When at last a copy of Archana Pidathala’s new Why Cook came to my hands, I found myself suspended in a long, unexpected pause. The book is a compilation of biographical notes about a handful of women from different parts of the country and different walks of life, each inspiring or exemplary in some modest or superlative way, and each followed by a set of recipes that reflect the manner of their coming to cooking. I’d been looking forward to it; I’d enjoyed Pidathala’s 2018 treatment of her grandmother’s recipes in Five Morsels of Love and was wondering what she’d do to carry the craft of cookbook writing forward in her second project.
When I read Why Cook, it was the way one might read letters from close friends: in quiet and absorbed seclusion. The book is a map of Pidathala’s friendships as much as it is a journey to meet people where they are, literally and figuratively. These women are scholars, singers, architects, designers, entrepreneurs, activists—and your mothers, sisters, aunts and friends. Collectively, they represent a generational shift: not the “midnight’s children” of barely-post-Independence years, but the ones after, those whose parents already straddled worlds so their children could be less bound by social stricture and much freer to be driven by ideas and a certain eclectic ethic of self-making. These women live in some out-of-the-way outpost signaled only by a grand banyan tree or in the thickest of metros but they have cultivated affinities to nature, farming, gardening, local-sourcing. None are cooks in any conventional or professional sense, but all bring a measure of convention and professionalism to their practice—and then more. Cooking for them is generally a nourishment set in some other, wider frame.
Pidathala highlights “heirloom” recipes rather than “heritage” ones and the difference is telling. All the recipes in Why Cook represent a region, but that may not be the region in which these women live. Rather, there’s a confluence of coastal Bangla and lush Malayalee influences set in arid Rayalaseema, a mingling of the Kashmiri with the Maharashtrian and a particular fondness for potato, a memory of Punjab in the hands of a momo-maker in Uttarakhand—parental lineage crosses with personal choices, and a new cuisine is born. The recipes may be old, they may even be authentic, but what seems to matter more is that they are alive.
Spoon it over pasta, Pidathala suggests of a cauliflower stem chutney that has the qualities of pesto, or, likening a Saraswat tomato saar (rasam) to soup, have it with a slice of sourdough bread. This is not fusion, thankfully—nor confusion, as my father-in-law would undoubtedly quip; neither traditionalism nor non-traditionalism. Rather, it’s an invitation to pliability and to richer, more diverse, more accommodative forms of eating. Pasta is here to stay, after all, as is sourdough. It’s time to localize both.
The regionalism of Why Cook is thus less about “community” in any traditional sense as about a broader set of relationships with place and people. “What grows here?” and “Who lives here?” appear to dictate what gets cooked in these kitchens as much as any community-based practice. So, the seasonal produce of Malnad can define classic Havyaka fare (ash gourd in dosas, Mangalore cucumber and jackfruit seeds in simple stir-fries) at the same time as ‘watercress in everything’ suggests a taste of the mountains that probably exists no place else. A friend’s mutton recipe, a beloved cook’s plantain, a grandmother’s rasam all sit together like old companions; food is the connector, the great equalizer, the assurances of the old to carry forward into worlds of one’s own.
Neither Pidathala nor her 16 interlocutors shy away from less-available, more obscure (to others anyway), wild and sometimes hyper-local ingredients as the things that give food both intrigue and distinction: quince, stinging nettle, haak (Brassica oleracea varieties), neem flowers, Thooyamalli (a Tamil Nadu rice variety), fermented mustard leaves or Nepali gundruk. It’s no coincidence that several women save seeds, work with local farmers, have training in permaculture, and/or are growers themselves. The connection to the natural world is often paramount. If that alone didn’t settle any doubts I might have entertained about finding myself in the pages of Why Cook, this simple reminder about hard-to-find gundruk did: “On your next trip to Darjeeling, don’t forget to stock up.” Go there, the book seemed to say, echoing my own impulses perfectly, extend yourself, take that path through the deep, dark woods so you can find these things for yourself. It will be harder by far to make this dish, right now, but the real taste of things lies in such striving. Pidathala is kinder than I might have been to consistently offer substitutions and alternatives, but her equally gentle push to slow, explore, embrace is a welcome antidote to the mechanical rhythms of urban domestic life. These are reminders, too, that this book’s recipes are hardly just for the hungry belly, but also for the curious pilgrims among us, who, much like the women in this book, are seeking pathways to more ethical and more enriching modes of living. It’s an invitation to join their quests.
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The author Sara Suleri’s memorable opening lines to her book Meatless Days declared once that “[l]eaving Pakistan was, of course, tantamount to giving up the company of women.” Almost as a counter to the multiple alienations of modern, urban life Why Cook returns us wholeheartedly to that old company. “Top girls,” Caryl Churchill might have named the group, though her play by the same name ruminates on the feminism of one age as Pidathala’s work expresses that of another. The mandala design that dots the book’s covers is a symbol of this, a kind of “nari shakti” togetherness that is ultimately (and a touch ironically) predicated less on individual stories and more on the transformative spirit they collectively embody.
I’m aware as I write this, however, that the genre of women’s writing in which Pidathala’s work squarely falls posits a sisterhood that is invariably both inclusive and exclusive—in both senses of the word. My own first response to Why Cook was recognition: gosh, I know these women; they’re either personal friends or familiar in some essential life-sense; they are each alter-egos. And yet, these are in fact the author’s friends whose practices and recipes are being documented; these are her networks and her kin, including her own mother. Pidathala is the central dot on that mandala; without her the circle isn’t complete. Why Cook thus has a distinctly social quality, plus the women represented overwhelmingly treat food as lifeblood, not of the communities they’ve each inherited, but of the ones they now wish to create. This sentiment and this dynamism is reflected multiple times, as much in Pidathala’s narrative interludes as in images of alluringly messy tables laden with food, hands reaching energetically across and into dishes, people eating together, the table as a gathering point for love and laughter. The “power of cooking” that Pidathala opens out is mostly this power for social connection, rather more than self-sufficiency, individual therapy, or meditative solitude. Yet the irony of Why Cook’s vivid sociality is that anyone reading is doing so most likely as I did: alone, with a sense of peering into or being an interloper in someone else’s social world. If there are moments of deep identification, there are also such moments of awkwardness: a peculiar risk of auto-/biographical food writing.
The recipes make up for it though. Those are thoughtfully tailored, they embody the ethics and values spoken of (there are several zero-waste recipes, for example), they reflect the realities of our jumbled worlds as much as they prompt reflection on them, and they’re ultimately measures of our own wideness and the ways to materialize any inspiration Why Cook offers. To that sisterhood, why, I’ll return without reserve, over and over and over again.
Deepa S. Reddy is a cultural anthropologist and researcher with the University of Houston-Clear Lake. She blogs about food and culture on paticheri.com.
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