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AN ACT OF LOVE

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By: Ganesh Saili

Manju Saigal and Bettina Chua Abdullah’s ‘To Nourish with Love: Flavours and Memories from Mussoorie to Malaysia’ is on my desk. Sometimes, only sometimes, does a cookbook turn into a love story. This one goes way beyond the usual listing of recipes and ingredients to tell a tale of love for the hills. In tribute to these first foothills of the Himalaya, the authors take you through the old narrow lanes of childhood with memories of happy times.

Many years ago, I too had dabbled with the introduction to a cookbook.

Anything else one would understand, Ganesh. For heaven’s sake, what on earth were you thinking when you said ‘yes’ to the project?’

 Darts and other projectiles hurled at me have left me unmoved, as I have always been a sucker for anything evoking memories of our hill station – fish, fowl or flesh.

This where author Manju Saigal’s latest book fits in. Cooking with merry abandon, peppering her way through times gone by, she fondly remembers her grandfather, an Urdu and Farsi teacher at one of our older schools, who found the time to teach her to make her first roti.

My own dalliance in this genre was with the Landour Cookbook which was a compendium put together by the Landour Community Centre, a place where well-meaning missionaries gathered to gossip, chitchat or swap recipes. Its first edition with six hundred recipes sold out instantly. Many years later, out of the blue, came a letter from a stranger. ‘This might be a long shot,’ Rebecca Patro wrote, ‘but it is worth a try. I recently bought the Landour Cookbook in the hope of finding an elusive recipe: Mrs Russel’s Coffee Streusel filled Cake, but it wasn’t there in the reprint. Back in the 1960s, my grandmother was given an old spiral-bound version of the Cookbook from a friend who was leaving India. It’s been a bit of a family heirloom, with women from all generations eyeing it. But the problem is we have somehow lost the page with the family’s favourite cake. If it won’t be too much trouble could you mail me the recipe for the Streusel filled Coffee Cake?’ Of course I sent it to her.

Anyway, ‘To Nourish with Love’ brims with flavours, seasons and stories. Browsing through these pages you get to meet the Kapoor family, their food and the way it shaped their days.  Manju had a charmed childhood; simple and contented, which gave her strength when destiny decided that she must dive deep into the tropical heat of Malaysia, where she carried on with her family values of cherishing family and friends, to never stop learning, and to treasure the bounty and blessing of food.

Should anyone toy with the idea of writing a cookbook, they will perforce have to turn to Manju Saigal and Bettina Chua Abdullah’s book – a delightful memoir that tells of a childhood spent in our hills, learning these hundred and thirty recipes which have been illustrated with mouth-watering images. If I haven’t said it before, let me say this again: as a self-admitted nostalgia freak, I thoroughly enjoyed every bit of the constant dipping into the past even as she explains to the uninitiated the delights of dishes prepared with love for family and friends.

On a return trip to the hill station, they find that while much has changed, much more remains the same. “We are never asked for payment in the older shops – take your medication, pashmina, woolly socks first: send the money later. As evening falls, we nurse masala chai in small kullhars.’

This is no run-of-the-mill cookbook that teaches what to buy, slap it together and serve it on the table. This is a Lighthouse to those who seek a path through the choppy waters of writing and cooking. Glad to report that our magical water and air still work giving us new authors once again – and these two know their onions too. Here’s a read for everyone from the foodie, the traveller and the connoisseur.

For at day’s end, cooking for one’s family is the ultimate act of love.

Ganesh Saili born and home-grown in the hills belongs to those select few whose words are illustrated by their own pictures. Author of two dozen books; some translated into twenty languages, his work has found recognition world-wide.