It is 1920s Kolhapur. Ratanlal and Shanta have been on the run for many days and finally find boarding for the night at the home of a flower vendor. Their meal at night is a simple misal-matki (stew of moth beans) cooked down with onions and spices redolent with the heat of black pepper, the nuttiness of dried coconut and the meaty aroma of dagad-phool (lichen) and bhakri (flatbread made of millets). There’s buttermilk and jaggery to wash down the spice.
It’s a simple meal, but, in the lives of the two lovers, it conveys the warmth of their hosts and gives them the strength to move forward in their journey. It is but one of many momentous, if simple, meals scattered through the novel Ten Thousand Tongues: Secrets Of A Layered Kitchen (Turmeric Press).
In it, Atlanta-based author and home chef Nandita Godbole traces her family’s history, from 1899 to the present. It was released along with a companion cookbook in December. “The books are best enjoyed together, especially if the reader loves easy old-fashioned food and regional delicacies. Many readers will read a chapter or two, and then cook a recipe or two from the companion cookbook,” she says.
For Godbole, food and family memories are intertwined, a part and parcel of her life. “I was the child who burnt her play stove trying to cook on it, who got hungry during religious fasts, who struggled with undiagnosed food allergies from an early age, and who lamented the lost privilege of having home-made food when she moved away abroad,” she says.
It all started with a dream featuring her late paternal grandmother. Curiosity piqued, Godbole started researching her grandmother’s Bene Israeli heritage, eager to learn about the Jewish dishes that had lingered in her late father’s memory. This search for family recipes led her to the stories that accompanied them.
This large tapestry of recipes and cuisines is on offer in Ten Thousand Tongues. Writing the book was no easy task, from choosing what to include and leave out. Added to it was her extensive research—first-person stories from her parents, historical records, political and railway maps as well as “Gazetteers”, and the sole surviving copy of her freedom-fighter grandfather Dattataray Shankar Godbole’s biography Bandilki-chi-waatchaal (Path Of Duty). Her novel is based on eight matriarchs of her family. In terms of scope, it spans five generations, three time periods (pre-independence India, post-independence and industrialized India, and post-immigration), moving across Alibaug and Pezari, Kolhapur, Indore, Lunwa, Goa and Mumbai, and, finally, Atlanta. It starts with her great-grandmother in Rajasthan, who fled her village as a teenager, escaping communal violence, and ends with Ana (a character based on Godbole), who leaves India by choice to settle down abroad. Godbole chose to focus on women as “they were the keepers of traditions (foods and customs)”.
Through the stories, she highlights the discrimination they faced and how they overcame challenges. The novel also touches upon life as an immigrant woman. Godbole reflects on her experience growing up in India and living in the US. The stories also feature a fair amount of food, and the role it played in their homes.
Godbole newest book focuses on rotis and is called Roti: 40 Classic Indian Breads And Sides.
“Even after living abroad for two decades now, a package from my mother will likely include thepla, or a portion of thalipeeth flour, and my first meal when I return to my parents’ home is cha with freshly made rotli (chapati). No matter where I am, when hungry, my fastest go-to is either rotli, sweet ghaawan/malpua, or bread and butter if nothing else. There is also something about rotli that simply keeps me ‘grounded’,” she says.
The books aren’t connected but there are avatars of rotis spread through Ten Thousand Tongues too: a farmer’s rustic jowar or bajra bhakri from Johari’s kitchen, Sumati Atya’s (based on the life of her paternal aunt) gul-poli (a preparation that was good for local travel), Shaku’s (based on the life of Godbole’s mother) bread rolls, signalling the inclusion of sliced bread in an urban kitchen, and Ana’s aloo paratha. “These roti versions are not new to those eras, women, or kitchens—instead, they represent an intuitive response to the sociopolitical and cultural climate, and are popular even today, symbolizing their ‘staying power’, ones that have endured the passage of time and food-fashion,” she says.
As a food writer, Godbole is often questioned about her background, professional pedigree and why she eats/cooks a certain food. “I never seemed to have the right answers for them—it seemed I was not enough of an expert or purist in a particular cuisine that would ‘validate’ my place in the food space,” she says. Now, her answers fill up books.