A promise made to a mother. A book born out of loss. Ammi – An Expression of Love is Prasanna Pandarinathan’s way of paying homage to her mother Nirmala. Through recipes and anecdotes, she brings out her mother’s love for cooking and shares a repertoire of culinary treasures from the different regions she had lived in. The book is also a reminder of how deeply food can affect us, and how much joy it can bring as families and friends gather around a well-laid table.
Published in January 2022, the part-cookbook, part-memoir features 108 recipes carefully selected by Pandarinathan and her family. Divided into 10 sections—Vegetables; Eggs; Poultry; Meat; Seafood; Bakes & Grills; Rice & Noodles; Pickles & Chutneys; Desserts; and Spices, Stocks & Masalas—the recipes are simple, home-style, and easy to cook. From humble yam curry and spicy Tanjore chicken pepper fry to baked cauliflower in white sauce—they straddle different regions, styles, and flavours. Being a photographer, Pandarinathan’s book is naturally filled with resplendent photographs of dishes, interspersed with archival images from family albums.
Born in Chennai and brought up in Bengaluru, Pandarinathan moved to Mumbai to pursue a career in modelling. Work took her to Malaysia, Hong Kong, London, and eventually New York. Along the way, an interest in photography led her to take a course at the International Center of Photography (ICP) in NYC. She now divides her time between Bengaluru and New York.
We caught up with her about her maiden adventure in the world of cookbooks. Here are some edited excerpts from the interview:
1. Where did the idea of the book come from and how did you go about putting it together?
My younger brother passed away in 2006 at a very young age, which hit my mother very badly, obviously. She was grieving a lot and sinking, and I wondered what could help her get out of it. She was always very passionate about food and cooking, so I pushed her to document her recipes for a cookbook. That's how the book started—it was a promise that I made to my mother.
The whole process of producing the book was a journey on its own. First, I went and studied food photography. Then, I had to put all these recipes together—I have some 400 handwritten recipes from my mother! I also started doing what my mom used to do like getting up early and going to the fish market or buying fresh produce; I realised the amount of work that goes into the kitchen. Working on the book was also a healing process for me since my mother passed away 10 years ago. Overall, the book took almost six years; it also got delayed by 1.5 years because of the pandemic.
2. What’s behind the name Ammi?
In Tamil, Ammi is short for Ammi Kallu, a traditional South Indian stone grinder, used for grinding coconut and fresh spices. My mother always preferred to use the Ammi over the more convenient mixer-grinder since slow grinding on the stone brought out the flavours, oils, and spices beautifully. At home, my room was above the kitchen. Like clockwork, the Ammi would start at 6 - 6.30 AM and the kitchen would be in full swing since then. When I would come down, there was so much hustle and bustle between the kitchen and dining room—I took it all for granted. When my mom passed away, there was complete silence. And I so miss it.
3. What do you remember the most about your mother’s cooking? Any favourite recipes from the book?
My parents have a farm near Madurai. I remember vividly when I used to come down to Bengaluru and they had to be on the farm, my mom used to wake up at 4 in the morning and cook so much food, which I could have over the next few days. I was in my 30s and I used to tell her ‘don't do this, I'm an adult and I can take care of myself’. But for her, it was the way she showed her love.
My favourite recipe I would say is the baked crab, it’s really good! Also, the Pamban fish curry is unique. The name comes from Pamban, which is a small fishing village in Rameswaram. My grandmother used to make it, so it’s an heirloom recipe. It’s great with idiyappam (string hopper) and even with idli, dosa, or rice.
4. You have lived abroad for several years. How does it feel coming back to your roots?
Being in Bengaluru is good for me as it gives me the opportunity to spend time with my dad. He lives on the farm mostly, so I can travel and be with him. I love rural India; it resonates with me a lot. Of course, I spend a good amount of time back in New York, so it’s all about balance.
5. What made you transition from modelling to photography?
My background was in fashion and I had many friends in the industry who were editors and involved in production. I used to sit with them and enjoy the whole process of editing—that creative influence was huge in my life. Also, I had all these expensive cameras at home and I thought I should actually learn how to use them. I did one short course in photography and that led me to join ICP, one of the best photography media schools in New York and the country.
When I began working on the book, I was already photographing professionally and I thought I could easily do the food photos. But when I started shooting food, I realised it was completely different from fashion or documentary photography. So, I studied food photography and also worked under some of the best food photographers in New York like Susie Cushner. I realised how much I enjoy food photography and it was a beautiful learning process for me.
6. What is your one advice to budding food photographers?
I notice that food photographers in India tend to use a lot of studio light, which you don't really need. I prefer using daylight; it's much better with food as it gives it a more natural look. I kind of mix both sometimes but my primary source is always daylight.
Ammi ¬– An Expression of Love by Prasanna Pandarinathan; Rupa Publications, Rs. 1,495