Two recipe books with almost unrecognizable covers have been locked inside my mothers’ cupboard. Within them, along with the instructions, there are memories of stories and laughs shared between generations, hastily scribbled changes on the margins, and a history that breathes through different handwritings, alternating between Kannada and English.
But the fading ink of these books comes as a reminder that I might not be able to hold onto these recipes for long. This seems to be a shared feeling among many. When Felix Fernandes visited his home recently, he found his mother’s Goan cookbook. Afra Margarida Fernandes had passed away but somehow this cookbook still carried her essence. So, he reached out to Indian Community Cookbook Project to add it to their online repository as a way of immortalising her cookbook as a token of remembrance.
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Indian Community Cookbook Project (ICCP) was started in 2019 by Ananya Poojary, Muskan Pal, and Khushi Gupta with the idea of increasing the accessibility of lesser-known cuisines and digitizing cookbooks and family recipes, specifically those passed down through generations.
“He [Felix] told us this was one thing that stuck with his mother when she moved to Kenya and it had taught her everything about cooking. Although we couldn’t digitize it completely because of copyright issues, a part of it is up on the website (communitycookbooks.wixsite.com). This is what makes us happy, that we are able to share a memory, a story, with the world through these cookbooks,” Pal says.
Poojary, who hails from the Tuluva community, tells me the idea for the ICCP sprouted from this realization: “I wanted to document my community’s cuisine because we don’t have a lot of written documentation. The recipes are usually something I find at home, so representation in the larger space is often low.”
So, when the opportunity came, as a final project of her undergraduate degree course at FLAME university, she along with her batchmates, Pal and Gupta decided to dig into the world of Indian cookbooks only to realise there is a lack of comprehensive repository of Indian cuisines and more importantly a major gap between communities and regions.
“When people think of Indian cuisine, it's a narrow list from naan to butter chicken. Some communities are over-represented while some are completely invisible. At the core of it, it has to do with publication. We see that more cookbooks are published from certain communities and this can make the space exclusionary,” Pal says.
When access to publication is inequitable, some communities dominate what consists of ‘Indian cuisine’. Having a written record of recipes makes it easier to etch a permanent space in the world of Indian cookbooks. Pal also highlights how the economy and social mobility play a role in the exclusionary-inclusionary discussion. “For communities that were able to travel abroad, cookbooks became a way for them to tie a thread back to their roots, they became a vehicle of nostalgic remembrance.”
To make the space more accessible and focus on under-represented cuisines, the trio decided to turn the college project into a home for crowdsourced cookbooks and digitised recipes.
The website has three sections. The archives contain recipes from old, published cookbooks, often submitted by people. They digitize only 10 per cent of the cookbooks to avoid copyright infringement. For the Timelines section, they collect information about cookbooks that belong to a particular region and collate them in one place, chronologically which rolls out the history of their publication. The modern cookbooks section has an interactive map of India showing ICCP’s growing collection of cookbooks.
In the almost four years of recording recipes, transcribing cookbooks, and listening to food stories, the co-founders have seen the Indian food scene from a curator's lens, broadening their perspectives with every recipe, developing an understanding of the embedded prejudices, and questioning what influences food recipes.
Taking the Naga Axone Pork, a recipe featured on their website, as an example, Pal talks about prejudice regarding food from different regions. “The recipe made me think how something as simple as fermented soybean can be a centre of discrimination. For instance, people in some cities have spoken about how they are not allowed to cook Axone in rented houses because of its distinctive smell. You have very similar ingredients in other cuisines such as Korean, where the same ingredient is relished but, in this context, it’s shamed. This was a jarring realization.”
Pivoting towards what shapes a recipe, Gupta explains how environment and availability of ingredients are core influences and how similar recipes are diversified across regions because of them. “For example, if you look at the food in Rajasthan, they mostly use dry food items, that can be stored for a longer time over months. They don't use many fresh vegetables, instead the focus is more on recipes made of lentils such as mangodi. In Kerala, a lot of recipes are coconut-based because of their abundance in the region,” Gupta says.
She further talks about some of the gems that they have come across during their journey. Someone shared their aunt’s cookbook which was published in 1938, and was apparently the first recipe book to be published in Malayalam. “It was published by a woman during pre-Independence. Knowing the context and how difficult it must have been, this felt so inspiring. It is also interesting because the measurements and utensils used were very different, but they make sense for today and are usable,” Gupta says.
Along with the learnings and new perspectives, there have also been challenges in the journey that the three had to constantly face. A big one was copyright issues.
“At one point, we decided to not focus on cookbooks as much, but try to incorporate family recipes, where we have the permission and one wouldn't usually find these recipes in cookbooks. We have tried to work around the copyright issue but in end, we are a cookbook project and copyright will always be an issue,” Pal says.
The three are also focused on addressing the publication bias in terms of caste and class. However, as their methodology is online-based and with three in different countries for their Masters, this has been another challenge. “We wanted to explore the bias and highlight cookbooks and recipes that have not been brought into the mainstream because of caste and class discrimination in food. When the pandemic happened, our collection became an online process, wherein people email us about recipes or cookbooks which has limited our scope. But it is on our agenda,” Poojary says.
While curating these interesting recipes, some have managed to create a special place in their heart and kitchens. For Poojary it’s the Ragi Mani recipe that her mother shared which will always remind her of home. For Pal, making Dhekia Xaak, a recipe made of fiddlehead ferns, made her realise how simple Indian recipes can be unlike what is usually told about them. “There are recipes that are time-consuming, but there are also these that are easy and authentic and give you the taste of cuisine that you might not have tried before,” she adds.
One of their objectives this year is the expansion of their sub-section, Food Memories, where they interview people about the food they cook, how their communities influence their cooking style, and their relationship with different recipes.
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