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The quest for culinary history’s missing pieces

The pandemic has spurred people from all walks of life to chronicle their family food histories, create archives of regional cuisines, and better understand what we eat

Together with collaborators Priyadarshini Narayanan and Srishti Prabhakar, food designer Akash Muralidharan created illustrations of the missing vegetables, sourcing information from farmers, greengrocers and friends. Photo: courtesy Akash Muralidharan

For Bharati Sengupta, now in her late 70s, memories of leaving her village, Puthia, in Bangladesh’s Rajshahi district for a refugee colony in the Murshidabad district of West Bengal a few years before the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War are still vivid. “I will never be able to forget my childhood days. So much happiness and peace, maan-shomman (respect),” she says. Nor can she forget the fresh food from the neighbouring ponds and fields in Rajshahi.

The great Bengal famine of 1942-43 too is deeply etched in her family’s collective memory. Cat-dida, as she is fondly called by her grandchildren owing to her love for cats, remembers a dish her mother taught her at the time, which has a direct connection with the famine. She called it durbhikkhyo torkari, or sabzi of the famine. It was made with radish stalks, roots of leafy green vegetables, cauliflower stems, bottle gourd peel and green peas—essentially elements that would have been discarded in normal circumstances.

Sibendu Das, 39, has been collecting culinary stories such as Sengupta’s as part of the “Unsung Kitchens of Bengal” initiative on his Instagram account, Pickle to Pilaf. A content consultant with a real estate firm in Kolkata, he has been documenting the lesser-known food practices of Bengal through the pandemic. For Das, his Instagram page has become a repository of memories—an archive of sorts—of people of the state, from Birbhum and Malda to Midnapore and the 24 Parganas.

Just like his account, many other archiving projects, chronicling lesser-known Indian culinary narratives, sprang up during the pandemic. They tell stories ranging from familial histories to sociopolitical events and the evolution of sub-cuisines. These projects—in the form of an Instagram page, or a series of articles or a book—create a nuanced understanding of our diverse food habits, topped with dollops of nostalgia. The pandemic gave people time to reflect, connect and delve into their traditions to find not just old recipes but gain an understanding of culture, politics, economics, even climate change.

Indranee Ghosh’s recently released Spiced, Smoked, Pickled, Preserved, another memoir of family recipes, brings together Bengali and Khasi cuisines, with a few elements from Nepali cooking thrown in. This chronicle of a Bengali family living in the Khasi hills is full of stories—some poignant and others hilarious. There are tales of locavores, ghosts and premonitions, and stories of rare foods such as unei, which resembles a poppy seed and is crushed and shallow-fried with onions and green chillies. There is even a mention of “lobworms”, or edible worms found in trenches during the 1962 India-China war.

Later this year, Hachette will be publishing Rasa: The Story Of India In 100 Dishes by Shubhra Chatterji, enthralling stories of a hundred dishes the author has collected over the past 10 years. The book traces the history of India through its cuisines. The chapters include recipes and stories of the origin and evolution of those dishes.

Recipe card for gunpowder ‘podi’ created by Aaryama Somayaji for Podi Life, a small home-run brand which makes heirloom south Indian blends. Photo: courtesy Aaryama Somayaji/High on Mangoes
Recipe card for gunpowder ‘podi’ created by Aaryama Somayaji for Podi Life, a small home-run brand which makes heirloom south Indian blends. Photo: courtesy Aaryama Somayaji/High on Mangoes

So what was it about the pandemic that prompted people to scour through old trunks filled with their great grandmother’s notebooks or vintage cookbooks to trace their culinary heritage? “2020 made us look at food in a way like never before. Before the pandemic, people were talking about indigenous produce but only as a niche thing. All that changed,” says author, food chronicler and culinary consultant Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal. A good example of this would be the Squibsters Instagram handle run by the Bengaluru-based food stylist and photographer Sanskriti Bist, who documents indigenous produce from the Garhwal region in Uttarakhand. Her social media page explains how to use these ingredients such as mandua atta, timur, roasted perilla seeds and mustard flowers to recreate modern dishes such as ramen bowls.

