A political powerhouse, a multifaceted politician, a freedom fighter, an artist, Mr. Clean, value based politician, a seasoned administrator and parliamentarian, erudite, charismatic, a man with impeccable manners and etiquette– these are just some of the words used to describe Ramakrishna Hegde Dodmane (Dodmane, being the suffix attached to the men of the paternal side of my family).
He was the first non-congress politician who rose to national fame and whose resignation as the sitting chief minister of Karnataka took the country by storm. A writer who wrote various articles on a variety of subjects all through his life, a politician who wrote master pieces on hard core economic issues and delivered speeches at academic institutes around the world, a grass root politician who could hold the attention of thousands of people as he delivered speeches in impeccable Hindi, Kannada or English, a man of the masses and the classes -having the creme de la creme around the world as his personal friends. I could go on and on about my chikayyajja (him being the younger brother of my grandfather Ganesh Hegde Dodmane). And I wish I could, but I would save it for another day and maybe another space.
Today, I'm here to talk about his better half- Smt Shakuntala Hegde. The writer Virginia Wolff said that one cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well. And Mrs. Hegde was the lady who cooked innumerable meals to feed him, his family and a batallion of friends and well wishers. Having seen her since childhood, I would go to the extent of saying that apart from being married to him, she has been married to her kitchen as well.
In recent years, sitting at the table in her Bangalore residence "Kritika", my childhood memories of her food always being the starting point of our conversations, we have talked endlessly about food and recipes.
"Kritika" was always graced by prominent personalities and luminaries from across the nation and from across many walks of life. Politicians, film personalities, sports people, legal stalwarts, eminent writers and journalists, have all dotted this home, a landmark in the city of Bangalore. The enigmatic personality of the man of the house, interesting conversations and the food cooked by the lady of the house herself, were the focal points of all these get togethers.
But what Mrs Hegde vividly remembers is the year 1975, when Ramakrishna Hegde along with other members of the opposition like L.K. Advani, J. H. Patel, S. N. Mishra and Dandavate were enclosed in a jail, under a state of emergency, by the then autocratic Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. At this time, she recalls the carriers of bisi bele bhath that she took for Mr Hegde and his friends, enough to serve about 40 people on the rare occasions that she was permitted to meet her husband.
Be it any number of guests, cooking was never assigned to someone else and food was never bought from outside. Breakfast, lunch and dinner was prepared with utmost care, love and devotion by the graceful Mrs Hegde. At short notice (and she tells me that the notice was sparse and this always kept her on tenterhooks), this dignified lady could cook a meal for 10 to 15 people at one go. And when there were parties she cooked for 40 to 50 people with great enthusiasm.
Never having eaten non vegetarian food herself (she is a vegetarian to date), she prepared non vegetarian biriyani and curries for her family and friends. A good biriyani made from 1 kg rice for the non vegetarians, raita, huli, papad, palya, puri, chutney for the vegetarians and gajar halva for dessert were standard fare at her parties.
Born on 12th April 1932, this octogenarian continues to cook her own food to this day and says that cooking is a "habit" for her and the most important aspect of her personality. Having witnessed the grief of the demise of her husband and her son, it is cooking that gives her solace. Throughout her life, she has cooked in happiness, in grief, in turbulent times and good times and there have been many changes in her life, except for the fact that she continues to cook, with the same passion, to this day. She once told me that it is only her Lord Ganesha and her passion for food that keeps her going in life.
I listened with admiration as she told me that never in her life has she bought anything ready made and even pickles, condiments and accompaniments have always been homemade. She showed me the large jars of pickles and reminisced about the huge quantity of pickles that her mother-in-law and sister-in-law (my grandmother) used to make using kilos of salt, spices and other ingredients stored in large canisters known as "hande" in Kannada.
When she made me taste her homemade curd, she told me that curd should never be sour and that even to this day she religiously collects cream to make homemade ghee every week.
During my recent visit to Bangalore, as the afternoon progressed to evening she talked to me about how her mother made an impact on her cooking in her early years. After she was married, my grandmother Lakshmi Hegde, with whom she spent a few years as her husband proceeded to Varanasi to complete his studies, also influenced her cooking, she said. And then she spoke about later on, how when she had her own kitchen, she cooked with great passion, using the freshest ingredients possible and her food acquired a dimension and character of its own.
What I have always admired about her home is her spotlessly clean kitchen. Apart from a clean home and well-maintained store room, Mrs. Shakuntala Hegde places great emphasis on cleanliness in the kitchen and says that it is one of the prerequisites for making great food.
Her top tips for cooking food:
- Always begin cooking by washing your hands, however clean your hands are!
- Start cooking with spotlessly clean utensils.
- Use ghee, coconut and homemade curd as much as possible.
Coconut has always played an important role in her cooking and never did she stop or reduce cooking with it even during the times when there was bad propaganda about coconut (something that even purists had succumbed to). Its another matter now, that the world is waking up to the abundant benefits of using coconut in the diet. What I love the most about her cooking is her way of combining vegetables. Her traditional recipes have unusual and unique vegetable pairings and she combines vegetables like capsicum, French beans, beets and cauliflower with traditional vegetables like ring gourd, knol khol, pumpkin etc to make different kinds of huli, palya and raita.
