Days of pickles and papad-making

2010-11-22 00:00

NOWADAYS pickles are picked off the shelf, spices are bought roasted and ground, and pre-cooked rotis bought from main-stream supermarkets.

In days gone by, Granny’s home was a flurry of activity in preparation for these cooking sessions. The spices were picked clean, spread on trays and put out in the open to absorb some of the richness of the sun. Each variety was then divided into heaps that had to be coarsely ground, finely pounded or kept intact. Stocks of oil, ginger, garlic and chillies arrived daily, which also had to be sorted and kept for the great day.

Doyenne of Indian cooking Zulekha Mayet, who has penned the legendary book Indian Delights, that almost every Indian woman has in her armoury of household weapons, recalls fondly those days when messages were sent out to relatives and neighbours informing them of the great event.

“They too would offer silent prayers that the morrow would turn out bright and sunny, that being a pre-requisite for successful achar and papad-making as well as for calm tempers. On D-day granny would personally supervise the cooking of a large cauldron of dhal and rice to feed the clan. Gradually the aunties would filter in bringing biscuits, bhajia batter, a dessert, or chutney to augment the menu for the day. If it was a papad-making session, they would come equipped with a rolling pin and thali (tray). For achar-making sessions they would bring sharp knives and mixing bowls,” said Mayet.

Some of the aunties, she said, came equipped with the latest versions of classic jokes, stories and folk songs to entertain the women immersed in their task.

“Actually, these stories and folk songs served also as inducement to the young girls in the family who became work-shy in the face of such collective know-how. While they sat and listened, they were also shown how to manipulate the dough, dry the papads or whisk the mustard,” said Mayet.

Those days are now over — no longer do the women get together to make traditional foods such as achar and papad, rotis and sweetmeats. Nor do the majority of them make it at home. With the changing roles of women in society, many are making their mark in the workplace, which leaves little or no time to fill the role of a traditional Indian wife.

Today pickles are picked off the shelf, rotis are bought from supermarkets or from a “roti aunty”, so too are sweetmeats. As for papad-making — that was last done a generation ago. Indian cuisine has come a long way since our forefathers arrived on South African shores. With just food rations of dhal chawal (rice and dhal) on board the ships that brought them here, the early settlers had to make do with just the bare necessities until Indian traders began arriving here a few years later.

Then too, with money being tight due to the pitiful salaries they were paid for toiling from dawn until dusk, dhall, rice, mielie rice, beans and flour remained staple items they purchased.

Many an elder in the family will relate the story of how they grew up on frugal meals of mielie rice kitchree (mielie rice boiled until mushy and braised with onions) and tomato chutney or dry fish chutney for non-vegetarians.

The times were harsh and rough for our forefathers. With hope in their hearts they tilled the soil or hawked the streets as vendors.

Mayet said when the home-spun cottons they had brought from India wore out and few had the money to buy new tablecloths, mothers substituted these with something for free.

“Armed with a pair of scissors and dexterously folding old newspapers, beautiful repeat designs soon emerged. Shelves and tables were covered with these. Wholesome food was the order of the day then. The platter of rice, dhal, or spiced yogurt, curried potato slices, onion and tomato relishes, quarters of oranges sprinkled with salt and roasted cumin seeds for dessert and a jug of iced water was sufficient for the most fastidious,” she said.

Those were the days when everyone lived together in the joint family system and when the serva curry sustained the family over lean days without anyone feeling like a pauper.

The serva curry, literally unheard of today, was made of a few pieces of meat to which Granny added lentils, potatoes, calabash or whatever could be put together, according to Mayet’s Indian delights that has sold more than 500 000 copies. Water was added to make a thick saucy gravy to eat with bread, rice or rotis.

“The males being traditionally the breadwinners in the family, growing children and pregnant or breastfeeding women would be coaxed to spoon off the choice bits of meat and vegetables. Mothers were usually left with only the gravy to spoon over their portion of rice or to mop up with their bread. Often when Father insisted that Mother too must have some meat, she would pretend that she had gone off eating meat or had a current digestive problem and could not eat meat,” said Mayet.

Mayet said no vegetable dish was complete without its accompaniments of wari — neatly rolled pattas (spiced and steamed madumbi leaves) — and should this not be possible, then at least freshly grilled mielie-meal rotis.

Bhavanisha Maharaj, a career woman with two children, said while she admired the mothers and cooks of yesteryear there was simply no time to cook that way.

“Making roti takes at least an hour and a half, while making pickles can take an entire morning. I simply don’t have the time for that. In any case, life is made so much easier when you can pick the pickle off the shelf and get the roti from your local supermarket. I’ll teach my daughter how to make the rotis, pickles and sweetmeats to ensure that those skills don’t die but for everyday purposes, we’ll just buy them,” said Bhavanisha.

Vijay Singh (62) now a grandmother, said in her day there was no excuse for not having homemade specialties irrespective of whether one worked or not.

“I guess we still lived in the joint family system and everyone had to pull their weight, working or not. I worked, had two children, but still had to make the rotis and pickles, and wash and roast my spices. My husband is really fussy and refuses to eat roti bought from the shop. Nowadays the younger husbands are a lot more indulgent and understanding,” said Singh.

Indian eating styles have also changed. When the settlers arrived they brought with them their particular way of cooking that had to be modified. South African Indian cuisine is not quite similar to typically North or South Indian cooking. Nowadays Indians have embraced the cuisine of several different cultures and are at home dining on pizza, pasta, nachos, salads and other dishes.

So, will the traditional roti hot off the thava and pickles freshly made at home join the ranks of commercial fast food in the future? One can only guess.


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