Ghildiyal believes the lockdown came as an eye-opener. Produce was not being transported across long distances, so people were forced to eat locally and seasonally, and innovate in the kitchen. “Some of us had the opportunity to spend a lot of time at home with older people and explore family recipes. I am in Dehradun with my in-laws. Earlier, we would have come for holidays for a fortnight. But staying with them during the pandemic brought into focus the inherent wisdom passed down through generations,” she says.

A deep dive into family histories

Several food projects came up during the lockdown, allowing people to take a deep dive into culinary histories from around the country. Mythopia and Kurush Dalal, a Mumbai-based archaeologist and culinary anthropologist, held Studying Food workshops. Shubhra Chatterji curated a #HistoryOnAPlate series on Instagram, focusing on topics such as desi fermentation practices.

Ghildiyal started the Spice Chronicles series, mapping flavours from across India. Anindya Basu, who helms the website Pikturenama about food stories and photography, did Pujo reels on social media last year, connecting with Bengalis around the world through Durga Puja cuisine.

Ragini Kashyap of Third Culture Cooks (TCC) designed and hosted the Partition 73 series in August last year to explore the impact of the event on various aspects of life, '[including] family memories, art, music, history, community, and of course, food'. She conducted 60-minute interviews with notable chefs, authors, historians and survivors of the 1947 Partition. This series was motivated by a deep personal connection, as her family’s history was fundamentally altered by the events of 1947.

Prior to the lockdown, as part of her Bordered dinner series, Kashyap would host an August-1947 meal, exploring various aspects of the Partition over a six-course meal. However, in 2020, Kashyap decided to explore the subject from a wider perspective, including material memory with author Aanchal Malhotra, the changing face of the cities of Lahore and Delhi with Professor Nadhra Khan from LUMS, and the experience of splintered families with Chef Asma Khan, among several others. All the interviews are available on the Third Culture Cooks Facebook page and YouTube channel.

Ragini Kashyap of Third Culture Cooks. Photo: Alisha Vasudev
Ragini Kashyap of Third Culture Cooks. Photo: Alisha Vasudev

Kashyap started TCC in 2016 to meaningfully explore the relationship between food and history. This then evolved into a supper-club series, as part of which she spent two years interviewing people and mapping out the connections between food and geo-political conflict. Kashyap has now taken TCC a step further this year with two new food documentation initiatives—a podcast 'More than Masala', and an experiential virtual journey 'To Desi, From Desh'. The former is a collaboration with US-based Keith Sarasin, author, chef, speaker and restaurateur, hopes to be an easy, engaging conversation about the world of spices. “We both are coming to the topic from two very different perspectives - Keith as a chef, and me as a food researcher. The idea is to talk about how spices are used beyond the subcontinent, how people extract flavour from certain spices, pull out some interesting, lesser-known stories, and discuss why some practices have become popular in certain parts of the world,” she says.

The second initiative, 'To Desi, From Desh' is a journey to examine global culinary connectedness through the lens of Indian history. There are several groups of people who both made the subcontinent their home (To Desi), as well as those who moved away (From Desh). Every month, Kashyap will take participants through the journey, history, music and food of one region, ultimately making connections across global cuisines and cultures. Participants will receive exclusive podcasts, virtual interviews, recipes, music, and intimate chat sessions.

Over the course of her research, Kashyap has found fascinating insights about ingredients, nomenclature, human ingenuity and adaptation. For example, the bara, a variant of vada shows up across geographies as diverse as the Caribbean, Mauritius, Fiji and South Africa. While some baras are soft and pillowy, others are crunchy snacks. The fact that the same name is used is a testament to how strongly people worked to recreate foods from their homeland, while integrating new influences.

Projects such as these have nudged people to look inwards, explore family traditions and practices. “Even the kind of response we got to Indian Food Observance Days in 2020 was phenomenal, way more than any of the previous years. That just shows how keen people were in learning food history,” says Ghildiyal.

