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First Marathi cookbook gets a new look

A team of researchers in Pune has released an annotated version of the 19th century ‘Soopashastra’ for today’s chef

Shrikhand with puri (Image courtesy: Istockphoto)

Imagine making the sweet flatbread puran poli with a list of requirements that includes mud, ash and salt. Or preparing shrikhand by wrapping curd in a cloth ball and sticking it to a mud wall. Sounds a little bizarre, right? But that’s exactly what Soopashastra prescribes.

The first cookbook to be published in Marathi in 1875, Ramchandra Sakharam Gupte’s Soopashastra, which translates to “science of cooking”, is a treasure trove of recipes and food-related hacks. But like many classics, its relevance faded with time. Till 18 months ago, when Aadubaal, a London-based chartered accountant who uses only one name, and his distant relative Bhushan Panse, a Pune-based lawyer, started work on a passion project: updating the book’s language and situating it within its socio-historical context to make it more accessible to the modern reader. They called the project Kitaabkalhai. Accompanying them on this adventure of turning a cookbook into a literary piece of work were food researcher Chinmay Damle, translator Meghana Bhuskute and research scientist-physicist Amol Karandikar.

The original text has not been touched, says Damle. “There are no new recipes; we haven’t substituted ingredients (since they are readily available). We have tried to explain the meaning of old verbs and ingredient names, given the reasoning behind some techniques.”

Sticking a potli (bundle) of curd while making shrikhand to a mud wall, for instance, made sense in the 1870s because people lived in mud houses and it helped get rid of moisture. There are other practices that may seem a little odd to us: for instance, during the 19th century, people would soak uncooked rice in ghee first for saakhar bhaat, or sweet rice, to soften it and enhance the flavour.

“It is much more than a simple reprinting of the book. Our effort was to make creative additions that make the book relevant and attractive. In some ways, it is similar to annotated editions of classics,” says Panse. The team selected Soopashastra because it was written during what Damle describes as the “renaissance of Maharashtra”.

Besides all things food, the new version, which was released in October, explains in modern Marathi, for instance, words that have now fallen out of use—such as valluk (a variety of cucumber indigenous to the region) and kuvallne (the act of crushing tamarind or rice to dissolve it). “There are verbs and cooking techniques in the book that the original author has taken for granted,” says Damle. For instance, he explains, before making vangyachi bhaaji (brinjal), one must cut the brinjals and put them in water to prevent oxidisation. Soopashastra does not explicitly mention this step but anyone familiar with the food culture knows this to be true, he says.

He offers another example. Puran poli, the popular flatbread stuffed with chana dal and jaggery, has to be cooked on low to medium flame. Today, thick-bottom non-stick pans help regulate the amount of heat received by the food. In 1875, when Soopashastra was written, the bottom of the tawa (griddle) would be coated with a thick mud, salt and ash mixture, a practice that continues to be common when cooking on a wood fire.

“In one recipe, Gupte suggested making balls of an item the size of a mango. It didn’t say which variety. We had to dig through old British records and go through essential commodity lists to narrow down which mangoes were available in Pune then,” recalls Damle. It was the local gauti variety.

A step back in time

In the late 19th century, Pune was a city in transition. Its municipal council, the predecessor of the current municipal body, was established in 1857. Over a decade later, the first intercity train connected Pune, a quieter, emptier city since the fall of the Maratha empire, to bustling Bombay (Mumbai).

By the 1880s, publications like Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s Kesari and the Jyotirao Phule-associated Deenbandhu had become part of the public discourse. Across Maharashtra, books in other Indian languages, translated into Marathi, entered the market.

The developments fuelled the emergence of an educated middle class—one that wanted to read more than just religious literature, says Damle. In the introduction of the original Soopashastra, Raoji Sridhar Gondhalekar, a towering figure in Maharashtra’s publishing industry at the time, outlines the book’s target audience: young women who had started using education as a tool to move away from domesticity and the kitchen.

Soopashastra: MyMirror Publishing House Pvt Ltd, 240 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>225.
Soopashastra: MyMirror Publishing House Pvt Ltd, 240 pages, 225.

The book is strewn with examples of how class figures in the author’s imagination: The recipe for saakhar bhaat, for example, calls for sugar if one has the means and jaggery if not. This distinction, however, is misleading, says Damle. “In the 1870s, if you could afford to buy a book and could read, it automatically meant you belonged to a certain class.”

Soopashastra only has vegetarian recipes; few of them employ onion and none use garlic. It contains words like khallne (grating the coconut, as opposed to scraping) and dishes like tellchya (fried poori), specific to Brahmin households.

Why was Gupte, a man from the Chandraseniya Kayastha Prabhu caste, known for elaborate seafood cuisine and mutton curries, catering to a Brahmin audience? “The answer is not surprising if you look at the makeup of Pune at the time,” says Damle. “Pune was not a cosmopolitan city. It was dominated by Chitpawan Konkanastha Brahmins.”

AMBYAACHA RASAACHA BHAAT

Serves 4

Ingredients

1kg rice

10g ghee

Mango pulp (four times the proportion of rice)

1.25kg sugar

1 tsp each almond and cardamom powder

Method

Soak washed rice in ghee. Cook the mango pulp in a kadai (wok) on low flame. Once it starts boiling, add the rice. Keep stirring till it starts boiling. Add sugar, almond and cardamon powder and cover the pan. Once the rice is soft and pulp has dried, mango rice is ready.

Malavika Neurekar is a Goa-based writer.

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