For Mothers’ Day, chef Thomas Zacharias of The Bombay Canteen pays tribute to the women in his life. This piece was originally written for the online edition of Conde Nast Traveller in lieu of Mother's Day.
If professional chefs moonlighted as superheroes, many of our origin stories would find their root in our home kitchens. Having spoken with colleagues in the food industry and interviewed countless aspiring cooks over the past decade, a common thread I’ve noticed is how passion for this line of work is most often attributed to those early memories of learning from the women who have raised them. My story isn’t very different either.
Growing up in Kerala, I had two very strong feminine personalities who shaped my upbringing: my mother Cynthia (Amma) and her mother, my grandmother Ammini (Ammamma). It goes without saying that matriarchs play a very, if not the most, significant role in the kind of adults we grow up to be. In my case, they also deeply impacted and moulded me into the chef I am today, although the lessons I learnt from each of them were very different.
The pursuit of excellence in life and food
My mother always believed in pursuing excellence. Why settle for less if you have the willingness and capability to rise to the top? Whether it was a mid-term exam or a craft project, Amma instilled in me, very early on, the drive to approach things with enthusiasm and resolve.
Ammamma was an avid gourmand. Part of the local cooking club in Kochi, she even ran her own catering company from the late 1970s all the way to 1990. Once, she even catered a wedding party for 5,000 people with the limited resources of a home kitchen! While she would always experiment with new recipes she came across in magazines or TV shows, she also knew that the most memorable meals were those rooted in familiarity and tradition. That’s something I’ve imbibed in my professional cooking as well.
My earliest memories of learning how to cook go back to when I could barely reach the kitchen counter. I must’ve been seven or eight years old, spending most afternoons post school in my grandmother’s kitchen helping with simple tasks like peeling onions, washing vegetables or squeezing out fresh coconut milk. How wonderstruck I felt watching her transform simple, everyday ingredients into mind-bogglingly, delicious dishes. It wasn’t just the feasts she put up on special occasions like Christmas or Easter that stood out. Every meal was an event, and every dish including the cucumber and onion salad accompaniment on the table was just perfect. There was a certain magic in even the simplest rice gruel kanji she made which lifted our moods instantly. It was this powerful ability to create lasting memories through her food that really got me hooked onto cooking. I wanted that superpower for myself. a realization that eventually led to my career choice once I discovered that professional cooking was legit.
How to take pleasure in the small things
Amma was a great cook too, although she didn’t cook often. Even before I reached my teens, she would take me on her daily visits to the local food market. I remember being in awe of the sights, sounds and smells that surrounded us as we navigated through the hustle and bustle of Kochi’s vegetable and meat shops. It was on those shopping runs that I got my first insights into appreciating quality and choosing the best ingredients. The peculiar aroma of ripe jackfruit, and the glossy slime retained on fresh karimeen fish were good signs, I had learnt. I also witnessed first-hand, the respect with which she interacted with the vendors, an act which didn’t go unnoticed and brought smiles to their faces each time.
Ammamma, on the other hand, loved the very act of cooking as much as the end result. She found joy in the little things, like the aroma of curry leaves spluttering in hot coconut oil, or the crackling sound that the tadka made when poured into a pulissery. She taught me the importance of seasonality and cooking with local ingredients long before it became fashionable. There was a certain romance in waiting longingly for koorka, those nutty peanut potatoes, to come into season every summer; or buying sardines at a time when they were so fatty that she would fry them with their scales intact, allowing them to steam in their own aromatic fat.
The importance of balance
Amma was an extremely hardworking and busy woman who had to juggle her day job – of being Cochin’s first woman stockbroker, as well as run a house. Like her, Ammamma too was an efficient multi-tasker, albeit in the kitchen, juggling multiple dishes on the stove at the same time. Her beef meatball specialty would be finished with freshly chopped cilantro, while she stir-fried the spicy raw banana olathiyathu on the side. There was something so special about how effortless she made it all seem, although in retrospect, I know how much effort went into her cooking. She was meticulous and purposeful, insisting for example, that the mortar and pestle was critical to coax the best flavors out of the ingredients when making green chilli chutney for the boiled tapioca.
Both Ammamma and Amma believed in the importance of finding balance. I’ve heard fascinating stories from Amma’s closest college friends of how she was always the life of the party and the troublemaker in the group, but still managed to top the university examinations. Balance on the other hand for Ammamma meant adding a little sugar when the spice levels of the egg roast needed toning down, or a splash of vinegar to brighten up her fabulous duck curry.
The power of kindness
For both of them, the family always came before everything else, a value they eschewed deeply in me through years of gentle conditioning. Perhaps, food came a close second. Some of my fondest childhood memories were of road trips we made together. We always went to the same hill station of Kodaikanal, stayed at the same Sterling resort, and bought homemade chocolates from the same shop near the lake. Food was of paramount importance on these excursions, with every meal being enthusiastically planned among us right from thoran and beef fry Ammamma packed for dinner, to the lime juice and snacks she would prepare for the 10 hour drive. Oh! how I long to taste those delicious ham sandwiches again!
But the everlasting lesson learnt from them is to be kind and compassionate. Their generosity, both within the realms of cooking and outside of it, is something I continuously strive to match up to.
Ammamma passed away a few years ago, but she lives on in all of us, especially her children. Incidentally, Amma and Ammamma were born on the same date - August 15th. Amma’s now a grandmother to my two nephews, and watching her teach them cooking and showering them with mouth-watering food brings me so much perspective. Life has truly come a full circle. The lessons they are learning today are no different from those I was privy to. And boy, are we all the better for it. Happy Mother’s Day Amma and Ammamma. Thank you for making me who I am today. I am forever grateful.