Writer Aanchal Malhotra is the moderator of the Instagram account, Museum of Material Memory (@museumofmaterialmemory). It is a digital archive of vintage and beloved objects, like a sindoor box, crockery, black and white photography, metal and woodwork that have remained in families for generations. Malhotra has a soft spot for ceramics from the brand Hitkari which line the shelves in her grandmother's and mother's home. In an interview with Lounge, the author speaks about her fondest food memory, her father's achaars and shares her grandmother's phirni recipe.
What is the one prominent food memory from your childhood?
I grew up in Delhi, and every Sunday, we would visit my mother's ancestral home in Roop Nagar. They used to have a tradition of buying puri chole from one of the halwais who lined the streets in Kamala Nagar. The food would be laid out with a variety of achaars like aam or gajar, and lassi would be made at home. I don't remember indulging too much, but it was a thing that brought everyone together, which I loved, and it's such a warm memory.
You have written about Hitkari crockery. What is it that caught your fancy about this ceramic brand?
I'm interested in objects in general. For my research, I have visited a lot of older people's homes over the years and noticed they have Hitkari crockery. It's a brand that came into existence as an alternative to Bengali pottery right after partition. It was launched as an inexpensive, modern alternative at that time. The brand's founder hand-moulded and painted each piece because they didn't have printers then. By the sixties and seventies, the product had a lot of finesse and it was part of almost every bride's trousseau, at least in north India. It was like the Indian Noritake, or the Indian Royal Doulton. It became such an obsession that I traced the family, interviewed them and saw very old cups with colours that reflect each season. My mother has so many Hitkari sets that she never uses unless I coax her to bring them out to photograph them. My grandmother has Hitkari for everyday use and for special occasions. It was very fashionable at that time to own Hitkari.
Tell us about your father's pickles.
My father, who is a bookseller, has a deep interest in food and makes achaars for family, friends and neighbours. It is a gift, really. The whole process of achaar-making is like a soothing ritual for him, as he everything with his hands in a paraat, takes them for sun-drying, checks them regularly to see if the oil has macerated the ingredients. If I sit down with a notebook to write down the steps and ask him how much salt or jeera, he would give me the look that says "What do you mean how much! You just have to feel it." He's is an instinctive cook, and I find myself very envious of that fact because I am not naturally attuned to preparing food. My father making achaar is something that has come to dominate food memory in the last few years. At any given moment, our house will have at least 10 different types of achaars.
What's your comfort food?
I had to cook for myself as a student in Canada while completing my BFA and MFA. And, the one thing that I would make a lot was my dadi's phirni, because it's easy and so delicious. Every time I would make it, it brought great joy, because it was like, home was in my hand.
Dadi's phirni recipe
One-fourth cup rice
3 and a half cups of milk
Half tsp cardamom
Pinch of saffron
Sugar as per taste
Almonds and pistachios as garnish
Rinse the rice under running water, drain and leave it in a colander to dry.
Meanwhile, bring the milk to a boil and keep stirring. As the milk heats, grind the washed rice to a coarse powder and then add it to the pot of boiling milk.
Keep stirring to prevent any lumps, until the rice is fully cooked and the mixture begins to thicken. Add a pinch of saffron, a few tablespoons of sugar (as per the sweetness desired), and 1/2 tsp of cardamom powder.
Then when the mixture is of pouring consistency, allow it to cool. Transfer it into bowls or cups. It will thicken further as it sets. Garnish each serving with chopped almonds and pistachios and chill before serving.
Inheritance of flavours is a series with chefs, restaurateurs, hospitality experts and professionals about food memories and tastes of home.