University professor Priya is a busy academic, and some nights, the energy to cook escapes her. But then she’ll call on an old family favourite, and before long, she’s tucking into pithla – a quick dhal made with gram flour, green chillies and coriander – eating it with her fingers, just as her mother and grandmother once did.
“This is the same vegan dish my mother Ai used to rush home from her pathology job to cook for us on her lunch break. It’s comforting, easy to make and packed with flavour,” says Priya.
Priya, now 62, was born in London, but grew up in Delhi. Though she never got to meet her maternal grandmother, Aaji, who died during childbirth at 27, Aaji’s memory and stories live on through family recipes, punctuated by flavour and familiarity.
“My mother, Ai, was just nine when Aaji died and, as the oldest and only female sibling, cooking and caring for her younger brothers fell to her small hands. Making simple dishes like pithla, one of a few she’d already learned from Aaji, were a vital lifeline.”
It was a loss and trauma that stayed with Ai all her life. “My mum talked about Aaji a lot, and was very affected by her passing. She always spoke with such pride and love for Aaji, who had been a loving and caring mother herself, cooking for her family with tenderness and passion.
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“Whenever we cooked pithla – a tasty and quick dish that tasted a lot more sophisticated than it actually was – it was like Aaji was in the kitchen, peering over our shoulders.”
It was a recipe that seeped into the very fabric of her family’s lives. When Priya’s daughters Tara and Jade came along, it wasn’t long before she introduced them to this spicy, fragrant meal.
“Just like my mother and Aaji before her, I waited for my partner to be out, then I made it as pungent as I liked! As a busy mum of two, it was my fall-back dish.” Priya’s mum loved to see the recipe Aaji had taught her moving down to the next generation of young women in their family. Sadly, before she could see Tara cooking it, Ai passed away from complications related to diabetes in 2010.
“As an only child, and having already lost my dad, Ai’s death hit me very hard. Even in my grief, I turned to foods that reminded me of her: pithla. I made it for the girls, and we ate it the traditional South-Asian way: with our fingers, alongside rice, yogurt and pickles.It evoked a sense of home, of being once again in the loving space my mother and her mother had created for their children.”
By the time Tara was set to move to Bristol for university, Priya packed her eldest a special box to take with her. “It was more like a dowry chest! I packed spices, herbs, cooking utensils and even a cast-iron karahi – a traditional Indian wok. I had no idea if she’d use any of it.”
Months later, Tara called Priya with joyful news. “She said, ‘Mum, guess what? I made pithla for my housemates and they loved it!’ I listened with pride as Tara told me she’d cooked it in her karahi for her vegan housemates.
“I was delighted her friends had loved it, especially as it’s a casual, simple recipe, and not one I’d really cook for people outside my family. It didn’t seem special enough to share, but I started to see that, actually, it’s the most special one of all for my family.”
Now, Priya’s family pithla is making the rounds on the vegan Bristol scene, and breaking out beyond. “It seems to be really catching on with vegans in that area, and it’s incredible for me to hear. Outside of my academic work, I run my monthly Maharani supper club in my home, and would never have thought to put pithla on the menu. This experience is making me challenge my own perceptions and move with the recipe, the same way it’s moved down through four generations and leapt across continents.
“I think if Aaji was here, she would have been happy to see young people of a different culture enjoying this recipe. My mum would be proud, too, that our pithla hasn’t been lost. There are certain dishes I make that have the stamp of my mother on them and are loaded with family memories and emotions. Pithla is the embodiment of that and I couldn’t be more moved to see it taking on its own life across the UK.”
Try Priya’s vegan pithla recipe.