Monica and son
This morning I was making a lentil soup for my family, almost exactly the way my grandmother, in India,  taught me decades ago. Or so I first thought. Her recipe used six tablespoons of butter,  onions, garlic, red lentils, about eight different spices, loads of cilantro and a touch of salt. I recall my mom making this, but with much less butter, baby peas for us kids and no salt as Dad was watching his sodium. As I smelled the aroma of garlic from the soup that I was stirring, it occurred to me that my soup today was in truth a reflection of my life here in the US, far away from India: butternut squash, chicken stock instead of water and no cilantro as my hubby thinks it tastes soapy.

The changes to the recipe had occurred so slowly, so gradually, that I never really noticed that I had changed it. It made me think about all the recipes I made and how in fact, I had begun to change them to reflect our way of living.  At first, I have to admit I felt guilty, almost as if changing the recipe meant I was changing the memory of a childhood taste. Familiar childhood tastes give us a place to belong: they bear witness to our lives. Changing them seemed sacrilegious.

When I told my mother this, she reminded me that she in fact cooked the same way.   In fact, I remember, over thirty years ago, my mother had sat down and jotted some of her favorite recipes in a note book that I took with me to college.   What l loved in it most was not the recipes but her notes along the margins:  Reduce the chili. Add extra sugar for Monica. Reduce butter because the taste is too greasy.  This could easily qualify as our family cookbook because in addition to recipes, it holds our memories.  My mother lives oceans away but her cookbook is my constant companion in the kitchen providing warmth, support and comfort. In the margins now are my own notes of what my family likes.

But it is not just recipes that get passed down and changed.  Even the way food is cooked depends on so many cultural traditions, and can change as we grow. As each successive generation learns what and how to cook, they often just accept that what they’ve learned go hand in hand. But then, without even realizing, they do something different.

It’s funny how culture shows up where you least expect it. I remember learning to cook without tasting my food. You see, when I learned to cook from my grandmother, she taught me never to taste the food during cooking. Why? Because in our household,  the first serving of food was always intended for the Divine. To taste the food when you cooked it would make it impure. So I learned how to cook by watching the potatoes brown until just tender in heated oil, singing a song, just long enough, to perfectly boil eggs, , listening to the spices sizzle in hot oil and to the herbs impart their aroma in dishes when added at just the right time.  And now I teach my son to cook the same way-I am always making him smell, touch, listen to food to learn how to cook it perfectly. But he breaks with “my” tradition:  he does love to taste!

When I was growing up, one of my best comfort foods was watching my father prepare his pièce de résistance – his Indian-style scrambled eggs. He would shimmer some oil,  throw in onions, tomatoes, green chilies and cilantro. Chat with me until the tomatoes softened,  then add the eggs and scramble them. The final addition would be turmeric and cayenne. The sweet smell of the onions, the lemony scent of cilantro, I associate them all with my father’s love. Not only did I love the recipe, I loved breaking the eggs for him, feeling all grown up when he would let me pluck fresh cilantro from the herb pots, and chatting with him as he cooked.   I introduced this dish to my husband and then to my sons.

On a recent visit to India, it warmed my heart to have to wait in line for my father’s scrambled eggs behind my boys. As I waited patiently, I heard my husband explain to my dad how much he loved the dish. And then he went onto explain our family rendition of the scrambled eggs– using Indian cheese instead of eggs, mint instead of cilantro and jalapeno instead of green chilies.   Changing a recipe, it turns out, doesn’t make it less of an heirloom–in fact, it only makes it more our own.

You may also like...


  1. Monica
    I can just smell the onions and garlic and spices. My changes to family recipes have been complicated by a diagnosis of celiac disease for me and my teens. I’ve gone from completely rejecting the family recipes that were ‘poisoning’ us to adapting them to our new gluten-free diet. It has been quite a journey to get to that point. I blogged about it last month.

  2. Monica, you are so right, over time we change and alter recipes to fit our own tastes, or dietary needs, and then we forget that the original recipe has matured, or evolved.

