Seasoned with Love ~ Life Insights from Rajasthani Granny Nirmala Mardia

by on February 5, 2017

“There is no greater joy than cooking with your own hands and serving your loved ones,” says 67 year-old Nirmala Mardia, a Rajasthani Jain from Chennai. She enjoys cooking a wide range of dishes for her friends and relatives. In fact, whenever my sister-in-law Namita visits Nirmalaji, her aunt-in-law, she promptly regales me with details about the innovative menu, presentation and the array of delicacies served. Evidently, Nirmalaji is passionate about hospitality and happiest in her kitchen! Even though she claims she has retired from kitchen work, her daughter-in-law Payal says otherwise. “It is amazing how even at this age, Ma often cooks all by herself without any assistance,” she says. Her son Manish adds, “The special ingredient that makes my mom the ‘World’s Best Cook’ is the love with which she cooks. Whatever she makes—from a simple meal to an exotic spread—you have to taste it to believe how exceptionally delicious it is.”
I met Nirmalaji at her charming home in Chennai. And even though she is reticent and quite an introvert, the conversation flowed with ease: about food, recipes, leftover recipes and kitchen tips. As we spoke, I could see her attention to detail and her silent but untiring enthusiasm.

Nirmala Mardia

I was raised in Jodhpur in a rather liberal and literary environment. My mother was a dynamic woman who kept abreast with changing times. Many years into her marriage, she started studying again and completed the ‘Sahitya Ratna’. My father was steeped in the nationalist spirit and took us along to meet great stalwarts of the time, like Vinoba Bhave and Acharya Kriplani. At home, we were encouraged to learn activities such as dancing and swimming. I graduated in Jodhpur and after my marriage to Shri Prakashji Mardia, I moved to Chennai and have been living here ever since.
The environment at my in-laws’ place was quite strict. I don’t know how and when but I adjusted to their way of life. I found my happiness in the kitchen. My husband is a perfectionist and this matches my own need to do things as perfectly as possible.



My mother was my inspiration in all facets of life. When I got married, she gifted me five cookbooks from Kolkata. I learnt how to make pizza from her. She encouraged me to experiment in the kitchen. When I got married and came here, they cooked typical Rajasthani food. I was the first one to introduce pizzas and cheese balls in their menu.



I have always received praise for my cooking, from my in-laws as well as my maternal family. Personally speaking, I feel most cherished when someone calls and asks me to prepare a specific dish. My grandchildren have their list of dishes they want me to prepare. That makes me truly happy. Hospitality has always been an integral part, both in my parents’ home as well as my in-laws’.



For me, the joy of cooking is an inspiration in itself. I really like to improvise and innovate. Let me share a quick and easy recipe for bread dahi toast, which looks like dhokla and is not just instant but also delicious! Make sandwiches with spicy yoghurt—for this, mix coconut chutney (or green chutney) into thick yoghurt or just add a dash of chopped green chillies, ginger and salt to spice up the yoghurt. Quarter the sandwiches and set aside. Heat oil on a tava and add urad dal and mustard seeds. Immediately place the quartered sandwiches on the tava. Cook till crisp and golden brown on both sides. Transfer to a plate and garnish with grated coconut and chopped coriander leaves.



I soak a teaspoon of fenugreek seeds in half a cup of water overnight. In the morning, I strain the fenugreek seeds and keep the water aside. Then I add a dash of lemon to the seeds and consume them. Next, I drink the strained fenugreek water. I believe it really keeps me healthy. I am also a great believer in the health benefits of amla (gooseberry) juice. For one person, grate two gooseberries and crush in the mixer with a little water. Strain and drink. You can add mint, tulsi and/or black salt to this juice.



Whenever I make amla juice, I do not waste the strained pulp, which can be used to make a quick pickle. Temper a pinch of mustard seeds, a few curry leaves and chopped chillies in hot oil. Add the amla pulp and salt. Allow it to cook for five minutes and the pickle is ready! You can also add this pulp to coriander and mint chutney for a tangy flavour.



To thicken any gravy, add breadcrumbs. I make them at home by toasting slices of bread and powdering them in a mixer. For those who don’t eat bread, you can powder khakra (hardened rotis) and add to the gravy for instant thickening. Also, if your dal is not completely cooked, mix a teaspoon of wheat flour in half a cup of water and add this paste into the dal. Cook for a few minutes and you will now be able to churn the dal into a fine paste.



Both of us enjoy socialising. Meeting our large extended family and keeping in touch with them regularly is a priority. We hardly go to restaurants or other places. We are happy to visit our near and dear ones.



I enjoy reading Hindi magazines such as Navneet. I grew up with books and magazines around me. Love for reading was part and parcel of growing up. I also never miss the Gujarati cooking show on ETV in the afternoons.



Values change with time. What we valued earlier is different from what youngsters value today. I think the one traditional value I really liked was respect for elders. Today, it is more about taking decisions for oneself and prioritising one’s aspirations. However, what I do like about this day and age is the availability of opportunity and exposure. For instance, I really loved singing but never got the opportunity. Today’s generation is fortunate as opportunities present themselves at every step.


As I left her residence, her words stayed with me. If the environment had been different, she surely would have found an outlet for her innate talent. I could also see her equanimity and serene acceptance of life as it presented itself. In her own way, even within the four walls, she has found the way to happiness. That is truly admirable.
Photo Courtesy: Harmony Magazine

Part-2 of this post is the recipe of Kalakand, a sweet made with curdled milk from Nirmalaji’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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