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Food and Identity

Cookbooks As Archives of Taste, Feelings, Flavours, And Politics 

In a country where massive poverty is juxtaposed with plenty, cookbooks only cater to the haves. The have-nots, on the other hand, are caught in the endless cycle of subsistence crises — hunger, and malnutrition 

Local recipes and regional food play an intrinsic role in Indian food culture
Local recipes and regional food play an intrinsic role in Indian food culture Shutterstock

“One tbsp butter. 20 ml olive oil. 3 medium onions, sliced. Eight eggs. 75 ml milk. 50 g Gorgonzola, crumbled. One handful of thyme or parsley. Two medium potatoes, thinly sliced. Pepper to taste.” If you love Italian food and pick up Ritu Dalmia’s Italian Khana (Penguin, 2008) to make frittata di cipolle e gorgonzola, the Italian style cheese & onion omelette, chances are you will end up making something else, if you happen to be a bachelor or someone too lazy to step out of your house to fetch an ingredient that may not be readily available.  

Dalmia’s recipe aims to give you a chance to relish the sharp taste of Gorgonzola cheese combined with the sweetness of onions, but if you don’t have any of these ingredients, will it still be the same? True, you can make this without the cheese or substitute Gorgonzola with any other cheese you might have handy, but still. This, in a nutshell, is the problem with cookbooks: They often assume every household would have the ingredients they mention while the reality is many of us would always find it a challenge to have them at home all at once.  

The recipes cookbooks contain are meant for people with a certain class and privilege. For a large swathe of the poor in India, it’s a world that remains out of reach. The idea of referring to a book to cook their daily food is alien to them. And a recipe is a luxury they can ill afford. Their food, for decades, has been roti, rice and dal, buns and bread, vadas and bondas, in the best of the times. If at all they ever fancy pasta, they would have to make do with the one by Maggie that will cost them a few tenners. For many others, even that would be impossible to afford. 

In a country where massive poverty is juxtaposed with plenty — its top 1 per cent own about 77 per cent of its wealth (as per the 2021 Oxfam International report) — cookbooks only cater to the haves. The have-nots, on the other hand, are caught in the endless cycle of subsistence crises — hunger, and malnutrition. If there is one redeeming factor for the latter, it’s the democratisation of social media which allows even a poor man to share with the world the photos of their humble meal: a roti, with sliced onions and salt or a plateful of rice with ounces of dal

Cookbooks, if you look at their larger purpose, archive a vital aspect of the human sensorium: taste. They are also the repositories of social hierarchies, cultural complexities, nationalities, and models of power or authority. In tracking, tracing and analyzing cuisines, they act both as a measure of personal preference and a marker of class and identity. “They are personal and political, local and international, historical and contemporary, textual and embodied. More than any other texts, they connect feelings, flavours, and peoples. Cookbooks archive our bodies, our societies, our values, and our politics,” writes American political theorist Kennan Ferguson in Cookbook Politics (2020).  

The cookbooks of Tarla Dalal, India’s first celebrity chef whose culinary prowess is set to be celebrated in an upcoming biopic, sprang from similar conceptions. Dalal, a middle-class housewife, churned out well-produced but easy-to-cook recipe books — largely targeted at women like her — that connected feelings and flavours. They brought about a quiet revolution in kitchens across India which led to the amalgamation of the palate: A north Indian could whip up idli and dosa while a south Indian could savour samosa in the comfort of their homes. Not just this, they could also revel in the admixture of ingredients: a Bengali experimenting with coconut oil and a Maharashtrian exploring what it was like to cook puran poli or varan bhaat with mustard oil.  

Local recipes and regional food play an intrinsic role in Indian food culture
Local recipes and regional flavours play an intrinsic role in Indian food culture | Credit: Shutterstock

Dalal tasted success with the cookery classes she had started from her Napean Sea home in Mumbai in 1966 and went on to write 170 cookbooks (according to her website, tarladalal.com) comprising 17,000 recipes. She published her first cookbook, The Pleasures of Vegetarian Cooking (1974), at a time when television had not yet deeply penetrated India. Translated into various languages, including Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi, Bengali, and even Dutch and Russian, Dalal’s cookbooks sold more than four million copies. It had catapulted her career, making her one of the top five bestselling cookery authors in the world. The secret of Dalal’s success lay in her easy recipes and everyday ingredients. Besides, in her cookbooks, she showcased a wide gamut of cuisines: Punjabi, Gujarati, Rajasthani, Maharashtrian, South Indian, Chinese and Italian. A lot of her recipes gave international foods a vegetarian avatar. The country’s burgeoning, aspirational middle-class, eager to add a dash of excitement to their meals, lapped up her recipes.  