    I would venture a guess that the “original” recipe was also evolved over time from other iterations and variations too!

    Bon appetit!

  3. I love how sensitive you were to these changes Monica. I do believe that many family recipes can be lost though, by the changes made, so it is wonderful that you are documenting your father’s special eggs and your grandmother’s, then mother’s lentil soup as well as your own renditions.

    I believe in eating locally as much as possible, so location plays a large part in my cooking. Since moving to Hawaii this has been both challenging and wonderful. I also use mostly raw ingredients, no processed foods, so what is available changes with the seasons.

    Also, as we have experiences in life; travel, wonderful food that we want to recreate, gardens in our own yard etc. our culinary horizons change and grow with us. And then of course there is the refinement of our palates, if we listen, taste and learn through our food experiences.

    To me no meal should ever be mundane, each one should be a delight to our senses as well as nourishment to our bodies.

  4. This is like an anthropological history of how food evolves and of how food is nourishment for the soul as well as for the body. Beautifully expressed, Monica.

  5. What a wonderful post, Monica! Reading it brought so many emotions to mind. My grandmother was an excellent cook, as is my mother and aunt. However, each have their own method of making “traditional dishes.” Although we have our own twists on family favorites, I will always love the way the women of my family make their food and the memories that their dishes bring to mind. Thank you for sharing this, and for reminding me of why I love cooking and creating new traditions for my family.

  6. Monica, this is so good. I almost felt emotions running through me when I was reading this.
    When I cook, I think I cook under my Mum and my mother in law’s influence as they both are great cooks. And I think I have picked up what they do best and have combined them without knowing and today when I was reading this I thought about it.
    And it is lovely as these recipes hold memories as well….

  7. Very interesting and how true

    Old order changeth yielding place to new

  8. I opened my eyes this morning more than an hour ago, but here you have opened them again. What a moving and insightful post. Food world discussions of “authenticity” leave me frustrated. That was not your subject here but your observation of truths around cooking and connection gives me a sense of “yes”.

  9. You and I have such similar experiences with food, but on different continents. It’s so fascinating how food provides such a strong link to our families and our past, but also allows us to express who we are today.

  10. How true and the way you wrote, it unraveled as a story

  11. Oh this is such a classic piece, Monica! You write from the heart and capture what we all feel when we try to recreate family recipes from a different generation. Thanks for sharing this. I love, love it!

  12. “Familiar childhood tastes give us a place to belong: they bear witness to our lives. Changing them seemed sacrilegious.” How true. Familiar childhood tastes do give us a place to belong and tell us through memory where home was. Rather than being sarilegious, they just reflect a history and new history is always being made.

    To make sure historical events (or in this case recipes) remain discrete in our memories, why not have as many versions of a recipe as necessary or as their are generations – Grandmother Mary’s Lentil Soup, Mother Jane’s Lentil Soup, Daughter Monica’s Lentil Soup? I of course made up a name for your grandmother and mother as I don’t know their real names, but they need to be included in the recipe titles as future generations who find the recipes won’t know who is being referred to if only the words, Grandmother, Mother, Daughter are used. A practice like this insures that the “authentic, original” recipe remains intact and changes to it are reflected in “new” versions changed by their cooks.

  13. I vowed to do more cooking as I have hundreds of cookbooks and magazines. I am in the Philippines and so you can imagine the way I can prepare a recipe depends so much on what’s available here. Some ingredients are so prohibitive in price that I have to substitute or skip it altogether. Our palate is sweeter and milder too. We like pale roasts, bread and sauces.

  14. If we did not sail ships from two far away places on Earth, I would swear that we were sisters:) You always manage to touch my heart and take me back to the comforting warmth of my childhood.
    When I left for college, my mom wrote a few dozen of my favorite recipes in a notebook and sent it with me. It would have been much harder surviving those first years of independence without something so familiar and loving as my mother’s cooking.
    And, yes, my food has morphed over the years, adjusting to my family and our new country, but the essence is still here. I want to say that I improved many of the old classics, but as I changed them, so did my mom, and my grandmother before her:)
    Have a great weekend!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.