Sibendu Das of Unsung Kitchens of Bengal was glued to these food history workshops during the lockdown. “My parents stay in Chandannagar but I have an apartment in Kolkata due to my job. I was stuck there when the lockdown happened,” he says. As he started cooking for himself, Das realised how little he knew about Bengali cuisine. “Mochar ghonto, dhokar dalna—I have always eaten these but never thought what it takes to make them,” he says. While attending #HistoryOnAPlate lives and Dalal’s workshops, he began to realise the importance of documenting and archiving one’s own food history, understanding that culture, food, politics and gender are not mutually exclusive topics.

When he started asking his mother, grandmother and aunts—Sylheti Bengalis who had spent time in Tinsukia, Assam—about their unique food memories, Das realised they too had forgotten a lot from their childhoods. “The one meal that I have grown up hearing about is the annaprashan (baby’s first meal of grains) of my chhoto mama (younger uncle), which happened some 40 years ago. But no one remembers the menu any more, just the taste and how delicious it was,” says Das. That’s when he decided to start an Instagram page dedicated to Bengal’s food.

The journey since that day, 5 June, has proved to be a deeply educational one. For instance, when he posted about one particular saag, a woman from Srinagar noted that her family used to make something similar. Such culinary connections have changed the way he looks at food.

For one, cuisine is no longer apolitical. On Instagram, Das has dwelt on the impact the Bengal partition had on food, even the “food-shaming” of East Bengalis for their love of dried fish, or shidol. “When I started the page, I took it for granted that Bengalis already knew about such dishes. But as I started posting, Bengalis began to message that they didn’t know about some of the dishes, such as dhuki from Birbhum, a steamed rice cake which was made by one Muslim Bengali family,” he says.

Sibendu Das has chronicled the life and times of Bharati Sengupta, now in her late 70s, who makes the 'durbhikkhyo torkari', or sabzi of the famine. Photo: Sibendu Das
Sibendu Das has chronicled the life and times of Bharati Sengupta, now in her late 70s, who makes the 'durbhikkhyo torkari', or sabzi of the famine. Photo: Sibendu Das

These days, one can find Das picking his 85-year-old grandmother’s brains for food wisdom and knowledge. For one of the #HistoryOnAPlate lives with Chatterji, he recreated one of his grandmother’s recipes for kancha tok, a drink that was popular in Sylhet but is rarely made in homes any more. “This was the first of her recipes that I documented with proper notes. It is made with poppy seeds, coconut, gondhoraj lemon leaves, tamarind and jaggery,” he says.

Like Das, Rutuja Deshmukh, 38, too has spent the pandemic delving deep into her family history. She has been going through her great grandmother’s handwritten notebooks, which offer a glimpse of resplendent Thanjavur-Maratha cuisine. The first record of this cuisine dates back to the 1600s, when the state of Thanjavur enlisted the help of the Marathas to repel an attack by the king of Madurai. “These notebooks had been lying in my brother’s home for quite some time. A few years ago, while rummaging through my mother’s things, I came across these. My mother had been referring to them forever. But since she is no more, there was no way to ask about the contents within,” says Deshmukh, a professor of film studies and a doctoral candidate in Pune. One of the notebooks was in such a tattered shape that her mother rewrote the recipes. “I have those as well as the original ones,” she adds.

The recipes are quite elaborate, and very different from Deshmukh’s style of home cooking, which is more about simple everyday cooking and quick-fixes. They first came in handy a couple of years ago, when some friends were visiting and she wanted to make something different from the usual Awadhi or Hyderabadi dish. She started going through the notebooks, only to realise it wouldn’t be easy to recreate some of the dishes since the measures were in ser and rattan. Deshmukh first worked out the equivalents in modern measures like grams. And the dish turned out so well that she started cooking from the recipes more often. People would compliment her on the food and tell her it reminded them of her mother’s cooking.

