Ammini Ramachandran took a rather meandering route to the world of food writing. After clocking in over two decades in a career in finance, She now spends time researching, cooking and writing about the cuisine and culture of her home state of Kerala in India. In March 2007, she published Grains, Greens, and Grated Coconuts: Recipes and Remembrances of a Vegetarian Legacy. An excellent book that went on to receive endorsements from several well known food writers around the world and be celebrated by the New York times.
RMG: Tell us a bit about your background.
AR: I was born and raised in Kerala and moved to the United States in 1971. A chemistry graduate from Kerala University, I studied finance in the United States and received an MBA from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. I worked as a financial analyst in international banking until 2001. I took a rather meandering route to the world of food writing. Writing was always my hobby. After Sep 11, 2001, I took early retirement and decided to pursue writing. After spending over two decades in a career in finance, today I spend my time researching, cooking and writing about the cuisine and culture of my home state Kerala.
RMG: How did you become interested in cooking?
AR: I got into cooking out of sheer necessity. When I came to the US in the 1970's, there were no Indian grocery stores in Rhode Island where we lived. The closest store was in New York City, some two hundred miles away. Vegetarian food was not popular in America at that time. Being a strict vegetarian, I had to learn to cook in a hurry if I wanted to eat Indian dishes. My mother's letters that came every week in the mail always contained a couple of recipes. I learned to cook by referring to these recipes. During my many trips home, I learned more recipes from her and my extended family.
RMG: When and how did food and its exploration become important?
AR: Today with most of the younger generation in my family living in the United States, I wanted them to remember the food prepared at their ancestral home, its history, and culture and started writing a family journal. After reading the initial drafts, the feedback I received from them, as well as their American friends, was most encouraging - They all wanted to read more about our history, and stories about our food. This encouraged me to explore more about of food, history and culture.
RMG: Why "Grains Greens and Grated coconuts?"
AR: A straightforward cookbook with only recipes was not my intention in writing this book. And so I did not want to give it a title that ended in "cookbook". When writing a book that brings the threads of history, geography, religion, tradition, and personal history together to present the food of my region in Kerala, a just recipes only book was not the way to go. Grains (rice and dals), greens (vegetables) and grated coconuts are the crucial ingredients in this cuisine and I felt that it would be an appropriate title.
RMG: You have obviously given every aspect of the book meticulous attention. What were the criteria by which recipes went into your book?
AR: It was a very simple criteria- recipes for all the food that was cooked in my extended family, dishes that are traditional to the Hindu homes of central Kerala. This book by no means a complete collection of all Kerala vegetarian recipes. Several northern and southern Kerala recipes as well as specific vegetarian recipes of the Christian and Muslim communities of Kerala are not in this book.
RMG: What made you decide to write a cookbook?
AR: As I said above I started a family journal documenting the culture and cuisine of Kerala. After Sep 11, 2001, I decided to take early retirement from a career as financial analyst and decided to concentrate on writing about Kerala's food and culture. Slowly my family journal evolved into a web site - peppertrail.com and then to this book.
RMG: Did you look to other cookbooks for inspiration?
AR: Most certainly I looked to several cookbooks for guidance. Ever since the late 1990's there is a growing interest in the United States in cookbooks that present ethnic cuisines against a backdrop of culinary history and culture. These titles also bring cuisines of the world into the modern kitchen in the form of balanced, unusual, and tasty recipes that are within the reach of any cook.
Among these the truly exceptional and inspiring to me were - Frida's Fiestas: Recipes and Reminiscences of Life with Frida Kahlo, by Guadalupe Rivera and Marie-Pierre Colle, Splendid Table, by Lynne Rosetto Kasper, Gefilte Variations, by Jayne Cohen, and Italian Festival Foods, by Anne Bianchi, and The Food and Life of Oaxaca, by Zarela Martinez. My ambition was to write a book in a similar format about the practically unknown vegetarian cuisine of Kerala.
RMG: How did you set about working on this book? Did you travel, meet people? Spend hours in your own kitchen?
AR: How does a financial analyst go about writing a cookbook? Of course I started with an excel spread sheet listing the various recipe categories – every day dishes, festival dishes, seasonal dishes, recipes that are special to my family. Then came sub categories – curries, dry vegetable dishes, pickles, chutneys- the list goes on. A second spread sheet detailed who to contact for particular recipes.
I already had a collection of recipes from mother. I taught myself to cook by referring to the recipes that my mother sent me every week in her letters. During my many visits home I also studied this traditional cuisine from native cooks who have lived and cooked in our region their entire lives. I have spent many fascinating hours listening and writing down their verbal culinary histories that go back hundreds of years. I also spent many hours researching about ancient Indian Ocean trade and its impact on Kerala's cuisine and culture.
Writing a book on Kerala cuisine, while living thousands of miles away from there, also posed a problem. It was especially difficult to reach older relatives via phone to ask any questions. So I enlisted the help of a research team - My sisters Girija Narayanan and Rathi Ramachandran and my cousin Usha Varma, my very patient research team, spent many hours collecting and writing old recipes and the oral history of our cultural traditions. I could not have finished this book without their help. This is as much their book as it is mine.
Then came the recipe testing phase. While following my mother's recipes I had inadvertently followed her method of measuring ingredients by pinches and handfuls. Purchasing sets of measuring cups and spoons and redoing her recipes with measured quantities of ingredients was the next step- which needless to say took many months. Initially often I would forget to measure an ingredient midway through cooking, and had to start all over again. That was the most frustrating part of this phase. When it was impossible to find certain seasonal ingredients in the United States, again came my sisters and cousin to the rescue. They tested the recipes and reported back.
