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Look into the past through the prism of timeless cookbooks

From the 1940s to 1990s, recipe books by women feature dishes from undivided India, act as guides for new brides and make cooking easy for the diaspora community  

A selection of cookbooks from Pre-Independent India to the 1990s.
A selection of cookbooks from Pre-Independent India to the 1990s.

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When social media platforms provide a ready resource for recipes, food writers wonder whether cookbooks have lost their significance. A few weeks ago, I was on a panel at Kala Ghoda Festival in Mumbai discussing this topic. I believe we need books because they set the context better than recipe videos. Take for example, those published between 1940s and 1990s by women writers in India. They feature cooking traditions and dishes from undivided India, act as kitchen guides for new brides, and were written for the diaspora community that proliferated in the UK and USA.

In 1938, Amina Nazli, writer and feminist activist from undivided Pakistan published her book Ismati Dastarkhwan (loosely translated to pure dining) in Urdu. It was a collection of recipes from affluent families and riyasats (princely states). Rana Safvi, a historian and author, speaks highly of this book. It is one of her prized possessions, which she keeps in a secret closet. She is fond of cooking, and her father gifted her this book when she was 18. Dishes like korma have multiple recipes because they come from different families in India and Pakistan. She talks about the recipe for Korma Khasgheer, which was contributed by Nawabzadi Razia Sultan Zaman Beghum of Pethari State (now in Madhya Pradesh). This recipe calls for sieving and straining the gravy before serving it to guests for a velvety mouth feel; a technique used in Michelin-starred restaurants too.

In the year 1944, a unique book named, Sarash Bhojan Kaise Banaye (How to make easy meals) by Shrimati Vardesvari was published. Saumya Gupta, an associate professor of history at Delhi University, says this book introduces us to the nuances of satvik cuisine, a kosher vegetarian method that avoids ingredients like onion, garlic and tomato. When the book was written, the intention was to pen a cooking guide for the author’s daughters.

There are only a handful of cookbooks that are considered as a good instruction manual for a new bride, and Samaithu Paar (cook and see) is one of them. Written by a housewife, S Meenakshi Ammal in 1951, it is a compilation of dishes that would be served in a traditional Tamil Brahmin home. During that period, when cookbooks were seldom written, and Indian women probably fought the odds to be published, Meenakshi Ammal penned this seminal work. Even though it mostly focuses on food served at brahmin kitchens, it also provides a window into the Tamil kitchens of the 1950s. There are recipes such as ennai curry which is stuffed eggplant curry; vatha kuzhambu a tangy gravy made with small onions, cooked in tamarind water and sambar powder; and thiruvathirai kali which is a sweet made by coarsely grinding rice and dal and simmering them in jaggery syrup.

Balwant Kaur’s Indian Cookery, published in 1961 in London, is a landmark English cookbook of North Indian cuisine written by an Indian woman during that time. It gave a glimpse into the English-speaking world of what Indians ate in their homes; from vegetarian dishes, meat to lentils. Kaur and her husband, Dr Balbir Singh, moved to London after the partition, and she adopted the name, Mrs Balbir Singh. She hoped that her book would be read not only by Indians abroad, but also by those who resided in her homeland. Most of the dishes came from the recipe cards that she collected over time. I tend to see this book as a stepping stone for other Indian food writers abroad, including Madhur Jaffery, who released her first book, An Invitation to Indian Cooking (1973). It is another cookbook by an Indian writer for the Indian diaspora.

The Cooking of India (1969) by Santha Rama Rau features recipes and a narrative rich in historical and geographical details. "I believe it was ahead of its time. It chronicles Indian cuisine at an important stage just decades after India became independent. The map on page 13 reflects this with 17 states and 7 Union Territories compared to today. It was seminal in that it was not just a regular recipe book, but attempted to define an image of Indian cuisine that was not homogenized into broad labels, like curry," says Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal, culinary expert and writer. It is not just a regular recipe book, but rather answers many questions about Indian cuisine, the kitchen setup, utensils used and seasonal foods. The voice reflected Rau's personal explorations, but the documentation is nuanced, complex and highlights the diversity and plurality of India in all its glory.

Adhunik Rannar Boi (Modern Cookbook) by Shakuntala Bhattacharya was written in Bengali and focused not just on Indian food but also Chinese, Italian, and English. The book, published in 1979, was divided into multiple segments; from bread, soups, vegetarian dishes, and meat to fish. “It has a baking section and features different puddings. It gave way to understanding what affluent Indians were eating that underscored their aspirations,” says food documenter and stylist Madhushree Basu Roy of the food blog Pikturenama. She adds it was a book that was passed down through generations and was given to daughters by their mothers in Bengali families.

Cookbooks play an essential role by teaching readers not just about dishes, but they provide a window into the socio-cultural environment of the time in which they were written. While recipe videos are useful, cookbooks are enriching.

Sadaf Hussain is a chef and author of the book Daastan-E-Dastarkhan.

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