A marmalade of oranges and common sense
Akshaya Chinapa Reddy finds family truths in the frugal instructions of a childhood marmalade recipe from Coorg.
I have always had an interest in cooking, probably because I enjoy eating so much. When I first left home to go away to university in the US, my mum would email me simplified home recipes, and I would attempt them in my college apartment. I had an Indian roommate at the time, and we would take turns filling up the house with the scent of spices. While my cooking during those university days was far from good, it was just about enough to satisfy the longing for home food.
As I got older however, my interest deepened. About 8 years ago I found myself married and jobless, transplanted into a small city in the Southern United States - Savannah, Georgia. After 2 years of dating, my then boyfriend and I had decided to start our lives together. But immigrating to the US (from Canada) meant having to spend a period of time without the ability to work, while my paperwork was being processed.
So what does one do when there’s nothing else to do? Cook! I watched a few shows and tried out the recipes they featured. I read books and articles and tried out more. I perused through layers of the world wide web, digging for tradition, looking for helpful hints and secrets of a cook’s kitchen. I found many answers just from trying out recipes, with plenty of mistakes and the occasional bouts of success. Often, when I asked my mother for a recipe, she would just send a list of ingredients with simple directions and no precise measurements. When I grilled her on the phone, she merely responded “trial and error”. In retrospect I realise that a valuable lesson was being passed down, which I now know is the best way to learn how to cook. The more mistakes you make, the more you figure out how to fix them, and the more successes you have.
One day it dawned on me, that with this search for traditional recipes I was desperately trying to connect with the essence that coloured my childhood. In fact, I still seek them. I vividly recall the flavours from my grandmother’s kitchen, because in so many ways they were similar to the flavours of her daughter’s kitchen. In every cuisine that I have attempted, the goal was always to be authentic. Somehow the taste of tradition, any tradition, always took me back home.
I come from a line of gifted cooks. My mother is known for her delicious Kodava cooking, as was her mother before her. I grew up eating bamboo shoot curry, pandhi curry, mutton, chicken, fish, mushrooms, all seasoned with the unique flavours of Coorg. As if that wasn’t enough, my grandmother was well known for her preserves and pickles; tart and sweet orange marmalade, piquant pork pickle, a unique Kodava mango pajji (chutney), and so much more. These flavours reside in my veins, and even though I live so far from the land of my tradition, I find myself connected in spirit to all those who cooked before me.
With this spirit bright inside me, I attempt to recreate all the curries, chutneys, and jams that graced the tables of my ancestors. Recently, I was in a frenzy at the grocery store, looking for the perfect oranges to make marmalade jam. There were so many options, except for the Seville orange, which I’ve heard is closest to the Kaipuli orange used by Kodava women for their marmalades. I squeezed and sniffed, picked and rejected plenty, until I came home with an assortment of zesty oranges - Navel, Honey Tangerine, and Minneola Tangelos.
My mother emailed my grandmother’s marmalade recipe to me. It said - “cook the skin separately with salt and sugar, and mash the pulp and cook with cinnamon, clove, and cardamom”. And well, that was it! How do they come together you ask? Well, I’m guessing that’s where common sense comes in. My mother always told us off for not displaying common sense when we were younger. I’m guessing she probably received the same admonishment from her mother. So why indeed would my grandmother’s recipe include details, when the blanks could be filled in with the use of one’s common sense? The words ‘trial and error’ echoed in my head once again.
So in this trial of making marmalade jam, I did indeed make an error in my choice of orange. The marmalade was a lot more bitter than I usually like it to be, but my husband enjoyed it and continues to spread it on his toast on most mornings. Am I disappointed? Maybe a tad but not completely. By just trying, I understand how fruit and sugar should be cooked down to the right consistency. I also found that the addition of a few simple spices can really amp up the flavour profile of a jam, and give it that particular homemade taste. I have the patience to make jam again and again, and the next time Seville oranges are in season, I’ll grab a bunch and cook them down into a pretty perfect marmalade.