Meanwhile I attended conferences and symposiums for food writers and took continuing education courses on food writing from the food studies department at New York University. I joined several professional organizations for food writers - International Association of Culinary Professionals, Slow Food USA, and Culinary Historians of New York. Through these organizations I learned about the "science" of recipe writing (how each recipe has to be organized beginning with the first ingredient you use in a recipe) and the value of head notes to recipes.
RMG: Would you share some of your most pleasurable moments during research, interactions with cooks, food tastings, learning to cook?
AR: It was very amazing for me to see how the home cooks I spoke to responded with enthusiasm when I showed genuine interest in their recipes and cooking methods.
There is young woman Lakshmi in my home town who cooks every day meals to a few elderly people in the neighborhood for a small fee. She also takes orders for snack foods and spice mixtures. All of the cooking is done in her own kitchen and she and her husband deliver the food. Her food is simple and delicious. My mother always asked her husband's aunt used to come and make the snack murukku in our home. Making this snack by hand is a dying art today. One day I went watch Lakshmi make murukku by hand. And we chatted as she sat on the floor twisting the dough into multi-layered circles of curly spirals on the cotton cloth spread on the floor. She asked me about how I cooked Indian food in America and what vegetables and fruits were available in the USA. I mentioned that good jackfruit is hard to come by and the best we could do is to use canned jackfruit from Thailand.
I am a huge fan of her sambar powder and I had placed an order for it to bring it back to the USA. The day before I was leaving she came with a package. I did not get a chance to open it immediately. Later that evening when I was packing my bags I opened the brown paper bag, I was surprised to see a small stainless steel container inside. I opened with curiosity and it was full of homemade jackfruit jam, glistening with a coating of ghee. How thoughtful of her!
RMG: What was most enjoyable about the process of writing your cookbook?
AR: Researching, writing, editing and publishing - it was a long haul. The enjoyable about the process was the satisfaction that I am finally getting around to documenting the food and culture of my community. But the most enjoyable part came after it was published. I connected with so many wonderful people through this book. After an excerpt and a recipe were posted on Anothersubcontinent.com, the members started a thread devoted to 'Cooking with Grains, Greens, and Grated Coconuts'. Many of them posted photos of recipes they prepared, with Kavitha Ravi from Malaysia taking the lead to make sure that every single recipe was cooked, photographed and posted. The thread has evolved into an online full-color pictorial companion to the book's recipes.
When the book won the Cordon D'Or award for best self published cookbook, I traveled to St. Petersburg for the award ceremony. And there was arunr (whom I had never met before), a member of anothersubcontinent forum, at the airport to welcome me. Although the award ceremony was held as a fund raising event for Abilities Foundation, arunr got special permission from the organizers to take my photograph as I received the Award. And before I got back home he had already shared the pictures on the forum thread.
It is so touching when people I have never met in my life write to me after they have read the book. One young woman wrote how grandmother cried with joy when she prepared ela ada, a typical sweet prepared for Onam festival. From a young Kerala woman from Dubai to a retired professor from Canada, I have met so many wonderful people because of the book.
RMG: What's your favorite recipe from your book?
AR : It is hard to pick one recipe as my favorite. Ellukari, the sweet, sour and mildly spiced curry with a fragrance of toasted sesame seeds and coconuts and chethumaangakari- the spicy hot green mango pickle are definitely two of them.
RMG: What were some of the things you were uncompromising about as regards to your book; that you think should be given more attention in other cookbooks? (Language, recipe testing etc)
AR: I believe that in her New York Times article Anne Mendelson really summed up about the things I was uncompromising as regards to my book. She wrote: "Instead of trying to cover all menu bases that an editor might insist on, Ms. Ramachandran is free to concentrate on unorthodox categories, including amazingly diverse "curries" (sauced vegetable combinations), pickles and preserves, breakfast specialties, rice dishes associated with sacred observances and temple or rite-of-passage offerings. Other books have ably explored India's far southern territory, but Ms. Ramachandran reveals amazing range and depth in Kerala's Hindu vegetarian traditions. And American home cooks should find her introductions to ingredients, techniques and equipment accessible".
Regarding other cookbooks, each book is a personal journey of the author. Publishing houses have the final say and they often dictate how the content should be presented. It is up to each author to decide how and when they should compromise to these demands.
RMG: How do you determine your book's success, so far?
AR: The success of the book so far has been in receiving good reviews. Sales are alright, nothing fantastic. This is mainly because most sales are only through the internet. Only a few specialty cookbook stores in the Unites States and Canada are carrying the book. This is because iUniverse do not accept returns and offer smaller discounts to booksellers. I hope this will change with the Star edition. Star editions offer industry standard discounts to booksellers and books are returnable.
RMG: Anything you would have done differently?
AR: Of course I would have loved if a publishing house had picked up the book. Then again, I would not have had the freedom to include all of those historical facts and personal anecdotes.
RMG: What next? What can we, as your fans, look forward to next from your kitchen/pen?
AR: I continue my research on Indian Ocean spice trade and the food history of south India. It was a pleasant surprise for me to learn about the tremendous interest people in the United States have in learning about Indian Ocean spice trade. At every presentation I make, I get more questions about this topic. I also continue to write about this topic. I have contributed to two forthcoming publications - Encyclopedia on Entertaining through Time and Cultures to be published by Greenwood Press and Storied Dishes: a book with fifty women food writers donating recipes and the story/memory behind the recipes.
RMG: Lastly, is there anything else you can tell us about yourself, your career, or the profession that would be interesting or helpful to others aspiring to write a cookbook?
AR: I have only a simple advice for aspiring food writers. Never give up your hope. Road blocks are many in the world of publishing- but if you have your heart in it, you will find ways to work around them.
Book is currently available through amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, and iuniverse.com. It would be wonderful if major book store chains in India would carry it when the Star title becomes available through international distributors at industry standard terms.