Enchanted by good food, a generous heart and a beautiful home, Ariane Lecuyer meets Lily Amirtham – A cookbook author, social worker, grandmother and artist who has spent her life cooking and caring for others
On the roof top of Grace Kennett Foundation Hospital is an apartment that is a complete contrast to the medical surroundings. To go inside, you have to pass a row of flowers: water lily, roses and even hibiscus. Then, we enter another world…
The floor is covered with a green soft carpet; the walls are painted yellow and adorned with floral paintings. At the centre of the kitchen is a table covered with a Provencal tablecloth from France, with olives and sunflowers. In this warm atmosphere, Lily Amirtham is waiting for us with coffee and homemade chocolate cake.
Lily Amirtham, 76, is a cookbook author and social worker. A former faculty of the Department of History, Lady Doak College, her travels around the world with her theologian husband The Rt. Reverend Bishop Samul Amirtham, was a window to world cuisines. In 2006, her passion for cooking led her to publish the Amirtham Family Cook Book, a collection of 249 recipes. The cookbook is the fabulous result of ten years of writing and testing traditional South Indian recipes. Lily Amirtham’s desire to share her culinary knowledge with as many people as possible was the spirit that egged her on to complete the book.
A dedicated social worker, Lily Amirtham, through her trust in Parasala in Kerala, works with socially and economically disadvantaged women to enable them to script an independent and empowered life. She also supports her husband in his several charitable foundations and more recently, as care taker and companion in his chronic illness. Her stress busters are painting and cooking.
When she was 50 years, inspired by the scenic mountainous landscape in Geneva, Lily Amirtham discovered the pleasures of painting. Two years ago, she held a solo exhibition of her paintings at Grace Kennett Foundation Hospital and then another in Trivandrum. Although her aim at first was only to share her work, she agreed to raise money from the sale of the paintings and gifted it to the orphanage, ‘Mazhalai Illam’ run by the Grace Kennett Foundation.
Lily Amirtham’s warmth and care during the interview reminded of such moments with my own grandmother. A few days after, she sent a letter to thank us. The last sentence, “If you are missing your Quiche Lorraine or Potato Gratin, please let me know, we shall fix an evening meal here in my kitchen. I would much love to cook something like that.” These words will always remain in my memory.
Excerpts from the interview
Why did you decide to write down all the recipes you knew?
I was mainly writing for my children and grandchildren. You know, culture and practices are changing now, but I want them to know all details about their own traditions. Hence I thought they should learn the basics and I decided to write down everything even from the simplest step—to cook plain rice.
The idea came from my daughter, Asha. All my recipes were only written in old booklets, which had pages falling out. She said to me, “Amma, look, all these papers are coming out! You will lose it and, when you will have gone, my children and I will not be able to find the recipes. Why don’t you start writing a book?” That was in 2001, and at the time, my husband became sick. While spending a lot of time at the neurological hospital to take care of him, I slowly started to write down the recipes in my dairy. I even remember, the first recipe I wrote was puttu!
You started to write in 2001 but your book was finally published in 2006. Why did it take so long?
This is simply because I needed all this time. I started to write at the hospital, and I just put down everything I could remember. Then, I had to come back home to try these recipes in order to know the exact measurement for all ingredients. Finally, I typed it on the computer. It took a long time not only because it’s a long process but also because I didn’t know that I had so many recipes in mind! To be honest, I never thought that I was born to write such a book. I thought it would only be some small booklets. However, once I started, I realised that it should be a complete book. I then decided to write all the recipes I know, even by including some friends’ recipes.
I couldn’t find any information about your book on the Internet or elsewhere. Why didn’t you try to promote it?
This book is only for my children, grandchildren and maybe - who knows - my great grandchildren! It’s only for a private circulation, as you can see on the first page, it says: This edition is not for sale but to be shared among family and friends.
All these recipes are thus traditional South Indian?
Yes. I lived in Switzerland for ten years, so I also included some Western recipes, but only a few. My mother is from Neyoor, a place close to Nagercoil, and my husband’s mother is from Parassala in Kerala. I have then typical Tamil Nadu recipes from my mother, as well as typical Kerala recipes from my husband’s side. And I have to say, that all I know comes from these two women.
At what age did you start cooking?
To be honest, I don’t think I was that good a cook when I started, but I used to watch my mother in the kitchen. By looking at her, I then learned all the techniques before cooking by myself. At around 12-13 years of age, I started to help her, just with little tasks like peeling vegetables. I think the first dish I cooked entirely on my own was upma! .
When did you realise your passion for cooking?
I don’t know when I started to like cooking, but even now I can surely say that it’s still my first love. I love cooking, I LOVE cooking…and I love eating as well! (Laughs)
I think I developed it when my children were small. My son loves meat and fish, so I used to cook non-vegetarian food for him. Today, he still remembers those dishes from his earlier boyhood days, and tells me, “Can you make this dish exactly as you did it when I was younger?” As for my daughter, she must have a dessert everyday. When she came back from school, the first thing she said to me was: “Mum, what do we have for dessert?” I think she took after my husband, because it’s the same for him. With all these demands, I used to cook a lot to satisfy my family.
Now I probably cook more for my grandchildren. My daughter’s daughter told her mother: ”Amma, you don’t know how to cook. Only grandma can cook.” I’m her favourite, so I cook for her.
What is your favorite dish?
Fish. I love fish. Especially two types of curry. One is from my mother’s kitchen, and the other is from my mother in law. Even if it doesn’t come from far away places, they are quite different and both are so good. You know, there is a big difference between Kerala and Tamil Nadu food. You can feel it with the amount of sugar or chilli. Besides, even between North Kerala and South Kerala there is a difference. We could even say that from each family it differs.
“I don’t know when I started to like cooking, but even now I can surely say that it’s still my first love. I love cooking, I LOVE cooking…and I love eating as well!
Is there one dish that you particularly like to cook?
I like to cook fish curries. However, I also like to try complicated dishes - something exotic like ‘Navratan Kurma, Goan Vindaloo, Chinese sweet and sour chicken, German “Rouladen” or British trifle.
What is most important to you when you are cooking: health or taste?
Now, I look for health. I have to because of my son’s health, and I realise now the importance of healthy food. In this cookbook, all my recipes are probably not healthy, because it’s the traditional way. For example, a particular variety of payasam from Kerala needs seven litres of milk. It’s a rich dish which is definitely too high in fat.
Why do you think cookbooks are so popular today?
I think people want to know more recipes. Everybody does not have access to the Internet but everybody wants to know a bit of cooking. I too have a collection of cook books. In fact, I have a very big library full of cook books and art books.
I sometimes need to look at a book. Not for the ordinary Indian cooking of course, it is all in our mind. Also for the way of adding ingredients, one after another or mixed ahead and added - you just do it automatically. This, I think might differ from family to family. You learn it from watching your mother. If I am cooking a complicated fish or meat dish or western recipes, I definitely need to check measurement and the method of doing each step.
Did you ever think of setting up your own restaurant?
No, I only cook for family and friends - and we have a large number of friends! During the 1970s, I was a teacher at the Lady Doak College in Madurai, before leaving for Geneva. I began to cook for my colleagues for Easter, Pongal and all other festivals and celebrations. As my husband was the director of the Tamil Nadu Theological College in Madurai, he used to invite colleagues to our house. Our table was always full. Even today, living in Grace Kennett Foundation Hospital, I’m still cooking for people, for a doctor’s birthday for example. It’s my pleasure.