This recipe for South Indian steamed rice-and-lentil cakes unites my daughter with both of her grandmothers.
hands holding a piece of Idli
Credit: Pooja Makhijani

My South Asian family originates from Sindh, in the southeast of Pakistan and, growing up, I knew little about South Indian food beyond what was readily available at the canteen at the temple nearby—dosa (fermented rice-and-lentil crêpes) and idli (steamed fermented rice-and-lentil cakes) and their accompaniments, sambar, lentil-based vegetable stew and a coconut-cilantro chutney. These foods were tasty, and they remained a special treat; my mother and grandmothers didn't know how to make them.

That changed soon after I married my (now ex-) husband, whose immigrant family traces their roots to the opposite end of South Asia—to Kerala, on the southwestern Malabar Coast of India. Dosa and idli and sambar (as well as more north Kerala-specific dishes) were breakfast staples, and batches of fermented batter could always be found in my former mother-in-law's refrigerator and freezer. During our marriage, and especially after our daughter was born, I came to appreciate the art and science of making dosa and idli batter: soft, melt-in-your-mouth idli became my daughter's favorite breakfast when she was a toddler. I'd divide each idli into quarters, and she'd dip the pieces into a pool of ghee and sugar.

Credit: Pooja Makhijani

Pictured recipe: Idli with Coconut Chutney

The marriage ended, but the recipes remained. My daughter and I moved in with my parents and South Indian breakfasts became de rigueur. I made idli, once only a temple treat (and, on occasion, made from an instant box mix by my father), not only for our morning meal—served with ghee and sugar, or yogurt, or lemon achaar—but also to pack in my daughter's lunchbox, alongside string cheese or berries.

All these years later, my own mother's North Indian home cooking now incorporates South Indian ingredients and techniques. She often makes Thalassery chicken biryani, a casserole that blends seafood, chicken or mutton with coconut and curry leaves, in her kitchen. She says she finds it more aromatic and herbal than her own Mughlai concoction, because of the use of both coriander and mint leaves in the marinade. She's also adapted her cilantro chutney, which she makes to accompany sanna pakoda (Sindhi double-fried onion fritters), to include coconut, creating the quintessential South Indian condiment. This chutney, too, has become my daughter's favorite—as long as my mother doesn't add too much heat!

"Grandmother cooking," deep, connected, skillful, intuitive cooking, is often undervalued, even derided, in our ageist, misogynistic culture. Food writing about grandmother cooking is sometimes considered clichéd! But, to paraphrase Samin Nosrat, grandmothers are master chefs, yet we don't honor and respect those people or their hard-acquired knowledge. My daughter's favorite breakfast unites her to both of her grandmothers and their skills, and is their love manifested in an ordinary, commonplace—at least in South Asia and the diaspora—food. I hope she appreciates the labor and skill that has brought idli and chutney to her table, and I hope, one day, she will consider preserving these foodways for the next generation.

Pooja Makhijani is editor of Under Her Skin: How Girls Experience Race in America (Seal Press) Mama's Saris (Little Brown Books for Young Readers), a picture book. Learn more about her on her website and follow her on Instagram @laborofloaf.