“Cut it wafer thin. Very thin.”

The emphasis on wafer is not lost on me. She pronounces it ‘vafer’, the way many people of that generation do, who are new to a language and try valiantly anyway. It impresses me, that grit.

But that’s not all that does.

Her tiny black bindi, placed right in the centre of her forehead, fixates me. It’s drawn by hand but the circle is perfect. There are no jagged edges and there are no mistakes. It sits there, quietly, authoritatively. It announces that she is a strong woman; a woman who briefly mourned her husband’s passing, but went on to live life on her own terms.

The pumpkin pieces under my knife are big, definitely not wafer thin. She gently takes the knife from my hand and says, ‘Let me show you how.’ I step back and watch as her fingers grip the handle with the practised ease of a chef. Those fingers have fed more than a thousand mouths, day after day, week after week, in a tiny and sleepy hamlet in Palakkad, way back in the 50s.

“This is how we make Olan,” she says, her voice bringing me back from my musings. I shake myself and concentrate on her voice, her instructions and her action of slicing the white and yellow pumpkin pieces in wafer-thin strips. “It’s very easy. Anyone can do it.”

“Now, get a chattuvam.”

I blink, the novelty of the word making me wonder.

“I mean, paathram.” She laughs, throwing her head back, the sound ringing her face and filling my tiny kitchen with its bell-like quality. I find a wide-mouthed vessel and hand it over. She moves between the stove and the granite counter, just as comfortably as she does between Tamil and Malayalam. The former I know, because I grew up with it. The latter is a stranger, one that I’d started hearing more about in the last few months, since I married into a Palakkad family.

“Add the sliced pieces to water. Take one green chilly, split it down the middle. Like this.” Her fingers break the smooth skin, exposing the seeds within.

“Now, add some salt. Don’t put too much water. The pumpkin pieces will add water too, as they cook. Cover with a lid. Now we wait.”

She steps back and I stare at her. “That’s it? That’s the recipe?”

Her laughter again fills her body, like a wave reaching up from her belly and crashing against her cheeks. “Yes, but it’s not done. Wait.”

So, we do. For about 15 minutes. She lifts the lid, turns the pieces over and tests the softness of the pieces. Satisfied, she turns and grins. “Now, for the secret ingredient.” Opening the cabinet, she takes a pinch of the item and sprinkles it over the olan.

Putting a finger on her lips, she winks at me. “Don’t tell anyone. That’s our secret.” She then switches off the flame, takes a spoon of virgin coconut oil and pours it over the olan.

“Done.” That pride, the simple act of having cooked a simple dish to perfection, uttered in that child-like satisfaction, that always used to make me smile.

Come December and it will be two years since she left us all. And this year, it has been 16 years since she walked into my kitchen and taught me how to make olan.

And every single time that I make this dish, I remember her silvery laugh, that twinkle in her eyes and that wink when she said, ‘That’s our secret.’

It certainly is, Ammamma. It certainly is.


*Image courtesy: Shutterstock


Deeply honoured to have won the editor’s pick for this piece as well as second place in the crowd votes. I dedicate this completely to Ammamma. This is for you.

21 thoughts on “A recipe for Olan and then some

  1. I don’t cry easily, I truly don’t. But for some odd reason that I can’t fully understand myself, I am staring at the screen with watery eyes. This was beautiful, Shy. A very very well deserved editor’s pick.

  2. I loved this post, Shy. I could so imagine your Ammamma explaining the recipe to you, laughing at things you both talked about and sharing her secret with you. Reminded me of my granny – my mum’s aunt – who was such a darling!
    Grannies are all darlings, aren’t they?
    Congrats, once again for the Yeah Write Win, sweetie! You have inspired me to ‘open up’ …you know what I mean, don’t you? 😛

  3. And you didn’t reveal the secret. Hmmph. But such a lovely beautiful story, Mam. I simply lived your narration.
    P. S: I read the post yesterday and I am sure I left a comment.

  4. Olan.. I’ve always had a fascination for the way that name sounds.. almost mystical. And your post makes it all the more so for me :). Must elicit that secret ingredient out of you sometime, as I really want to try making it sometime ;). Lovely post, Shailaja – your descriptive writing is just superlative.

  5. She was an artist. I could picture her graceful movements in the kitchen while preparing the Olan. Loved your narration. It is a sentimental poetry disguised as a cookery post 🙂

  6. This was so lovely. I love reading about food memories because they are so special. There is so much emotion involved in how we cook what we cook and how we learn. Loved your narration.

    I have no idea what the dish is but the grandma surely was delightful. By sharing her recipe, wisdom and laughter, she welcomed you in the family. That bond stayed with you. Enjoyed it.

  7. That was such an absolute pleasure to read. I don’t even know what you were cooking but the FEEL of it was just so heartwarming. A perfect example of how beautiful writing can elevate the mundane to the extraordinary. Super piece Shailaja.

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