“Thanjavur-Maratha style isn’t a pan-Marathi cuisine, hence not everyone knows about it. It was only during the lockdown that I managed to go through all the notebooks in detail. At that time, I had also started authoring a chapter on food, relationships and covid-19 for a Paris-based publication,” says Deshmukh. The notebooks didn’t just provide interesting recipes such as rabbit curry but also offered an insight into the personality of Shanta Devi—her Ajjima (great grandmother)—who came to Kolhapur as a newly-wed from Thanjavur and brought with her the nuances of this unique cuisine. “I was really impressed with her lively sense of humour, which is a departure from the Pune-Marathi style of caustic sarcasm,” says Deshmukh.

She says the notebooks are also a treasure trove of remedial and medicinal recipes. This is representative of the fact that at the time kitchens also functioned as apothecaries. “There is a very interesting concoction for lactating mothers. Your breasts end up getting sore, dry and dark. She has written a recipe for paan, which you first chew and then rub on yourself. There is also a recipe to reduce postpartum flab. I wish I had read these when I was a young mother,” smiles Deshmukh.

The case of the missing veggies

Akash Muralidharan designed ‘Missing’ posters for traditional vegetables that are no longer available in Chennai; Photo: courtesy Akash Muralidharan
Akash Muralidharan designed ‘Missing’ posters for traditional vegetables that are no longer available in Chennai; Photo: courtesy Akash Muralidharan

For food designer Akash Muralidharan, the quest to document the stories of Tamil Nadu’s forgotten vegetables started in January 2020, when he returned from Milan, Italy, to Chennai with a master’s degree in food design and innovation. Sifting through everything that had been stored in the room during his absence, he came across his grandmother’s copy of Samaithu Paar, a cookbook of 20th century vegetarian Tamil Brahmin cooking dating back to 1951. Written by chef Meenakshi Ammal, this book contained over 350 recipes.

“My grandmother had carried this book to her new home after getting married and it was a huge part of her life. As I went through the three volumes, I could relate to the moments from the past when she would have read the recipes and created the dishes,” says the 26-year-old, who teaches design at an architecture college in the city. Samaithu Paar is unique, for it is an early and rare example of a cookbook written in an Indian language. It went on to become a staple of trousseaus. Today, it helps outline the culinary landscape of that time.

While going through Samaithu Paar, Muralidharan came across several vegetables he didn’t recognise, since they don’t form part of the kitchen pantry today. These included air potatoes, or kaai valli kodi, and mookuthi avarai, or clove bean and sunberries. His grandmother would grow the latter in the backyard, but he hadn’t come across these berries since the family moved homes.

So he undertook a 100-day cooking challenge, starting 1 March , 2020. Each day, he would cook a recipe from the book and post the results on Instagram. Together with collaborators Priyadarshini Narayanan and Srishti Prabhakar, Akash Muralidharan created illustrations of the missing vegetables, sourcing information from farmers, greengrocers and friends.

In the process, Muralidharan discovered some of the vegetables are still grown in some regions of Tamil Nadu. He learnt about air potatoes from a friend whose grandmother was growing them in Thiruvannamalai. And he came across clove beans in the hinterland of Tamil Nadu.

“The best part about Samaithu Paar is that it doesn’t read like a cookbook or a manual, but like a story. It features interactions between persons and ingredients. The book doesn’t dictate instructions but has a beautiful narrative,” says Muralidharan. Certain things brought a smile to his face. For instance, the measurement for tamarind in sambar has been calculated as the equivalent of the size of a lemon. No wonder then that there has never been any other way of measuring tamarind at his home. “The book talks about the feel of cooking with hands. In some recipes, it mentions taking a palm-full of salt. This is not a universal measurement. But to me, it is very poetic, measuring stuff like this as opposed to an industrialised measurement,” he says.

For Muralidharan, this project is not just about nostalgia, but about finding connections between politics, culture, climate and food. It is this that pushed him to investigate the missing veggies and the reasons behind their difficult modern provenance.

The quest brought another realisation: of the kind of changes he would like to see within him and around him. “Farming is an activity everyone should be involved in, even in the city. Urban farming can help combat climate change. If urban farmers in Chennai start to grow some of the veggies like clove beans in the backyards or on the balconies, we will have far more sustainable food habits,” he says. “I am afraid that if we start forgetting these ingredients in the city, the farmers too will stop growing them as there will be no profit.”

