Ratatouille – A Family story from India

Indian Spices

Once a year I am in my native India, where it is not usual for men to cook. But I am a hobby chef and like to experiment with Indian spices.
In the beginning, my relatives smiled at me when I cooked outdoors, but they watched me curiously or helped me actively.
“Many cooks spoil the porridge”, this saying may apply here in Germany, but in India, you don’t cook porridge either.
Once I wanted to prepare a ratatouille for my relatives. I bought fresh ingredients. The vegetables came from the market and the fresh fish from a local fisherman.

The provisional stove stood in the yard and consisted of eight bricks, a large iron pan and lots of wood.
I put two tablespoons of coconut oil in the pan and distributed thinly chopped onion rings on the bottom of the pan.
Then I added a few cloves of garlic, finely chopped potatoes, tomatoes, and carrots. I seasoned my ratatouille with curry and coriander leaves, pieces of ginger, freshly ground turmeric, cumin, a few fresh peppercorns, chopped chili peppers and three fingers of salt grains.

Finally, I put thin slices of eggplant and plantains on top and closed the lid. I let the whole thing stew over low heat. Completely without water.
A cousin of mine is an experienced cook. She had looked at my cooking from a distance and asked me a little worried if I could eat it at all. To be on the safe side, she cooked a lentil curry for herself.

After half an hour I opened the lid and added a tablespoon of ghee. Ghee is a form of clarified butter. I stirred everything gently and opened the buffet.
Ghee is butterfat. A gentle boiling process removes water, milk protein and lactose from the butter. Ghee is thus lactose-free.

Ghee is ideal for roasting and baking. It intensifies the taste and the rice becomes more aromatic.

Coconut oil is perfect for baking and frying at temperatures up to 200°C. When cold, below 26°C it becomes thicker or firm.


My skeptical cousin also said later that my food was tasty, but she would rather cook her way and was not interested in cooking experiments.
My Indian family talks a lot during cooking, the state of affairs in the family, upcoming weddings and traditional celebrations. They discuss, comment and laugh heartily.
It is a kind of ritual, also the dialect is a singing song. No one waits until someone has finished talking, but there is no confusion despite all this. It’s like a melody and the food afterward is a poem.
If a spice is missing, a child has to run to the neighbouring house and get it. Usually, the neighbour wants to know what is being cooked and then she gives another spice that will go with it.
If there is a quarrel between neighbours and they no longer talk to each other, then borrowing spices is a good way to restore harmony.
When I was ten years old, I once spent my holidays in my grandparents’ house and experienced a crisis situation.
My grandmother, Thaayammaal, was her name, maintained close contact with other women from the village and looked after women in the area. She was a kind of healing doctor according to the Indian natural healing method, called Siddha-Waidhyam.

Sidda waidayam

Once there was a long period of silence between my grandmother and her best friend Kamala from the neighbourhood. Only the children of the families played together, the adults kept silent.
The situation was unbearable for all of us, and soon nobody knew the reason for the quarrel.
Kasthoori, the granddaughter of the neighbour Kamala, came running to us one day and reported an emergency.
Kamala’s daughter-in-law had fainted and her grandmother Kamala wanted our grandmother to bring a certain herbal oil.

Herbal oil

My grandmother got up without a word, opened her medicine cabinet, grabbed some ingredients and hurried to the neighbour.
The daughter-in-law seemed to be doing so well immediately after the treatment that she could go shopping with her children. How was that possible?
Even today, decades later, I think about this episode. Perhaps the daughter-in-law of the neighbouring family was not ill at all. She came from the north of the country and could communicate well in Tamil and Malayalam. Maybe she was a good actress and the fainting was fake?
In any case, my grandmother and her friend Kamala found good terms with each other again after this incident.

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