The Curious Warmth of Grandma’s Kitchen
By Sohini Das Gupta
Soon after I turned 8, I stopped eating fish. In our Bengali household — we are a famously fish-eating lot — it was quite the scandal. Sighs were sighed and investigations were launched as my parents tried to figure out what could have gone wrong. Then, at the pinnacle of my fish resistance, my grandmother cooked doi maach: tender pieces of freshwater fish, soused in a yogurt-based gravy of robust east Indian spices. I polished off every last bit.
If anyone could achieve the dubious union of fish, curd and an unlikely surprise ingredient I’m not at liberty to disclose right away, it had to be my thammi (Bengali for grandma). I suspect this quality extends to grandmothers everywhere: Bustling Italian nonnas or plate-piling Somali bibis, they possess the superpower of turning humble ingredients into morsels most magical.
Join us today for classic food stories from kitchens made redolent by grandmothers, from America to Japan with delicious pit stops in between. Psst: We even managed to source some pantry tricks from grandmas of our own OZY team!
Ask the American Nana
Pralines From Biloxi
Back in the 1920s, when OZY Deputy Editor Tracy Moran’s grandma Nettie was a kid, the family parked itself in the beaches-and-casinos city of Biloxi, on the Gulf of Mexico. There, surrounded by fresh sea air, they befriended local candy store owner Ira DeKnight. Having helped them settle into their new home, DeKnight grew close enough to move in with the family in his final years. That’s when he shared his recipes for divinity fudge and pralines with Nettie, who carried the secret to these sticky sweet nuggets — a mix of pecans, brown sugar, cream and butter — with her when she later relocated to Michigan. Colder, whiter winters in the Midwest brought the novelty of ice-skating, but the cherished recipes added some Southern flair to new holiday traditions.
Spinach and Ricotta Ravioli From Argentina
Growing up in Argentina, OZY Senior Writer Josefina Salomon recalls crawling out of bed on Sunday mornings to sit at the end of a long table with her cousins, bleary-eyed but happy to sacrifice sleep for Coca’s homemade pasta. “Coca” was the family matriarch, the grandma who made spinach and ricotta ravioli like no other. Her secret? A filling of raw spinach, the best ricotta cheese she could get her hands on, double garlic and double cheese and, sometimes, an extra egg. The pasta always tasted more intense than what could be purchased in the shops, recalls Salomon. “I have tried replicating it many times, but it never comes out the same,” she sighs. Add Coca’s in-house tweaks to this recipe, and you might just nail it before Salomon does!
You Go, Alaska Granny!
During the lockdown months when everything moved slowly, I chanced upon a YouTube channel run by AlaskaGranny who, in her sweetest granny-ish voice, explains how to stockpile food and prepare food on the grill, in a crockpot and with a smoker at an off-grid cabin. Oh, there’s also simple sewing ideas, reviews on guns and hunting tips. All grandmas are badass, but as an endurance-hardened Alaskan, maybe she enjoys a natural edge? Whether it is a no-nonsense crockpot caribou or backstrap mountain meat cooked with “salt and pepper only” so the meat can “do the talking,” food for this granny is about survival and sustenance.
German American Recipe for Survival
Isabelle Lee’s grandmother Margrit Keyes was still a child when her family fled Gdansk, Poland, for Bonn, Germany, at the end of World War II. There, Keyes’ mother begged for food from local farmers and mixed ground eggshells into her children’s food for added calcium. When Keyes moved to Chicago in 1958, she discovered the love of her life — Lee’s grandfather — and a zest for good food. One of her signature dishes was Rotkohl, or German red cabbage cooked with applesauce, red wine vinegar and thick-cut bacon, which she carried across countries almost like memorabilia. “Whenever she makes the dish, she leaves a huge container in the fridge, since Rotkohl leftovers just get tastier with time,” says the OZY reporter. The family recipe, not unlike this one, is flavored with just a hint of brown sugar, and memories of a spirited survival.
Spice It Up in Africa
Hot Pasta From Somali Bibis
At 35, Hawa Hassan is already a tour de force when it comes to Somali food in America. In Bibi’s Kitchen, her anthology of recipes from East African matriarchs, is what turned my attention to the bibis, or grandmas, of the world. Born in Mogadishu, Somalia, during the country’s civil war, Hassan lived in a refugee camp before moving to Seattle, where she runs Basbaas Somali Foods, a hot-on-the-block hot sauce business. She also bagged her own show on the Food Network and taught the world how to cook suugo suqaar, or spicy Somali pasta with beef. The cinnamon-cumin-coriander-kissed aromatic affair is distinctly Somali for its use of xawaash spice mix. And with a history rooted in colonialism, it’s also uniquely resilient — just like grandmas.
Jedda’s Best Balah el Sham
Balah el Sham is often dubbed the Middle Eastern churro, but frankly the analogy is lacking. Imagine a choux pastry with glossy good looks and the perfect crunch on the outside, its taste and texture intensified tenfold against fountains of squishy, syrup-soaked warmth as you take a bite. Churro? Doughnut? Or a deluxe imposter determined to take on both? Often whipped up for iftar — the feast that breaks the daily fast during Ramadan — these fluted fritters were once jedda’s (grandmother in Arabic) sole dominion. With time, they were replicated in pastry shops, often with additional fillings. But leave it to the Egyptian grandma and they’ll come out simple — and simply scrumptious. However, a hint of rosewater in the syrup or a sprinkle of pistachios for garnish is certainly gran-approved.
