This recipe for mosur dal (red lentils) is from Pidathala’s 2022 cookbook, Why Cook: Timeless recipes and life lessons from inspiring women, which collates 90 heirloom recipes from 16 women across the country, while exploring their life stories and the role of cooking. The book features friends and acquaintances (and also Pidathala’s mother). While none of them cook professionally, the women are united by the way they view cooking as a nourishing act, both for themselves and for those they feed.
In her younger days, actress Arundhati Nag, for instance, never cooked the cuisine of her husband’s community because she believed it meant a loss of her own identity. But after his death, she has been turning to those recipes regularly as a way of remembering him.
For Shree Mirji, whom Pidathala describes as a free-spirited, independent person who lives by herself, cooking serves as an act of self-care.
They are all also women who have embraced and now advocate a sustainable way of life. Vishalakshi Padmanabhan, for instance, not only took up organic farming but set up a farmers’ cooperative to grow and sell produce through Buffalo Back Collective. She has also trained village women from Ragihalli (near the South Indian city of Bengaluru) to bake and sell their cookies in a livelihood mission.
Pidathala travelled more than 11,265km all over the country to talk to these women and to watch them cook and learn their recipes. She says her book title, “Why Cook”, is a tribute to home cooks who manage to create the same tastes over and over again, through recipes that are often passed on through generations and shaped by tradition.
The dishes in the book are not based on any specific theme or category. Pidathala says that she simply asked the women to share meaningful recipes. “‘How would you put yourself on a plate? How would you bring your identity to the table?’ [This] is what I asked them,” she explained.
Mosur, or masoor dal, as it is more commonly known, is particularly relished by the Bengali community. Manisha Kairaly – Molly to friends – contributed this recipe as a nod to her Bengali roots from her father’s side.