By Supriya

“There is more to food than what ends up on your plate,” Deepa S Reddy declares, as she gets down to talk about her work. Deepa describes herself as an ingredient collector and is also someone who can combine her love for food with her background as an experienced cultural anthropology professor at the University of Houston-Clear Lake. The result of that love and combination you see on her blog and Instagram page. 

Through her blog, you discover that food has a bigger meaning, a bigger effect, a bigger consequence in our lives. Even the name of her blog ‘Paticheri’ is related to the place where she lives now, Puducherry, and also the French patisseries that enriched the culinary identity of the place. The name itself gives you a glimpse of what drives Deepa, people and their relationship with food, it stands true even the other way round too. Her anecdotes, observations from personal experiences or even from cultural notions make her posts unique.

The change in our eating habits has made certain staple ingredients disappear from our plates. She has observed this over the years. They need to come back. Her blog is essentially an ode to this, and the Rasam series is an interesting part of it. Going beyond the usual, pepper, tomatoes and garlic, a rasam lover will find more intriguing options on her blog and Instagram page. 

Deepa’s Tomato rasam

So how did this amazing woman discover her love for food and cooking? It was not the typical ‘grandma’s or mom’s little helper’ scenario, she reveals, her grandmothers were not around and her mother was never interested in cooking. “It was my husband’s aunt (because of whom I met him) and then eventually my mother-in-law who got me hooked on,” she reveals further. 

For a young Deepa, who grew up in different places, discovering a world of food beyond just whipping something up for the sake of it, was a revelation. They were not merely recipes that she received from these women, but something much bigger. “They were these systems of practices and knowledge that were handed down to them from their grandmothers and women in their families,” she points out. The revelation sparked curiosity in Deepa. She has not looked back since.

As an anthropologist and researcher, she has a natural tendency to look at the bigger picture. Food has a conceptual framework, she believes; where and how it is grown, how the raw materials are procured, the seasons that are favourable or unfavourable and many other factors.

Ingredients and beyond 

Deepa has a travel ‘tradition’. Wherever she goes, she makes sure to visit the local grocery stores. She finds them more interesting than the typical, loud touristy spots. Grocery stores give a direct view of what the locals buy for their day-to-day use or what their staples are. “I also like to see what makes one grocery store different from the other,” she quips, providing further insight she says, “Grocery stores around the world are similar, as in, they are set up the same. So looking for ingredients that are different becomes interesting.” 

Deepa loves to find out how an ingredient can be used and grown. She also makes sure to mention in her blog the scientific names and botanical family of ingredients she uses. There is a minimum of five to six ways of preparing a single ingredient according to her. Boiling, steaming, frying, smoking or even drying are a few. Deepa believes that anyone can look for ingredients and make them their own. “I just happen to be trying it out myself!” she declares. 

She has come across many ingredients that have essentially intrigued her over the years. But the one that remains her favourite is purple yam or Ube, found in the Philippines. There is a similar variety that is grown in Gujarat in India, but there is a slight difference in the taste and texture.

Ube Halaya is the famous jam-like dessert that is prepared from it, using coconut milk and condensed milk. When she learnt how to prepare the Halaya, she was surprised to see how similar it was to the Theratti paal that is prepared in Tamil homes. “It made me realise how often we share our cooking styles and traditions with people around the world,” she enlightens.  

Her love for using ingredients in different ways also includes preparing self-care products like hair oils, hair wash powders, tooth powders and face scrubs, to mention a few. The herbal hair wash powder has been a favourite amongst her readers and is one of the posts with the most engagements over the years. This recipe also catches the eye of entrepreneurs willing to market it. But they face a small issue. 

Deepa Reddy

Deepa explains their dilemma with a chuckle, “The one thing I find difficult is to describe the correct measure for things, like in grams or litres. So I use the term ‘parts’ which in Tamil is ‘alavu’. Now, most people understand what I mean by this, but it is always people from the commercial space who find it tough to figure out. They always request me to give them the right values of each ingredient.”  

She explains that a ‘part’ or ‘alavu’ can change from person to person. The ratio is what matters in the end.  A ‘part’ can be a cup, a spoon or even a bucket, she claims, as long as you maintain the ratio. Recently she put up an updated ‘ new and improved ’ version of the hair powder, on her blog.  

Shalikuta for the love of Heritage rice

“We only see rice as a starch. But there is more to it than meets the eye,” claims Deepa as she starts to talk about her beloved research project Shalikuta. It was this realisation that led her to start the project as an attempt to study and record the rice varieties in India that are native and traditional. 

“There is much research done on rice, but they are either incomplete or not meant for people in general. So Shalikuta is an attempt to create more coherent documentation of rice. Compiling information and making it available for people for daily use,” Deepa says, explaining what makes this project different from those undertaken by government, universities and other agencies. 