South African Chakalaka Sauce
One of my favorite childhood memories is of my grandmother sitting on the terrace, sorting summer mangoes for pickles and chutneys. Halfway between a condiment and an elaborate salad, chakalaka is a spicy relish that changes character from one grandmother’s kitchen to another — much like Indian chutney or Mexican salsa. Most recipes start off with tomato, onion, garlic, carrots, chile pepper and occasionally baked beans. Curry powder adds to the Asian groove. Said to have originated in the mining townships around Johannesburg, the Portuguese-influenced dish plays cheerleader to simple stews and grilled meat or fish. Or, like Hawa Hassan, you can heap it onto a sizzling grilled cheese sandwich!
Eating Through Europe
Nonna’s Spaghetti and Meatballs
Nothing beats the comfort of classic Italian spaghetti and meatballs, a grandmother’s dish if there ever was one. Nonnas, many generations of them, have made the recipe so foolproof that your inner hipster wouldn’t dare tinker with it. There are some basic rules of thumb to save you from misfiring. The meatballs — preferably made from a 50/50 ratio of ground beef and ground pork — must not be over-seasoned, and they better be juicy-tender, a quality that comes from adding egg to the mix. Make your own breadcrumbs, don’t skimp on the Parmesan and consider including beef broth for extra richness. Now all you need is a bold Chianti to round out the feast.
Poland’s Festive Salad Crunch
With all that red meat talk, it’s time to make room for healthy greens. For Zuzia Whelan and her 80-year-old grandmother, this salad is as important as any dish of repute. The OZY copyeditor and reporter points out that sałatka jarzynowa, as it’s called in Polish, is a slow romance of seasonal flavors. Carrots, parsnips, celeriac, waxy potatoes, apples and sour pickles (not dill) are boiled and allowed to cool. Next, peas and delicately diced hard-boiled eggs are added to the mix. “The dressing is sour cream, mayonnaise, mustard, a little paprika and salt, and takes about 10 goes to get it perfect,” explains the Warsaw native, who enjoys the “meditative” process of chopping, even when her work is being “closely monitored” — Grandma Irna doesn’t quite trust her eager elf.
Bebia’s Georgian Dumplings
Right before the pandemic upended, among other things, a plan to visit the Caucasian reaches of Georgia, my would-have-been guide and now-friend Zviad Bechvaia told me about khinkalis. “Juicy, meaty soup dumplings, you’ll eat them everywhere,” he’d messaged me, a promise that came back to haunt me as I tried to make amends with Tibetan momos back at home. Khinkalis are thick-skinned, fist-size parcels of wheat stuffed with seasoned filling, usually beef and pork. Caraway, coriander seeds, chili and fresh cilantro are common ingredients, but grandmothers — called bebias in Georgia — boast different regional versions, some plumped with lamb and others fresh greens. Tip: Try slurping out the rich soup before sinking your teeth into the khinkali. I should know: I spent a whole summer sighing over cooking videos of Georgian grandmas, you see.
Middle East, Asia and an Indian Secret
Lebanese Grans Never Back Down
My colleague Josefina Salomon, culinary student of the aforementioned Argentine grandmother, clearly spent charmed childhood years raiding international pantries. But while she was polishing off empanadas and palmeritas, her father’s Syrian Lebanese mother had no intention of bowing down to the abuela, so she rustled up plates of “spectacular warak enab, kibbe and mombar sausages.” I Google warak enab, essentially grape leaves jammed with rice, meat and veggies, and realize how similar it is to one of my grandmother’s festive dishes, potoler dolma — the local evolution of dolma — a stuffed dish with roots in the Middle East!
California Loves Its Japanese Eggplant
When Hiroko Kawasaki’s granddaughter married Sean Culligan, a Bay Area resident, the Japanese matriarch’s recipe for nasu nibitashi, or braised eggplant, traveled a long way from Machida, Tokyo. Culligan, OZY visuals editor, has come to vouch for its value on the dinner table as a light side dish, sometimes with his favorite gyozas. Its beauty lies in its simplicity: All you need is smaller-size eggplants, some dashi (Japanese soup stock), mirin, soy sauce and ginger. The senior Kawasaki’s version uses sake. “I love summer evenings after the end of a hot humid day. The nasu’s gentle texture and flavor give me a very warm and peaceful feeling,” says Kawasaki’s daughter — and Culligan’s mother-in-law — Ema, who now keeps the tradition alive during sultry California summers.
Back to Thammi’s Kitchen in India
Did you really think I’d leave you without a recipe for the doi maach that changed my relationship with fish meals and Sundays? At 93, Purabi Dasgupta hasn’t entered the kitchen in a few years. But as I rattle off the ingredients of this internet-scavenged recipe that seems similar to her own, she’s sparing in her approval. “They’ve not used mustard oil?” Thammi frowns, before voicing reservations about the garnish of fried onions. Instead she advises: “Add some surprise raisins to the gravy. Not a lot, just enough for sudden sweet kicks to cut through the tang. It’s what makes it so . . .” “Delicious,” I finish her thought.
- Sohini Das Gupta, OZY Author Contact Sohini Das Gupta