Chandra Padmanabhan ~ The Cookbook Author’s Thanjavur Connection

by on May 5, 2018

It was back in 1992, when I received a birthday gift that sparked my interest in South Indian cooking. It was Chandra Padmanabhan’s Dakshin, which went on to become a bestseller among cookbooks. I tried one recipe after another, and encouraged by the positive feedback, I went on to cook an entire ‘saapad’ for guests one Sunday morning, with only Chandraji’s book as guidance. The elaborate meal was a roaring success, and won me great applause and confidence. At 27, that recognition in the family mattered a lot.
Years later, when we finally met face to face, I was simply bowled over by Chandraji’s charming persona. At 75, Chandra Padmanabhan’s sparkling energy, passion and conversation, is a clear insight into how she has attained fame as one of India’s finest cookbook authors. Her next cookbooks – Southern Spice, Simply South, and Dosai – have received rave reviews; the last two also winning the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards.
Here are a few tidbits of our conversation, in her own words.

Cookbook author Chandra padmanabhan interview

I was born an Iyengar, but lived in various metropolitan cities throughout my life, which heavily influenced my cooking style. My parents also enjoyed experimenting with a mixture of cuisines while living abroad.
Even though I define my cooking as a khichadi, there is a predominantly Thanjavur influence to my cooking. I learnt to cook from my mother-in-law, whose family came from Thanjavur. She was a brilliant cook and I used to watch her and document her recipes. She did not follow any accurate measures, but cooked by instinct. What I would do is ask her to set aside the quantities being used. I would then measure them and evolve the perfect recipe. My interest deepened and I became an avid learner, observing others whose cooking I admired. This journey lead to my inspiration for becoming a cookbook author.
I think my love for writing and editing began because my husband was in the publishing industry. He started the publishing house East West, now known as Westland, in Chennai. I was one of the directors and became involved in editing manuscripts as well.
During that time, I noticed a dearth of cookbooks on South Indian cuisines. Somewhere along the way, I decided to fill the gap, and Dakshin was born. The readers loved it and the journey continued.
My mother-in-law used to say, “Each family has its own recipes depending on what the members like. But primarily, all family recipes are patriarchal.” I think she was right. In India, most of the cooking revolves around what our husbands like to eat. My father-in-law disliked seeing tomatoes in his dals and rasam, so Amma used to boil the tomatoes and make a puree before adding it to the dishes. Most of her recipes call for tomato puree. As she taught the next generation, that became a tradition.
Due to Thanjavur becoming the heartland of Tamilian Brahmins, almost all of its famous recipes are Brahmin recipes. Some of my favourite traditional Thanjavur recipes are vattal kozhumbu and karvepillai kozhumbu. However, the Thanjavur Brahmin cuisine has a lot of Maharasthrian elements to its recipes as well.
Almost 250 years ago, when the Marathas settled in Thanjavur, they brought with them their culture and other influences. Getting its name from King Samboji, sambar is a popular Thanjavur dish that has only existed for the last two centuries. Additionally, the term ‘vangi’ is a Maharastrian word in itself. Thus, vangi bath and rasa vangi are Maharashtrian influences on South Indian cooking.
Our elders often spoke of how healthy and rich their food was. Nutrition was an important factor in their cooking. Maybe that is why they were healthy! The lifespan may have been shorter, but their existence was healthier and more holistic.
Pure cow’s ghee was aplenty then, and used extensively in cooking. So were nuts. I have seen my mother-in-law add cashewnuts to dishes like vattal kozhumbu. In those days, adding peanuts and cashew nuts to dishes, even in tempering, was common practice.
You may not believe it, but the round masala dabba with seven containers is not a traditional practice. They used a square dabba with many more items than that. The cooking was also done in larger portions. But for today’s generation, I definitely recommend the masala dabba. It is handy and makes cooking an efficient procedure. I add chana dal, udad dal, mustard, fenugreek seeds, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, and turmeric powder in my masala dabba. Red chillies go on the inner lid. It is an indispensable part of my kitchen.
There are some simple food practices that I have retained over time. I thoroughly believe in having a sumptuous breakfast every morning. I include buttermilk and curds in my meals compulsorily. I avoid dals and greens at night.
What I really want is for people to return to how they ate as children. When we were young, the entire family would have a sit-down meal (lunch) at 10 am every morning. Then, around 2 pm, tiffin dishes would be served. Nowadays many youngsters say they do not have time for a good breakfast. But can we really make that choice when it is not healthy to do so? This is exactly why I wrote my cookbook ‘Dosai’, which features over 100 dosai recipes – instant dosais, millet dosais, and the like. I took into account existing health conditions and did adequate amounts of research to compile these recipes.
My father’s family did not drink tea or coffee; they consumed a heath drink called pazhayadu instead. This is made by soaking leftover rice in water overnight. The next morning, it is mixed with buttermilk and immediately eaten with pickle. The fermentation process that takes place at night is what makes this a healthy, everyday option. Pazhayadu is an extremely strengthening supplement that helps prevent inflammation and acidity.
I have one son, Gautam, who now heads Westland. He is married to Savitha, and they have a son Amithav. They live closeby and take good care of me, while still allowing me to have my independence and be my own person. I enjoy being active on social media, WhatsApp and Facebook. I keep myself busy and enjoy meeting family and friends over lunches, club meetings, book club events, and so on. I am indeed blessed.
Photo Courtesy: Harmony Magazine

Part-2 of this post is the recipe of Karvepillai Kuzhambu, a dealicious curry leaves dal from Chandra Padmanabhan’s kitchen.
First published in ‘Heart to Hearth’ – a column in Harmony Celebrate Age magazine. A series about elders who believe in nurturing the body and mind as the key to joy.


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