Padmaja Iyengar-Paddy

I remember my late Amma (mother) saying for the longest time that she hated cooking – something I hate too! The only difference is/was that while my indifference and dislike for cooking often reflects in the food I dish out, my Amma’s cooking was always flawless. Anything she made always had a special and delectable flavour that bore her distinct stamp! She was a master at recycling leftovers and invariably came up with some interesting, never-before-tasted, delicious outcomes! For a large middle-class family like ours, such economic measures were imperative, and my mother was conscious of this all the time!

In my native language Tamil, there’s a word Kai Manam that literally means hand aroma but figuratively refers to a person with exceptional cooking skills! And I can shout from rooftops that my late Amma was blessed with supreme Kai Manam!

Her innovative recycling efforts were always so lip-smacking like left over Phulkas or Rotis or Paranthas of the previous night innovated as breakfast the next morning, by being broken into very small pieces and stir fried with finely cut onions and chillis, Milagai Podi (Roasted and coarsely-powdered red chilies (Lal Mirch), split black lentils (Urad Dal) and asafetida (Hing), often served with the popular South Indian breakfast foods Idli and Dosai along with Sambar). My mother would call this uniquely tasty concoction Roti Upma!!! Likewise, since the city we lived in was very hot and humid during summer, my mother would soak the left-over cooked rice of the previous night and serve it the next morning as Sadam-Neer (which literally means Rice-Water) by adding a generous quantity of butter milk to cooled mashed rice with a sprinkling of salt and pieces of Vadumaangaai (Baby Mangoes. When the mango season starts, very small green raw mangoes are plucked before they grow large and are pickled with salt and chili powder. This pickle which has a limited shelf life, is popular in Tamilnadu).

My childhood home was an independent house with a large terrace. Come summer, and Amma would prepare the cool Thair Saadam (Curd rice) in a large vessel and we children would be bundled to the huge terrace where we would be seated on mats and Amma would place by turns in our palm a small ball of curd rice with a few spoons of Sambar or Vetthakuzambu or mango/lemon pickle already cut into small pieces. I felt that I always overate such meals, so lovingly fed to us by my Amma, regaling us with all sorts of stories of which she seemed to have an enormous stock (some of which cooked by her - given her fertile creativity for story telling!). I remember that there were some stories that she told us in instalments to keep the interest going and the food quickly reaching our stomach!)

My elder sister, 15 years my senior, while studying medicine at the Nagpur Medical College, always participated in the elaborate snacks and sweet preparations at home for Diwali (The Festival of Lights celebrated throughout India in late October or early November). In fact, she would insist that the preparations should not commence without her presence and active participation. Till date, apart from being an excellent doctor, she is also a highly knowledgeable cook! My other sisters and I often turn to her to clarify cooking doubts.

I still fondly remember that large varieties and quantities of sweets and snacks were prepared for the Diwali festival and arranged on large stain steel plates that were covered with crochet or embroidered towels crafted by Amma and sent to neighbours through the then little me!  In my heydays, buying sweets or snack items from shops, was unthinkable for my late Amma! Even the ingredients for every day cooking were personally and carefully hand-picked by her including vegetables. Also, sharing food or snack items was a common practice between neighbours then! The camaraderie was such those days that when parents had to suddenly leave  on an urgent outstation visit, their school-college going children would be generously taken care of by the neighbours with food, snacks and in every other way! Neighbours lived like joint families in my time, caring and sharing!

When our popular e-zine Setu announced this Food Special issue, I went on several trips down the memory lane, recalling the times I spent with my late Amma, observing her cooking methods and the care with which she prepared food – each item an awesome delicacy dripping with her affection and concern for her family! With advancing age, she’d complain that she was tired of cooking, but then, would never miss an opportunity to treat us with her special dishes and would generously guide us and those who sought her guidance on cooking and would share her unique recipes.

I believe that every adult has some lasting memories of spending parts of childhood in the kitchen watching mother cook food, soaking in the delicious aroma that emanated from her cooking that was embellished with her love, care and concern for her family! Truly, such memories are treasures that never leave us and have left some or the other lasting impact on us! Amma, I miss you a lot! 



  1. Such a vivid description with the Tamil flavour. Thank you so much for this wonderful reminiscence and documentation.

  2. Beautifully written article taking me down the memory lane. Diwali time so vividly explained. The relationships with neighbours were full of bonhomie. For us kids it used be party time when any parent went out of station

  3. The write up brought up the buried memories of our childhood , nostalgic to the core. Today’s children don’t know what they are missing, growing up with fast food culture. Hats off to Paddy for the excellent tribute to the Ammas and their tingling and mouthwatering recipes they love fed to the children

  4. Memoirs are such a nostalgic fun read ❗ Enjoyed going on this journey with the author to her childhood days 🌹

  5. Thank you dear and respected Gayathree, RidhimaAlka, @Annonymous@ and Rajeev for stopping by and for your positive feedback!


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