Generations of Malayalis have grown up with Mrs K.M.Mathew’s treasured cookbooks. Read the foreword of her latest book, Mrs K.M. Mathew’s Finest, by her daughter Thangam Mammen. In a short interview with her, we discover more about her mother’s measured approach to cooking and living.
My mother cradled two newborns in her arms in 1955. One was her last child (myself) and the other was her first book. It was a cookbook in Malayalam, titled Pachaka Kala (The Art of Cooking). Amma went on to write 23 more cookbooks, five of which were in English, over the next forty years. She also wrote three travelogues and a book on hair care, and edited the women’s magazine Vanitha for 25 years. The book in your hands, Mrs K.M. Mathew’s Finest Recipes, has been published 20 years after she left this world in 2003.
She left me more than a thousand recipes which she had collected, discovered or created. Amma had written her first cookery column on doughnuts, two years before I was born. It was published in the Malayala Manorama newspaper on 30 May 1953 along with her recipe for Goan Prawn Curry. These appeared under the name Mrs Annamma Mathew, and she became fairly well-known after a column on Mutton Bafath. Her popularity multiplied after she started using the name Mrs K.M. Mathew. This lucky name change was her own idea and she hardly ever used the name Annamma anywhere again.
It was my grandfather, K.C. Mammen Mappillai, who had spotted her talent while he was visiting my parents in Byculla, Bombay, and asked her to write a column in his newspaper. Fortunately, Amma was familiar with the varied tastes of India. Her parents were from Kerala, but she was born and brought up in faraway Kakinada, Andhra Pradesh, where her father was a doctor. He loved making chicken soup (he had made it even on the day he died, at the age of ninety-three) and her mother loved cooking Kerala’s Syrian-Christian dishes.
The neighbourhood was redolent with the scents of Tamil and Telugu food. Amma had always been partial to Tamil dishes, right from childhood till long after her college days in Madurai. It was later that she developed a love for Kannadiga delicacies in Chikmagalur, where my parents lived in a coffee estate in the first few years of their marriage. Then they moved to Bombay, and this was where she learnt to cook a variety of local, north Indian and continental dishes.
Amma had another advantage—she spoke fluent English, a gift not so common among Indian women in those days. This helped her enter the kitchens of even the most elite hotels, where she would never shy away from asking for recipes or other cooking advice from the chefs. Amma did it with natural grace, whether she was in India or travelling to other countries, in her forties. She was inspired to share the art of cooking for the sheer enjoyment of delicious food. She did not even recommend any complex or elaborate recipes to her readers because, for her, simplicity and taste came before novelty. She even avoided using words like ‘foodie’ and ‘cuisine’. ‘Simple good food’ was her motto.
She wrote her recipes early in the morning, after waking up at 3 a.m. No recipe made it to her column before she had tested it at least three times. My father always got the first chance to taste it and to give feedback. Amma made sure she bought all the ingredients herself and measured them precisely. In the early years, she would use cigarette tins as measuring cups and gradually she accumulated all the paraphernalia, including a mallet from abroad for tenderizing the meat. When fair reviews of her books appeared in the press, she was ecstatic.
Food was sacred for Amma. She never wasted it. If there was anything left over, she would make a delicious new dish out of it. She always taught us to respect food and forbade shop talk at the dinner table at our home in Roopkala, Kottayam, Kerala. All she wanted was for everyone to enjoy good food. Far from secretive, she took joy in sharing her recipes with everyone. In fact, sometimes she would send the recipe along with the food she sent to her friends and acquaintances and if they ever faced a problem cooking it, she would even send her trained cook to demonstrate the cooking procedure.
Whoever visited Amma, she always gave out a packet of crisp savouries for them to take home. Her wedding gift to her acquaintances was invariably a bundle of her cookbooks. Even today, many people in India and abroad tell me that Amma’s book Nadan Pachakarama was like the Bible to them when they had just started their married life and were learning to cook.
