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How recipe writing got a makeover

From basic information in ancient tablets to elaborate descriptions of exotic dishes in medieval cookbooks and the breaking down of each process in modern blogs, recipe writing has come a long way

Pioneering cookbook writers, like Madhur Jaffrey, developed their own styles of recipe writing in. the twentieth century. (Photo: Wikimedia)
Pioneering cookbook writers, like Madhur Jaffrey, developed their own styles of recipe writing in. the twentieth century. (Photo: Wikimedia)

From the Yale culinary tablets, dating back to 1700 BC, to the medieval India cookbook Nimmatnama-i-Nasiruddin-Shahi and contemporary food blogs like Archana’s Kitchen and Banglar Rannaghor, recipe writing has come a long way. The earliest recipe documentations were essentially guidelines; they did not offer a list of ingredients, recommend cooking temperatures or even suggest quantities.

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“They function more as records of what the aristocracy ate at the time,” says culinary consultant and author Saee Koranne-Khandekar, who has written recipes for books like Crumbs and Pangat. “This is, obviously, because only a certain elite section of the society had access to the written word and the luxury of time and financial security to write about these matters.”

Early recipes restricted to the royal circles

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Take, for instance, the Yale culinary tablets, considered the oldest cookbooks and Babylonian in origin—more than three clay tablets contain 25 recipes for stews and meat-based dishes, descriptions that are essentially equivalent to today’s haute cuisine. With meals fit for royalty. “However, almost no recipe talks about quantity,” says Kurush Dalal, a Mumbai-based archaeologist and culinary anthropologist. Then there is De Re Coquinaria, or Apicius, from the first century AD, taken from the habits of Marcus Gavius Apicius, a Roman gourmet who lived during Tiberius’ reign. The Latin text has been divided into 10 segments—almost like a modern compendium of recipes—such as Sarcoptes, or the meat mincer, Aeropetes, about birds and poultry, and Thalassa, dedicated to seafood. The earliest Indian cookbook is considered to be the Sushruta Samhita, albeit indirectly. Written between the second and fourth centuries BC, it lists food in a seasonal manner. Then there is the Manasolassa from the early 12th century. A Sanskrit text, it was composed by the Chalukya king Someshwara III and features meat recipes, including some for rats, elephants and parrots. Interestingly, no Indian recipe books have been found for the period between these two. Even these offer descriptions and not elaborate recipes

For the middle and lower classes, who had no access to the written word, oral transmission of recipes was the norm. “India had no tradition of writing recipes or music. It was all oral. Mother would pass on the recipe to her daughter, and it would keep getting improvised,” says noted academic and food historian Pushpesh Pant. And none of the royal chefs would write anything down as they didn’t want to disclose secrets. “The master chefs would pass on the recipe only to the elder son. This would ensure job security,” he adds.

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Things changed drastically in the Islamic period. Spartan descriptions gave way to elaborate recipes. The Europeans followed. Newer elements were added: portions, methods, way of cutting and prepping food, garnishes, etc. Dalal cites the example of Kitab-al-Tabikh, or the Book Of Dishes. Two Arab books by the same name, written 300 years apart, offered very different recipe styles. The first one was written by Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq in the 10th century and contained 600 recipes about grains, meats and nuts. But it mentioned no quantities. It only contained a list of ingredients and a general description of the processes. “It was clearly written for people who knew what they were doing,” says Dalal. The second one, written in the 13th century by Muhammad bin Hasan al-Baghdadi, featured 160 beautifully illustrated and elaborate recipes, with another 100 added over the years by the owners of the manuscripts. Bound volumes even had empty pages attached so that owners of the book could add their own recipes.

Recipes that let you time-travel

Recipes from the medieval and modern periods offer a glimpse of the sociocultural and political times, and the kind of challenges people had to face. For instance, the second Kitab-al-Tabikh features a recipe for locusts dipped in honey—clearly a delicacy. The book says that no insects may be eaten other than locusts. “It shows that the populace had to face regular plagues of locusts and hence harvested them to cook,” says Dalal.

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Two other seminal texts, Nimmatnama-i-Nasiruddin-Shahi from 1400 and Soopa Shastra, written in 1508 during the reign of and by Mangarasa III, were written on the cusp of Portuguese rule over parts of India. These offer, perhaps, the last few glimpses of Indian recipes without potato, chilli and tomato—ingredients from the Portuguese exchange. So, for instance, the Soopa Shastra features 20 recipes for eggplant dishes, 16 made with jackfruit and 25 made with raw banana.

With the British ruling vast swathes around the world, English became the most popular language for recipe writing from the 15th and 16th centuries. Emphasis was laid on method. Two measuring systems came into use—Imperial and metric. Cookbooks, even until the early 20th century, would feature conversion tables, a practice which has completely disappeared today.