What alarmed Deepa, was seeing the diverse varieties of native Indian rice being overshadowed by the high yielding rice, and their limited varieties of white rice or if you were ‘health conscious’ then red or brown. 

Rationing has eventually led to the collapse of harvesting or even growing varieties that were once upon a time staples on our plates. With that, we have also lost our heritage rice, ways of thinking, cooking, and healing with local ingredients in our kitchens feels Deepa.

“In one look, the Instagram page on Shalikuta looks like any other page. But it has a bigger purpose and relevance than merely being a social media page. It is a full research project,” asserts Deepa. 

“It is a collective effort. For this I did not go my usual academic way; of looking for other researchers. I looked for bloggers who were already doing what this work required. But they were doing it their way. Our interests are the same,” Deepa recalls. 

Bringing back the Rasa in Rasam

Rasam is not merely a soupy concoction, but a concept on its own. This only a few can get right, you realise after hearing her speak about this largely misunderstood dish. So what is rasam? Deepa’s research led her to find how ‘rasa’ is described as the knowledge perceived through the senses located on one’s tongue in the Caraka Samhita, one of the main texts of Ayurveda. 

Rasam then, according to Deepa, has a multidimensional purpose, which we all are seemingly aware of, but only realise how true it is when we dive deeper into the conversation, you truly understand the ‘essence’ of what she means. “It is a philosophical concept, a medicinal concept and at the same time a culinary concept as well,” she begins.

“The same cannot be said for any other dish we prepare; a sambar or koottu(a dish made with vegetables, with a lentil base) or even a poriyal (vegetables stir-fried or sauteed),” she compares. She clarifies that a sambar or any other dish can be rescued even in a moment of distraction or let’s say if an ingredient is missing or even overused. This does not stand true for rasam if it is to be prepared the right way.

A ‘Dhidheer‘ or quick rasam

“The rasam has to tell the precise taste of the main ingredient, the aim is to bring out the essence,” she declares. Think about it and you realise how the conversation these days has shifted to finding the best rasam podi (powder) that can fit all, like that of sambar. But rasam has never depended on the podi, it is always about the ingredients. 

Years of experience in dealing with ingredients drives Deepa to find different ways to reinvent the traditional old recipes. That is what makes her rasam series, up on her blog and Instagram so interesting. She starts with a Maavilai (tender leaves of the mango tree) rasam. Intriguing as it sounds, Deepa came across a reference to it online, although that seemed more like making a tea out of it, which did not look that appealing she recalls. 

It just took straining the water after boiling it with the leaves and letting them soak a while to get the prized essence of the leaves, then it was all about finding ingredients that would silently compliment and highlight the essence of the maavilai, without overpowering it. 

Might sound easy, but it isn’t. The years of mastering the art of preparing this dish have taught Deepa some important lessons and given her something to strive for.  “If there is one thing I would like to imbibe in myself, it is patience, which I have come to learn while preparing rasam. You need lots of it, to get the essence of the main ingredient, it cannot be done any other way,” Deepa says.  

“Rushing it or letting things overcook is the easiest way to kill a rasam,” she warns. Preparing rasam the right way, in itself is a mindful act, where you have to learn to overcome your nerves and be present. She also mentions that at times, one gets the complete effect of an ingredient on the senses while cooking and not while eating. It may be its fragrance that spreads throughout or even a colour change, proving that food is much more than what’s on the plate

“The smallest distraction and you end up with just another edible concoction which tastes good, but will not be the perfect rasam. You have to be fully aware of what you are doing. This, in a nutshell, is the philosophy of rasam,” she declares.

Marandhu (medicine)  rasam, another traditional recipe, turned into another one of Deepa’s experiments. She received instructions from her aunt and her friend Archana’s grandmother, which she then made her own. “This rasam is most commonly used to cure flu and colds. It is made with Pippali(long pepper) as the main ingredient and a generous amount of black pepper with it,” she explains.      

The obsession with cooking everything in earthen pots in an attempt to go back to the “roots” irks her. “The pots don’t make food tasty, you do,”  she says, as she mentions the usage of the ‘Eeya chombu’ or tin-based vessels for rasams. The eeya chombu is good, but not necessary. Nothing can be as important as paying attention to what you are cooking, she believes.

She laments the ‘ready in 2 minutes’ packaged rasams that are available these days. There is one thing she warns against, in trying to get the ‘essence’ of the main ingredient, which is boiling the rasam to the point of no rescue. That is her only request, “Stop boiling your rasams!”

By Supriya

Supriya began her journey as a published writer with an internship with a leading newspaper in the country. From there, she has been a dedicated writer for various publications over the years. A trained Odissi dancer, she holds a deep passion for art forms and heritage.