It might have all started with The Nancy Spain Colour Cookery Book from my mother’s cookbook collection.
As a boy I had little interest in cooking but I loved that cookbook. Spain, the back cover tells me, was the great-niece and biographer of Mrs Beeton, “the world’s most celebrated authority on cooking”. Isabella Beeton, author of Mrs Beeton’s Book Of Household Management (1861), meant nothing to a boy in Kolkata but every page in that book was a wonder. Each recipe came with a photograph, many in gorgeous colour, unlike my mother’s more utilitarian and drab Bengali cookbooks, some of which she had got as wedding gifts.
During summer holidays, when I had run out of books to read, I would pull out the Nancy Spain and look at pictures of an apricot-almond tart as beautiful as a stained glass window and dishes that might well have been from Mars—Baked Rolled and Boned Forelock. I could curl up with the book and imagine menus for dinner parties with my imaginary friends. Best of all, it came with delicious advice. Decades before Instagram, the duchess of Windsor once told the author, “Watch out, if you don’t take care you may serve an entire meal pinkish mauve, from lobster bisque to sherbet.”
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That book still exists, though the pages are coming apart and silverfish have been gnawing at the recipes for Sole Veronique and canapés Diane, neither of which I have ever made and probably never will. But every time I leaf through the book I realise that cookbooks are not necessarily about cooking. They are really about daydreaming.
My friend and publisher, Diya Kar, tells me that while most of her cookbooks are filled with recipes she can actually make (like a foolproof recipe for caramel custard in The Working Woman’s Cookbook she inherited from her mother), there are some books, like Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck Cookbook, which she has just because they are “works of art”. She says when she clears out her bookshelves, it’s the cookbooks she finds most difficult to part with.
My mother would be able to relate. She has collected saris and cookbooks all her life. Now homebound in a nightie, she has little use for the saris. But she still collects recipes. She sometimes jots down recipes from cooking shows on television. Then she notes them in her “rough book”. If they turn out well, they get “promoted” to the “fair” book. If they come out really well, they get a double tick. When I bring the glossy Bengali cooking magazine Hangla Hneshel home, she notes down the issue and names of recipes that pique her interest. Every now and then she consults her diary and says can you get me Hangla Volumes 37 and 64. Dinners at home come with origin stories—is this a Hangla recipe, a TV recipe or perhaps a celebrity recipe like Sourav Ganguly’s mother-in-law’s prawns? “No, no,” she will say sometimes. “This is my mother’s recipe.”
I too have a shelf full of cookbooks. I even have a cookbook stand but I mostly cook off my phone. I search for recipes for dinner parties online and bookmark those I like. Printed cookbooks allowed recipes to travel the world more easily but as Bee Wilson writes in The Guardian, “the dishes moved at the same pace as human beings themselves—very slowly as populations migrated from one place to another”. But now, with social media and the internet, “recipe sharing has gone global”. I can find umpteen “authentic” recipes for Chettinad chicken online and then fuse them into one I like. A cookbook, however pretty, is static and limited. Columnist Andrew Sun, writing in the South China Morning Post, imagines a future where kitchens are so hi-tech “we could ask Siri or Alexa to recite any recipe”. That has led him to the existential question: “Do I need to keep any of my cookbooks other than for sentimental reasons?”
He is not incorrect. My most beloved cookbooks come with more than a heaping tablespoon of nostalgia. I went to America as a student armed with a handwritten “cookbook”, an old diary where my mother had painstakingly written down how to cook rice, boil an egg, make masoor dal. Later, Bharti Kirchner’s rather dully named The Healthy Cuisine Of India—Recipes From The Bengal Kitchen was a godsend in my little American kitchen. I learnt how to make my posto (poppy seed) paste without my mother’s grinding stone and char my eggplant without setting off the smoke alarm. When I moved back to India, I brought back both books, the handwritten one and the Kirchner, stained with turmeric and oil, to Kolkata for sentimental reasons. My cookbook collection became a way to chart my own personal growth from those rice and boiled egg beginnings.
Some cookbooks are, of course, so intimidating that I know right away I will never cook anything from them. But the best cookbooks provide such comfort to the soul that we cannot have enough of them. Diya Kar says she has multiple copies of the same book—Chitrita Banerji’s Life And Food In Bengal—a Weidenfeld & Nicolson hardcover, a Rupa paperback and a Penguin India edition she herself published. And extra copies to gift. It’s literally the gift that keeps giving.
Though the internet has made clear that it’s far more convenient to cook from an online recipe, I still cannot resist the allure of a beautifully produced cookbook. It’s not just about the pictures. When I first bought a house in San Francisco, my partner’s parents presented me with the classic The Joy Of Cooking, a rather stern-looking tome. It instantly made the house a home. I was sad to leave it behind but it was just too heavy to carry back to Kolkata, and when was I going to make sauerkraut-stuffed apples in India anyway? Now I have its Indian equivalent—Pushpesh Pant’s India: Cookbook, which feels as heavy as a cast-iron skillet.
Restaurant critic Patric Kuh writes in Los Angeles Magazine that cookbooks are seductive because “in the idealised, oh-so-casual interiors that fill the pages, no-one is ever doing the dishes”. My cooking always leaves a kitchen in a mess, every available pot used, onion skins littering the floor, the lids of the spice jars lids strewn over the kitchen counter. No cookbook ever warns us of that. Instead, they fill our heads with dreams about preserved lemon and gochugaru and shiitake mushrooms. We see them, as Kuh rightly says, as both “fantasy and utility, adding a fillip of personal growth”. Cookbooks embody the reassurance that if we follow the steps patiently we too can get our just desserts. And the cleverest cookbook writers seduce us into feeling like we are getting entry into a very private world. A recipe for Aunty Ila’s Prawn Cutlets automatically sounds more appetising than regular old prawn cutlets, though we don’t know if Aunty Ila ever really existed. But the cookbook allows us to travel to Aunty Ila’s mythic kitchen. In fact, the cookbook is a way we travel and also a way we bring our travels back home with us.
I picked up the The Bangala Table: Flavours And Recipes From Chettinad years ago, seduced by the pictures and the recipes. Last month, I found myself in Chettinad at Visalam, an old art-deco mansion turned into a boutique hotel. Vasantha Akka, the hotel’s cook, showed me her way of cooking Chettinad chicken. She cooked from her head, not a recipe book, the chopped shallots and spices all neatly laid out in little stainless steel bowls. Her measures were approximate, a spoon of this, a big pinch of that. But as the flavours filled the kitchen, and the kalpasi, or stone flower lichen, sizzled, something strange happened. Once I had looked at the pictures in a book and imagined the taste. Now I was in a Chettinad kitchen, smelling the chicken being cooked, and I felt I was being transported back into the pages of my cookbook.
Later, the hotel WhatsApped me the recipe and gave me a little container of Vasantha Akka’s Chettinad spice powder in case I ever wanted to cook some Chettinad chicken. Of course, in the cookbook of my dreams, it would be Vasantha Akka’s Chettinad chicken.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.
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