Writers on Reading. Part Three, Archana Pidathala
Five Morsels of Love is a collection of heirloom recipes from Andhra Pradesh, written by Archana Pidathala who found inspiration in her grandmother, author G Nirmala Reddy’s self-published cookbook ‘Vanita Vanṭakālu’ written in 1974. From minced meat with green peas to raw plantain cutlets, Five Morsels…puts together complex and layered recipes with a delightful simplicity. In this edition of Writers on Reading we asked Archana a few questions about her work, her snacking habits and of course, the books she loves to read.
Which was the first cookbook you ever read and the first recipe you tried from it?
I have only been collecting cookbooks for the past few years. The first cookbook I ever read and which still is a favourite is Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. The first recipe I tried from the book is for a basic hummus which is creamy, rich and just perfect. The trick is to add baking soda while cooking the chickpeas and then use iced water while blending the chickpeas, just the last five minutes.
As a reader what do you look for in a book of recipes? And as a writer what have you attempted to consciously include in your book to make it convenient and useful?
I look for writing that sounds like good literature. I also look for recipes that are well-researched, unique and fun and full of interesting flavour combinations.
All the recipes in my book are tested at least three times. As a writer I have attempted to give simple and clear instructions with precise ingredient quantities, exact cooking times and enough sensory cues. I also tried to recreate my grandmother’s voice in the kitchen - a voice that is warm and reassuring and can make one feel confident to cook.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I was always a reader and never aspired to be a writer. It just happened. My grandmother (or Ammama as I called her) authored a very popular Telugu cookbook Vanita Vanṭakālu in the seventies and wanted to bring out an English version of her cookbook. As fate would have it, that did not happen in her lifetime and we lost her to pancreatic cancer in the summer of 2007 with her wish unfulfilled. My first book Five Morsels of Love was born out of a desire to fulfil her last wish. And that is the beginning of my writing journey.
Tell us about your books, what's in your non-fiction collection currently? Could you share a favourite with us?
Bihar is in the Eye of the Beholder by Vijay Nambisan
Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World by Ram Guha
India: A Million Mutinies Now by V.S. Naipaul
A field guide to getting lost by Rebecca Solnit
Ants Among Elephants by Sujatha Gidla
The Free Voice: On Democracy, Culture and the Nation by Ravish Kumar
It is going to be difficult to pick a favourite from this list. All equally fascinating and such diverse reads!
Have you ever been interested in writing fiction?
To be honest I have never given it a thought. What I have thought about though is to write for children at some point.
As a child, did you have a fictional character that you really related to?
My father gave me a copy of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird when I was twelve or thirteen. Atticus Finch is my favourite fictional character. He reminds me a whole lot of my own father who was so well respected in our small town. The relationship Atticus Finch and his daughter Scout share has echoes of what my father and I shared.
And now, what do you like reading online? Tell us about a website or magazine that has you hooked?
I like reading a wide range of long form articles online. I do read a whole lot on The New Yorker and spend so much time on Brain Pickings!
We’ve been asking our readers to share their reading corners, do you have a favourite reading corner at home?
I can read almost everywhere and anywhere. But I do have a reading corner at home -- my writing desk. It has stacks of all the books I have read in the past six months and intend to read in the next six months.
So is there a cook book you wish you had written?
Salt Acid Fat Heat by Samin Nosrat. Samin's book not only nudges one to get into the kitchen but also teaches one to cook with intuition and confidence trusting ones hands and senses. It is part science, part great storytelling and has all the elements that can help you to become a better cook
And a book you've read way too many times and don't mind reading again?
Michael Pollan’s Cooked impacted me profoundly. For someone like me who had consciously avoided the kitchen for a large part of my life Pollan's book opened my eyes to see cooking in new light - as an institution powerful enough to reform food systems around the world and as the single most important thing to do as a family. Above all Pollan is a fabulous writer and it is a joy to read his writing.
Do you think it's easier to write, publish and sell a cookbook now, as opposed to earlier when access was limited and people weren't so experimental? Do you think blogs affect the cookbook publishing industry?
My grandmother self-published and sold 15,000 copies of her cookbook 45 years ago when there was no Internet. And that was my springboard for self-publishing Five Morsels of Love. Sure access in today’s world helps, but one must remember that it is also a much more cluttered world. A person’s work can easily disappear in that clutter.
I personally feel cookbooks have seen some sort of a revival world over in the past few years. Blogs are a completely different medium from books and blogging is hard work. I started a blog in 2009 and killed it in two months. It is a lot of work. Having said that both books and blogs should and can co-exist. And of course it is easier to get published if one has a very original and popular blog.
It's awfully hard to write with so many easily accessible distractions on the phone, television and internet, how did you put together such a finely researched book? What were your struggles? What is your process?
Truth be told, I was off social media, did not watch television and was not distracted at all through the course of working on my book. It was an intensely creative phase of my life where I all I could think and dream about was my book. I feel am a lot of more distracted now.
Process and struggles: I had material to begin with - my grandmother’s recipes. I had to wade through boxes and boxes of recipes to arrive at a list of over a hundred recipes that best described the food I grew up on. Once I had the list I had to teach myself how to write, how to cook and how to publish a book.
We notice you eat while you read, tell us about a meal which went perfectly with the book you were reading?
I make variants of a basic potato salad. Boiled baby potatoes in a quick marinade and chopped boiled eggs thrown in. It is simple to put together, makes for a substantial meal and is great when you want to eat while reading. I once made this salad with a marinade of curry leaf pesto (curry leaf spice powder whisked in cold pressed coconut oil) and was reading Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. There is a poignant scene in the book where after being hungry for days Hemingway receives an advance of six hundred francs for his stories and heads straight to his favourite Brasserie Lipp where he orders a litre of beer and pommes à l'huile (a potato salad!). What I was eating went so perfectly with what I was reading.
Books often have these fantastic descriptions of food, Enid Blyton's picnic spreads, the feast at the end of every Asterix and Obelix...has a meal in a book caught your fancy, if yes which one?
In Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse there is a scene which spans over almost two pages where boeuf en daube (a French beef stew) takes centre stage. I have never tasted a boeuf en daube and Woolf’s description of that dish (given how rarely food is described in her work) still makes my mouth water. The scent of oil and olives, bay leaf and wine, savoury brown meat that is tender and juicy, what is not to love!
What was your worst kitchen accident?
I had just moved to Bangalore for my first job in 2001 and started living as a paying guest in Indiranagar. The place I was living in had a single burner stove and I was hungry enough on a Sunday evening to want to make rice but had no idea how. I put rice in a bowl and set it on the stove hoping that it would magically cook itself without any water. A few minutes in I realised something was wrong when my nose caught a horrid burnt smell. The grains had of course turned as black as charcoal and I remember going to bed hungry home sick and so disappointed with myself.
Tell us about a few interesting things your readers have said to you about Five Morsels...
Am quoting verbatim from what I have heard from readers here –
“Thank you for helping me recreate a taste of home thousands of miles away from home.”
“I have worked very hard to introduce my daughter to her heritage. Your beautiful book is going to help with that so much.”
”Love for food must always be shared this enthusiastically. I’ll be making recipes in Norway and sharing it with Norwegians.”
“This is my first cookbook and I made my first-ever freshly ground masala today. Am so excited to embark on this culinary journey with Five Morsels.”
“I teared up a little as I held the book in my hand and read through it. Reminded me of my Ammama. Am sure Five Morsels has touched many readers like me.”
Interviewed by Meera Ganapathi