes that were popular in the South. It was a combination of all of that.

Pepper mutton chops

IMAGE: Pepper Masala Chops. Photograph: Kind courtesy Prasanna Pandarinathan and Rupa Publications

Did you struggle to find any of the ingredients in New York?

Not so much. You get almost everything in New York these days. But yes, drumsticks are not easy to find. Some recipes I had to shoot in India.

There are saris, jewellery, language newspapers and similar accessories in the background. Were these consciously placed? Are they a part of your home and your mom's wardrobe?

Yes, they are all carefully, consciously part of my mom's journey. I've used her saris and jewellery.

She loved jasmine and tuberose. I have used a lot of them.

Did your mother have any peculiar kitchen habits?

She was very particular about her spices, where they were coming from. We have a farm in Madurai where she grew her vegetables.

Most of the spices were ground and not bought.

She cut and peeled the garlic pods in a specific way; how she held her knife was different -- Mom had her way of doing things.

I remember we always gathered for lunch and dinner. In our family, we were always very vocal.

I remember friends coming in and joining us for food. There was always this cacophony, and conversations around food, in the house.

Prasanna's mother loved to grow her own veggies, grind her own spices to prepare masalas.

IMAGE: Prasanna's mother loved to grow her own veggies, grind her own spices to prepare masalas. Photograph: Kind courtesy Prasanna Pandarinathan and Rupa Publications

Have you noticed any resemblance between the various cuisines -- particularly between Malaysian, Singaporean, Indian or even with Europe where your mother was raised?

South Asian cooking has a lot of similarities with Indian cooking. For example, Malaysians used a lot of coconut and they use similar spices.

The combination of spices and ingredients may vary, but they are all very flavourful.

If you look at European cooking, there is a lot of baking. And my mom baked a lot.

Which is your favourite recipe from the book?

The seafood section is special. I love the Pamban Fish Curry and Pepper Masala Chops.

When you travel away from home, what do you crave the most?

My comfort food is dosa with chicken or fish curry.

The one dish your mom made that was always a blockbuster.

Her biryanis were fantastic. Her fish curry was excellent and so were her baked crabs.

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