While Betty Crocker had cranked out cookbooks since 1950, the year it published its first hardcover picture book, the name of the much-loved American brand was a figment of the publisher’s imagination. Tarla Dalal, on the other hand, was the real deal, someone who pioneered the concept of comfort food long before the term came in vogue. Sanjeev Kapoor is often labelled as ‘India's first TV chef,’ but it was Dalal, who first whipped up an array of gourmet delights on the small screen for her show ‘Cook it Up with Tarla Dalal’, co-hosted by Sudhanshu Pandey; it was aired weekly on Sony Entertainment Television for three years and was broadcast all over Southeast Asia, the Gulf, the UK and the US. She also published a bi-monthly magazine, Cooking & More, which got her many more followers.   

In the last four decades of the 20th century, cookbooks, if done well, were money-spinners from a publisher’s perspective. While Dalal’s cookbooks sold millions of copies, others like Premila Lal (Indian Recipes, 1968), Savitri Bhatia (Delightful Cooking, 1983) and Madhur Jaffrey (Taste of India, 1980) also did fairly well, selling thousands of copies. These were the decades that also saw a wave of migration; a large number of India’s middle-class moved to the US and the UK for a better life. And writing about the food they missed on foreign soil became a passion and a pastime. Years later, the cookbook scene would evolve and come to be characterized by a level-playing field: they would be written both by commoners and the royalty. Maharani Gayatri Devi, for instance, would bring to us unique and easy-to-make recipes from the royal kitchen in Gourmet's Gateway: A Royal Collection (2009).  

If Dalal launched her cooking career from her residence, Julie Sahni established Julie Sahni Cooking School out of her Brooklyn Heights apartment, inspiring cooks and chefs both in India and America. In Taste Makers (2021), Mayukh Sen profiles seven immigrant women who revolutionised food in America; Sahni’s fascinating journey is one of them. Sahni, who has written six cookbooks, is the first Indian woman chef in charge of a fine-dining restaurant not only in the US but in the entire world. It was in 1983 when she became a chef at the kitchen of Nirvana Penthouse in Central Park South, owned by Shamsher Wadud, the nephew of Bangladesh’s first president, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. 

In the post-Dalal period, chefs and cookbook writers, many of them women, have redefined the way we look at recipes, and eat, making us feel that for us Indians the world is our oyster. Five years after Dalal’s death, Garima Arora became the first Indian woman ever to receive a Michelin star. Barely a year ago, in April 2017, Mumbai’s Arora had opened Gaa, a three-storey restaurant in Bangkok that celebrates a modern tasting menu that blends Indian traditions with Thai ingredients. If giants like Hemant Oberoi, Manjit Singh Gill, Satish Arora, Imtiaz Qureshi, Ananda Solomon, Zeba Kohli and Bakshish Dean made dining a divine experience, the generation that followed — which includes the likes of Gagan Anand, Harpal Singh Sokhi, Manish Mehrotra, Ranveer Brar, Vikas Khanna, Kunal Kapoor, Vineet Bhatia and Saransh Golia —  have made us all mindful eaters.  

For decades, however, the world of cookbooks has been defined by broader cultural and social disparity — of class and gender. Dalal’s success notwithstanding, not too many women cookbook authors could become household names, especially in the last two decades of the 20th century. On the other hand, Jiggs Kalra, for instance, came to be known as the “czar of Indian cuisine” and the “tastemaker to the nation.” Kalra was a masterchef before the term became popular in India and he did change the culinary scene significantly, but it took some time for women celebrity chefs to come to the fore. Today, the men-women ratio in the food sector has not only become better, but homegrown women chefs and culinary writers have emerged as the face of the industry. Celebrity chef Nita Mehta, for instance, is believed to have written hundreds of cookbooks and sold 6 million copies worldwide. Mehta, who won the Best Asian Cookbook Award for her book Flavours of Indian Cooking at the World Cookbook Fair held in Paris in 1999, has been dishing out traditional Indian recipes for the last few decades.  

The simple 'dal' - India's culinary mascot
The simple 'dal' - India's culinary mascot | Credit: Shutterstock

Cookery shelves in bookstores have long been the monopoly of the Dalals, Kapoors and Mehtas, but in recent years, which have seen a growing interest in ebooks, they have started facing competition from regional authors specializing in a particular cuisine, passed down in the family through generations. While earlier cookbooks were ‘meta’ in nature, in the last couple of decades, there has been a shift in focus on the regional cuisine, including Konkani and Hyderabadi foods, says Bushra Ahmad, Commissioning Editor at HarperCollins India. Last year, Esther David came out with Bene Appetit: The Cuisine of Indian Jews in which she deftly explores the food habits of the diminishing community: the Bene Menashes of the Northeast, the Bene Israelis of western India, the Bene Ephraims of Andhra Pradesh, the Baghdadi Jews of Kolkata and the Kochi Jews.  