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The rise of modern Indian recipe writing

In the 19th century, says Pant, literate Indians began to feel the urge to document their heritage—a trend visible in both food and music. “Bhatkande had started writing music notations. And between the World Wars 1 and 2, Indian food lovers started doing the same for food,” he adds. But it was in the 20th century that pioneering cookbook writers developed their own styles of recipe writing, the foremost of these being Madhur Jaffrey. “She cooked to feed herself and entertain. At the same time, there was Mrs Balbir Singh, who ran cooking classes in Delhi in the 1960s. Also, Ranjit Rai, who wrote the book Curry Curry Curry,” says Pant. Jaffrey, an actor and a non-professional cook, adopted a user-friendly style, but with precise recipes preceded by anecdotes. Balbir Singh, a semi-professional who tried to follow the curriculum of hotel management institutes, kept her recipes to the point. “One brilliant recipe writer was Bhicoo Manekshaw, who wrote books like Parsi Food And Drinks And Customs. She was Cordon Bleu-trained and tried to retain her Parsi roots. She created no-nonsense, fool-proof recipes for non-Parsis and peppered them with her self-deprecating humour. This is my ideal,” says Pant.

Soon after a trend emerged of cramming as many recipes in a single book. “So, you had 1001 chicken recipes or 101 dals. But by the end of the 20th century, recipe writing became more than just about ingredients and procedure. It was about anecdotes and stories,” says Dalal. Two styles that stand out from this period are Katy Dalal’s, whose Jamva Chaloji went into several reprints, and Chirtita Banerji’s Bengali Cooking, which is resplendent with details of festivals and seasonal cooking, followed by a recipe.

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The new blog/vlog style

With the growing popularity of MasterChef Australia and other cooking shows on TV, today nearly everyone fancies themselves as a good cook. At home, people are dishing out chicken a la kiev and rendang curries. To cater to this well-travelled cook, with eclectic tastes, blogs, websites and YouTube channels are creating recipes that allow viewers to add a unique touch to their table.

One of the leaders is Archana’s Kitchen, which has nearly 1.7 million followers on Facebook. It has seen a surge in numbers during the pandemic, with more and more people turning to home-cooked food and seeking guidance online. Bengaluru-based Archana Doshi, who started the website and channel in 2007, had just one aim: to make cooking easier by writing easy recipes using the right ingredients, which were locally available. “Recipes are made using local and fresh ingredients, and with healthier cooking techniques. They are easy to understand, simple to cook and are also nutritious and this is our USP,” she says.

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To cater to different skill levels, however, Doshi breaks down the recipes. An expert cook can be told to cook in a pressure cooker for 15 minutes and turn off the heat. But a novice needs to be hand-held through using the equipment efficiently, while maintaining nutrition. “You can write: saute onions till they become brown. But how much heat to employ and how much oil to use? What is brown? Is it golden or caramelized? Should the onions be soft or crisp? All these things play a critical role in defining the reader’s learning experience,” says Doshi.

Koranne-Khandekar, however, says recipe writers are increasingly dumbing down the style. According to her, this might work for novice cooks at times, but it limits the understanding to that one isolated recipe. “I believe the job of a recipe writer should be to educate the cook-reader to not just achieve a given recipe perfectly but also to adapt it to other situations, geographies and ingredients,” she explains. A good recipe writer ought to indicate not just the quantities but also what the recipe should look or taste like at every couple of stages. What is the flavour profile that the recipe is hoping to achieve? What if one doesn’t have tamarind in the pantry, will lime juice work instead?

“At the other end of the spectrum are recipes written by chefs. In these, a certain ‘industry’ jargon is used liberally, taking for granted that the reader already knows the method. This can be quite frustrating for a domestic cook,” adds Koranne-Khandekar.

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Digital publishing has changed a lot of things, often resulting in some sloppy recipe writing. It has also given rise to plagiarism and piracy. “Recipe development is not easy. Just because you grate nutmeg on aloo matar, it doesn’t become an amazing discovery. It is still aloo matar. Recipes take time to develop. Hence, today you are either seeing very focused writing or very sloppy ones. The ones that stand out are those that come with anecdotes and stories, making the journey personal for the reader,” elaborates Dalal.

Dalal lauds Koranne-Khandekar for thinking of novel ideas such as recipes for baking in Indian conditions. Her style, both in the cookbooks and on the website, is conversational, more suggestive than prescriptive. Koranne-Khandekar says that where quantities are sacrosanct and are likely to affect the final product, such as 1 egg for every 200g of meat to ensure that the kebab holds its shape, she mentions it up front. “But otherwise, my recipes are more about evoking flavours and textures. Also, most of my recipes have an ‘also try’ footnote, offering alternatives to ingredients, methods and utensils,” she says.

Pant too prefers a more flexible style. If writing for Indian audiences, he likes to follow the Maneckshaw and Jaffrey style of writing. “I have been writing columns for decades now. In those 600-700 words you have to be succinct and leave no room for ambiguity. Jiggs Kalra taught me that if you put the wrong recipe, people will curse you. So, I keep my style literary but with precise instructions,” he says.

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At the end of the day, writers like Koranne-Khandekar say what’s most important initially is identification of the target audience. “Who is reading the recipe and who is going to cook it? I think that will make our recipe writing more effective,” she says.

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