Never having gone to the hospital even once in her life (touch wood), she credits her health and her beautiful complexion to the food that she cooks and eats.
During the Indo-China war of 1962, when her husband announced to the press that "my wife will give away all her ornaments", she not only gave away all her ornaments but also decided to give up wearing jewellery for life. Ponds cold cream, Mysore sandal soap and MAC lipstick Ruby Woo (after Elizabeth Arden stopped making her favourite shade of lipstick) have been her faithful companions for years. And I was happy to note that apart from food and cooking we also share a common love for a particular shade of red lipstick.
The taste of chikki ajji's food has always been a part of my memory and her cooking has made a huge impact to my food and cooking as well. Different family members have different favorites of the food cooked by her. Today I present to you 3 recipes from her repertoire- Kodagina Majjige Huli (a must try), Beans Palya (palya being always a part of her menu) and padvalkayi payasa (a very traditional kheer made with snake gourd).
Women in the kitchen are always inspiring as they not only feed but also nurture the family. And recipes are a great way to preserve the culture and heritage of a generation- with the help of a few ingredients recipes help us reproduce and recreate memories and happiness in our very own kitchen. Shakuntala Hegde's recipes will always be a prized part of my culinary heritage and I'm glad that through her recipes, I'm able to preserve the quintessence of an era gone by.
Read the article written by me published by the Times Of India, immediately after the demise of my chikayyajja, Shri Ramakrishna Hegde
Kodagina Majjige Huli
Vegetables cooked with coconut, red chilies and yogurt
Kodagina Majjige Huli tastes great with hot rice and according to Mrs. Hegde, you can also serve it with morning dosa.
2 cups potatoes, field beans, French beans, capsicum, cucumber, chopped
½ cup water
½ tsp salt
2 tsp ghee
4 dry red chilies
100 gm (1 cup) coconut (fresh or frozen)
800 gm (2 cups) curd or yogurt, whipped
1 tsp salt or to taste
1 tbsp ghee
½ tsp mustard seeds
½ tsp cumin seeds
a sprig of curry leaves
½ tsp asafetida powder
Place the vegetables in a pan along with the water and ½ tsp salt. Cover and cook until the vegetables are done.
While the vegetables are cooking, heat 2 tsp ghee in a wok and put in the 4 dried red chilies. After they are crisp, stir in the fresh coconut and roast for 3 to 4 minutes.
In a blender put in the roasted chilies and the coconut and grind to a smooth paste.
Stir in the ground paste into the cooked vegetables and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and stir in the smooth yogurt. Mix well and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring all the while. You need to turn off the heat just before the curry begins to boil.
Turn off the heat, put in the salt and mix well.
In a pot, put in the ghee and after it melts, stir in the mustard seeds. After the mustard seeds pop, put in the cumin seeds, curry leaves and after the curry leaves are crisp, stir in the asafetida powder.
Pour the hot seasoning into the huli and mix well.
Serve with hot rice, idli or dosa.
Serves 5 to 6
Stir fried beans with mustard, chilies, asafetida and coconut
Palya is staple food in a Kannadiga household and can be made with a variety of seasonal vegetables
300 gm (2 cups) French beans, chopped
2 tsp oil
2 tsp urad dal
½ tsp mustard seeds
a sprig of curry leaves
1 or 2 slit green chilies
½ tsp asafetida powder
¼ tsp turmeric powder
25 gm (1/4 cup) grated coconut
1 tsp salt or to taste
juice of half a lime.
Wash and chop the beans into ½" pieces.
In a kadhai put in 2 tsp oil and after the oil is hot, stir in the urad dal and after about 30 seconds when the urad dal begins to change colour, put in the mustard seeds. After the mustard begins to pop, put in the curry leaves, green chili and then add in the asafetida and the turmeric powders.
Into the seasoning, put in the chopped beans and about ¼ cup water. Cover and cook until the beans are done. Keep stirring in between to make sure that the beans don't turn black. If required add a little water.
Stir in the coconut, salt and lime and turn off the heat.
Serves 3 to 4
Snakegourd and semolina pudding with cardamom
A payasa is a must have, served on festivals and other celebratory occasions.
300 gm (2 cups) snake gourd, peeled and chopped
½ cup water
1 tbsp ghee
85 gm (½ cup fine rava) or semolina
250 ml (1 cup) coconut milk
500 ml (2 cups ) milk
100 gm (¾ cup) jaggery powder
4 cardamom pods
Roughly peel the gourd and slit it open. Take off the seeds from the centre and chop the gourd into 1â€ rounds.
Place the chopped gourd in a pan, pour in the water and cook until done.
In another pan or wok, put in the ghee and after it melts, stir in the semolina. On low heat, roast the semolina until it changes colour, about 5 to 6 minutes.
After the semolina turns golden brown put in the chopped gourd along with the water if any, coconut milk and milk.
Cook until the milk begins to boil on medium low heat. After the milk comes to a boil, stir in the jaggery powder and turn off the heat.
While the milk boils, remove the cardamom seeds from their pods and powder them in a mortar and pestle or an electric coffee mill.
Mix well and put in the cardamom powder.
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