The Parsis have had vintage books like Pakwan Pothi and Pakwan Sagar, which features their traditional recipes. In 1894, Meherbai Jamsetjee Wahadia self-published Vividh Vani, a two-volume book of recipes for delicacies like akuri (a scrambled egg dish) and patiyo (sweet and sour dishes). Anahita Dhondy, author of Parsi Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family (2021), says that there has been a lot of hard work to promote and push Parsi food in the last one decade which has led to the growing awareness about it. Dhondy had collaborated with restaurateur A.D. Singh to launch the first SodaBottleOpenerWala in Delhi in 2013 and was its head chef till February last year. She says that Parsi cuisine, like other food traditions, is ever-evolving: we are not eating what we used to in the 18th century. “Today, different chefs are changing the way people eat. They play an important role in what you put to your plate,” she says.  Prominent among the chefs who have captured the foodies’ imagination are Sanjeev Kapoor and  Harpal Singh Sokhi (of Namak Shamak fame), states Ritu Singh, ad-crafter and author of A History of Indian Advertising in Ten-and-a-half Chapters (Hachette India (2021). “They are among those who have done great branding for themselves; they have pulled a whole universe into branding. Kapoor has taken 360-degree approach: cookbooks, TV shows, cookware brand, et al. And people identify with hearty and jolly phrasing of Sokh’s words.”

Cookbooks usually stand out for their lavish print and production quality and their steep pricing, but Ahmad says it all depends on the content. Today, many amateurs are getting into the food sector on social media. While a lot of them get book deals, Ahmad underlines the key is to strike a balance between trained chefs and social media influencers: “We can’t abandon a good idea in the pursuit of an influencer or a celebrity.” With publishers striking a balance between chefs and social media stars running cookery channels on YouTube or those with a substantial presence on Instagram, cookbooks from India have caught the world’s attention, all over again. 

At the 2019 Gourmand World Cookbook Awards, Sonal Ved’s Tiffin: 500 Authentic Recipes won in three categories: besides being named the ‘Best Indian Cookbook, Globally’, it was also declared the ‘Second Best Book of the Year’ in all categories, and came third in Best Design (Asia). The other winners from India included Nandita Haksar’s The Flavours of Nationalism: Recipes for Love, Hate and Friendship; Kiranmayi Bhushi’s Farm to Fingers: Culture & Politics of Food in Contemporary India; Deepa Sohas Awchat’s The Goa Portuguesa Cookbook and Shilpa Shetty Kundra’s Diary of a Domestic Diva; Padma Vijay’s 101 Dishes That Enhance Mood & Reduce Stress; Marryam Reshii’s The Flavour of Spice; Aparna Mudiganti Parinam’s Chutneys, Adding Spice to your Life! and Nandita Iyer’sThe Everyday Healthy Vegetarian.  

Among the regional cuisine, the interest in Marathi food has been tremendous. In Pangat (2019), culinary researcher Saee Koranne-Khandekar dwells on the rich and versatile food tradition from the region. Many cookbook authors writing about the cuisines happen to be from the diaspora. In the West, at least since the 19th century, cookbooks have perpetuated French and Italian cooking styles as haute cuisine. Therefore these have predominated the Western cooking world for most of the 20th century, both in cooking schools and in publishing, says Kaumudi Marathé, author of Marathi Cookbook (2009), who was born in Pune, but moved to the US in 1996. “French and Italian cuisines became the standard by which other cuisines were measured, which is unfair to ancient culinary traditions such as Chinese and Indian, but very much in keeping with the Western cultural domination of the world. Luckily, things are changing across the board now. There is the emphasis being put, in the US, on making sure the world’s cultures are being well represented and not just through a Western lens,” says Marathé, who has been a part of this change.  

At a food media company, America’s Test Kitchen (ATK, Boston), where Marathé works, she is the only Indian with a culinary background and has become the de facto resident ‘expert’ to whom all the questions about Indian recipe titles, ingredients, and culture are asked. “I like this because I have studied my country’s food history and studied world food history so I am able to put information into context and ensure that the culinary traditions of my country are accurately represented,” she says.  Before she started at ATK, she started her own company and cooking school called Un-Curry in 2007 because she wanted to shatter the myth in the West that Indian food was “curry” and that we use “curry powder” in India.  

She says that she pitched The Essential Marathi Cookbook (2009) to Penguin India because since she published her first cookbook (Maharashtrian Cuisine: A Family Treasury) in 1999, no one else in India had written about Marathi food in English. “I wanted to document the food and the cooking methods, utensils, and techniques that were fast disappearing in our modern world. Penguin India had published books on Hyderabadi, Lucknowi, Delhi, Kerala, Goan and other cuisines and I really felt Marathi food needed to be documented as well. My book was on the cutting edge of interest in India about regional cuisines,” she says.  

Cookbooks serve as archives of taste. But since every archival form is informed by institutional forces, methods and motivations, the content of every cookbook is determined by different archivists, who bring their own set of values, interests and, I daresay, prejudices to them. 
 

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