Just like Muralidharan, Aaryama Somayaji too has been interpreting food memories through illustrations on her Instagram account, High on Mangoes. A graduate from the National Institute of Design, Vijayawada, she started drawing food nearly 1.5 years ago. “I was working on the covers of a poetry collection at Harper Collins India’s art/design department. There, I ended up looking at a lot of cookbooks and began doodling food,” stated Somayaji in a previous interview with Lounge. She wanted to make it a regular feature on her Instagram page and this led to the #FoodFriday series. She takes cues from people about cuisines, memories, lesser known produce, vintage vessels, and more, to translate them visually.

Forging connections

These archives aren’t just a repository of revelations, they are also helping create connections between people. For instance, Sanskriti Bist (Instagram handle @Squibsters) had travelled from Bengaluru to Dehradun to visit her parents when the lockdown happened. “I am from Uttarakhand but I have never had the opportunity to stay there for so long,” says Bist, who has just returned to Bengaluru after a year. “While there, I tried asking my maternal grandmother about Garhwali cuisine but she couldn’t offer much information. Due to close proximity of the region to Uttar Pradesh, and with locals migrating to the neighbouring states, the food we eat has taken on those hues.”

Usha Rawat (above) helped her younger neighbour Sanskriti Bist document produce from Uttarakhand during the lockdown. Photo: Sanskriti Bist
Usha Rawat (above) helped her younger neighbour Sanskriti Bist document produce from Uttarakhand during the lockdown. Photo: Sanskriti Bist

That’s when her neighbour stepped in. Till the lockdown, “Usha Aunty” [Usha Rawat] and she would merely greet one another and move on. But during the early days of the pandemic, interaction between the neighbours increased. “She comes from Mana village (last village of India) in Chamoli, which touches the Tibetan border. The cuisine there carries those influences, with hand-rolled noodles called sunder kala made with turmeric, atta, salt and pisyun lun (garlic leaves salt),” says Bist. Usha Aunty would source ingredients and pass them on to her, and soon Bist was drying mutton fat to make salted tea, fermenting jann, a local alcohol made with a starter called balam and jhangora (barnyard millet), and preserving produce in true Garhwali style. “She taught me different ways of extracting oil from apricot and drying and preserving different parts of mutton above the chulha (stove). Usha Aunty has amazing stories about how to catch and cook porcupine meat, which is considered a delicacy in Uttarakhand, and more,” she adds.

During the process of archiving, people have moved from collecting oral histories and older material to standardising measures and ingredients. Pune-based entrepreneur Aditi Bharadwaj started The Nanima Project last May in her grandmother’s memory. As a part of the project, she sent emails to friends and food enthusiasts about their favourite food memories. She received interesting responses, ranging from a signature cake pudding from Ayshwarya Serfoji Rajebhosle of Thanjavur, to handwritten recipes for a lemon fool, a rich, creamy dessert, going back to 1888, Agra, courtesy Claire Bailey.

The Nanima Project regularly posts about vintage cookbooks such as the one by The Zoroastrian Stree Mandal. Photo: courtesy The Nanima Project
The Nanima Project regularly posts about vintage cookbooks such as the one by The Zoroastrian Stree Mandal. Photo: courtesy The Nanima Project

“Through this project, I also wanted to get people to archive their own family’s food history. Maybe your grandmother made only bread pudding and omelette, but it’s those dishes that you remember. Digitise, document, archive family recipes, they are a great window to the diverse food cultures in our country,” Bharadwaj had noted in an earlier interview with Lounge.

Now, as she gets set to make pickles drawn from her family traditions, she has made it a point to note down the ingredients. “We tend to take our parents and grandparents for granted, that they will be around forever. Make sure to weigh, measure things and write them down. My plan is to cook through all the recipes handed down by my mother and those written in my grandmother’s notebook, and then post those on my page,” says Bharadwaj. “It is time to delve into our unique family histories and not follow social media trends blindly. If we did the latter, we would all be making dalgona coffee from Kanyakumari to Connecticut.”

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