Even when she was in a wheelchair, in her twilight years, she remained engaged and active. When not cooking, she was often found reading books, appreciating art, singing songs, playing the violin, teaching music, raising funds for charity, guiding women’s organizations, or supervising work at Vanitha. As a mother, she practised tough love, with a heart that remained tender inside. This book carries the essence of her soul.
This is an excerpt from Mrs K.M.Mathew’s Finest Recipes published by Penguin in 2023.
After reading Thangam Mammen’s foreword, we were eager to hear a little more from her. Edited excerpts from our interview with her about the pioneer that was Mrs K.M.Mathew:
You mention that your mother wrote her recipes early in the morning, after waking up at 3 a.m. What do you think motivated her?
Being a creative person with many interests, my mother had to make the best use of her time. She did this by waking up early. Not only did it give her more working hours but, equally importantly, the early morning hours were quiet with no disturbance. Generally, she also felt that sleeping for too long is a waste of time.
So many families have relied on Mrs K.M.Mathew’s cookbooks. We’re curious about what she liked to eat. What do you remember about what she enjoyed eating?
Amma wasn’t much of an eater. But she was particularly interested in trying out new food, sampling and tasting, so as to suggest further fine-tuning for recipes.
Over the course of her life, Mrs K.M. Mathew lived in various places—Kakinada, Madurai, Chikmagalur, Bombay, Kottayam, and so on. How do you think this shaped her as a person?
Growing up in Kakinada and Madurai, she picked up a love for cooking from watching her father and mother cook (both were good cooks). After marriage, she moved to Chikmagalur, and then Bombay, where she came across different kinds of people. Bombay especially was an eye-opener for her, and for the first time, she was introduced to lifestyles, food, and fashion different from hers. Being an extrovert, she enjoyed interacting with many people, and was quick in observing and learning.
After Bombay, Amma was quite reluctant to move to Kottayam, but once she did, she immersed herself into the community around her. With her talents and encouragement from others, she wrote and participated in community events. She made a real difference to the lives of people around her.
At The Locavore, we’re always curious about ingredients and foods that vanish over time. Are there any dishes that you grew up eating that you think have disappeared from our homes?
I have not observed any change in the food and ingredients that disappeared over my lifetime. The only difference, I think, is that someone like my mother was very particular about cooking from scratch—she would prepare all the ingredients herself, or they would be prepared under her supervision. The ingredients were bought, powdered, and stored in air tight containers. But today, that has changed—most of the ingredients are bought off the shelf.
Mrs K.M. Mathew’s Finest Recipes includes a range of recipes, from snacks like Unniyappam and Achappam to dishes like Erissery and Malabar Fish Curry. Which is a recipe that you personally love, and have memories of your mother cooking?
Trivandrum chicken, mutton bafath, and tender coconut pudding. She was the pioneer in the tender coconut pudding, the speciality of which was its fine flavour.
Annamma Mathew founded The Vanitha Magazine in 1975. What did running a women’s magazine, one that was so popular, mean to her?
Vanitha was her life, maybe second only to Kasturba—a social welfare centre started by her. It was through Vanitha that she explored the changing ideas of food, beauty, fashion, medical treatments, and gardening, and this had a huge influence on the women in Kerala.
What is it that comes to your mind when you think of your mother now? Give us a glimpse into how she was at home, or a memory you hold close.
In my mind, my mother stands out as a unique person in many respects. She was generous and selfless, had a heart of gold, and was always ready to help anyone in need. She expressed these characteristics not just to our extended family and friends, but anybody she interacted with. Having said that, she was a very strict mother who instilled good values and principles in us, her children.
For Amma, the kitchen was a sacred place. She was very particular about cleanliness. She put up boards at various places in the kitchen stating that ‘God is watching’.
What does growing up in a house that cares so deeply about food teach you?
It taught me to appreciate food, especially food made with so much love and care.