India's oldest living writer's cookbook to be out in Gudi Padwa
Decked up in a beautiful silk saree, 96-year-old Susheela Pathak, known as Aaji, checks herself in a hand mirror when told that she will be photographed. Living with one of her grandsons, Dr Sujit Bopardikar, in a spacious Juhu apartment, Aaji’s warmth and beaming smile morphs the wrinkles — each telling of the years gone by.
Under consideration for the Limca Book of Records as India’s oldest living author, Pathak, born in 1919 (according to her passport), has penned four books in Marathi — Panajikadoon Goshtincha Khajina: Part 1 and Part 2 (stories for children), Aaga Aaga Mhani (book on proverbs) and Panajikadoon Khadpad-arthancha Khajina.
The latter offers simple, tasty and traditional Maharashtrian recipes. The English translation, Great Grandma’s Secret Recipes, will release this Saturday, among family members and television stars Sachin and Supriya Pilgaonkar in Bandra.
96-year-old Susheela Pathak with her three-year-old great granddaughter, Tarini Bopardikar. Pics/Shadab Khan
Born in Osmanabad (Maharashtra) to one of the earliest doctors in India (Vishnu Pant Pophale), Pathak spent most of her childhood in various places like Udgir in Marathwada, Gulbarga in Karnataka and Ashti in Maharashtra due to her father’s transferable job.
“I began cooking at the age of seven. Being the second child — with an elder brother and five younger siblings — I had to prepare meals while my mother looked after my siblings.
Kankecha Sheera and Brown Bread Mustard Chilli Chutney and Cheese Sandwiches with a variety of pickles made from Pathak’s recipe book
The first recipe I learnt was Khichdi. My interest in cooking developed during play sessions with friends,” she recalls, adding that the staples included Sheera (a sweet dish made from wheat flour, ghee and sugar), Jowar Chapattis (with milk added in the dough), coconut-garlic chutney, and delicacies like Puran Poli and Rava-Besan Ladoo made during festivals.
Home and away
As her three-year-old great granddaughter Tarini joins her, Pathak lists a variety of her homemade creations, as most ingredients weren’t available in the market. “We would grind all the flours as well as raw sea salt and turmeric to make salt powder and turmeric powder, by hand. We would stock traditional sun-dried snacks like rice and urad dal (black gram) papad, kurdai (white noodles made from wheat flour) which would take three days to make as well as pickles using mustard and chillies, raw mangoes, etc,” she informs.
Improvisations played a key role in honing her culinary skills since the early days. “I would crush the hard lady fingers that you couldn’t eat as a vegetable; add chilli powder, asafoetida, salt, sesame seeds and serve them as sun-dried snack,” she says. “We drank fresh milk from our buffalo, Girija and, would make ghee at home,” she adds.
Married at 16 to chemical engineer Shripad Rao Pathak, she moved to Shakar Nagar near Hyderabad. Her travels to different places and interactions with the locals influenced her skills. “I learnt how to make Mirchi Bhajiya (green chilli fritters) in Hyderabad.
While we would make Stuffed Brinjals in Marathwada, I started adding imli (tamarind) in the stuffing because in Karnataka, they use tamarind in most of their cooking,” she explains. As husband and wife loved gardening, most home fare included vegetables and spices, plucked from their garden.
As her family expanded, so did her world of cooking. She gave birth to a son and a daughter, who had three sons. Dr Bopardikar reveals, “All her improvisations were inspired by our likes. For instance, I don’t like egglant and wouldn’t eat Stuffed Brinjals. So, she innovated this into Pith Vange using wheat flour dumplings stuffed with the same masalas as used in brinjals.”
Living with her daughter Sucheta Bopardikar since the 1970s, the duo would team up to combine traditional and modern tastes. “Earlier, she would make Puran Poli using gram flour; it made for a heavy meal. So, she moved to using the healthier tur dal (split pigeon peas). She would serve tamarind chutney instead of ketchup,” says Dr Bopardikar.
Her grandchildren maintain that the main aim behind publishing the recipe book was to preserve her exhaustive culinary knowledge.
“She knows some very unique recipes. For instance, she adds fenugreek seeds in an eggplant vegetable and cooks carrot with roasted flaxseeds that tastes delicious. She had handwritten all of her recipes, which were then turned into a book,” shares Dr Bopardikar, with pride and affection for his Aaji glinting in his eyes.
At: Title Waves, Road No 24, Pali Village, Bandra (W).
>> An active participant in India’s freedom struggle in the 1940s, she taught self-defence lessons to young girls and hosted debates in Udgir. “We had a charkha at home and all siblings would weave yarn on it,” she says.
>> When asked to boycott foreign goods, her love for tea made her sneak in a cup of chai once. “My brother spotted me drinking it, and was upset. I promised myself to never drink tea and till date, I haven’t.”
>> During a protest outside Hyderabad University, where her brother studied, officials threatened to drive trucks over them if they sang Vande Mataram. Sticking to their stand, they lay on the ground in front of the truck. Supported by a huge crowd, the trucks had to back off.