Cracking the Case of South India’s Missing Vegetables

AKASH MURALIDHARAN’S QUEST TO FIND forgotten South Indian vegetables began when he cleaned out his bedroom. It was January 2020, and he had just returned to his home city of Chennai after finishing his master’s degree in Food Design and Innovation in Milan. Like many students returning home after graduation, Muralidharan found that his childhood bedroom had become a storeroom. Muralidharan was clearing space for himself when he spotted it: his grandmother Kamala Natarajan’s copy of Samaithu Par.

Published in 1951, Samaithu Par, translated to English as Cook and See, is a classic text of 20th-century vegetarian Tamil Brahmin cooking. Authored by Meenakshi Ammal, a widow turned chef-auteur, the book consists of 350 recipes for beloved dishes including sambar, rasam, payasam, and uppuma.

At a time when both vernacular Indian cookbooks and widows’ participation in public life were rare in Tamil Nadu, Samaithu Par was trailblazing. It became a staple of young women’s bridal trousseaus and a culinary lifeline for the Tamil Brahmin families who migrated to the United States and Europe in a time when letters lagged and bad lines often cut phone calls short. Today, Samaithu Par remains a beloved reference for home cooks looking to recreate their grandmother’s recipes, as well as outsiders learning the basics of one of South India’s many region- and community-specific cuisines.

Muralidharan’s paati, or grandmother, had also received Samaithu Par as a wedding present. As Muralidharan flipped through her spotless copy, the recipes were redolent with memories. “She was one person who introduced me to food,” he says.

Read more at Atlas Obscura. Featured Image: Heather Barnes, Unsplash