Lost World of Indian Cookbooks



A cookbook is about so much more than just food. Depending on when it was written, how it is organised and, of course, the type of cuisine it revolves around, it can teach you how to manage a home, preach social etiquette, fuel class consciousness and feed aspirational fantasies. Sadly, in India, very little attention has been paid to studying cookbooks, nor have they been deemed worthy of preservation in libraries. Author Shylashri Shankar looks at the lost world of Indian cookbooks.

<i>Turmeric Nation: A Passage Through India’s Tastes</i> by author Shylashri Shankar
Turmeric Nation: A Passage Through India’s Tastes by author Shylashri Shankar

Books, even cookbooks, are written for a diversity of reasons and it is often more profitable to enquire why they have been written than analyse their contents in an uncritical manner.

All cookbooks have fictional dimensions. The question is: of what kind and to what degree? Some, for instance, act as deeply idealised folkloric records; the authors of these salvaged ethnographies are concerned with ‘saving’ seemingly traditional recipes before they are lost.

This is certainly true of recent cookbooks published in India, which highlight recipes from grandmothers and mothers, or haute cuisine from another era. The Konkani Saraswat Cookbook by Asha S Philar; Kashmiri Cuisine Through the Ages by Sarla Razdan; My Bombay Kitchen by Niloufer Ichaporia King; and Why Onions Cry: Peek Into An Iyengar Kitchen by Vijee Krishnan and Nandini Sivakumar.

An older and rarer book is Traditional Iyengar Recipes of South India by Kamala Narasi Wodeyar, who is to Iyengar cooking what Meenakshi Ammal is to Iyer cooking. Preeta Mathur in The Courtly Cuisine: Kayastha Kitchens Through India explains how, by virtue of being administrators and ministers under Mughal rule, this community’s cuisine came to be influenced by the meat-loving emperors.

Kayasth cuisine is influenced by Mughal, Persian, Central Asian and Hindu North Indian motifs. Uttar Pradesh’s Kayasths like red chillies stuffed with fennel and amchoor, and pickled in mustard oil, writes Anoothi Vishal in Mrs LC’s Table: Stories About Kayasth Food And Culture.

In the book, Vishal delves into memories, as well as the techniques, ingredients and history associated with the food heritage of the Kayasths. These books are also, in food anthropologist Jeremy MacClancy’s words, expressions of cultural nostalgia. The script here seems to be: ‘this is the world we have already lost, but we can try to re-create it through cooking’.

While a memoir-style cookbook is typical of the late 20th century, those written in the colonial era tend to be more prescriptive, as revealed in the titles of the books. (Mrs) C Lang, ‘Chota Mem’ The English Bride In India: Being Hints On Indian Housekeeping (1909); Friend-in-Need Women, Hindustani Cookery Book (1939); Anonymous, Dainty Dishes for Indian Tables (1879); and Agatha Florence James, Indian Household Management in The Lady at Home and Abroad (1898).

These tomes had a dual purpose. Apart from providing specific instructions on how to run a household, manage servants, prepare food and entertain guests, these manuals preached the values of an expatriate and how the imperial class ought to represent itself to the natives. As more middle-class Englishwomen travelled to India after the 1857 War of Independence, the prescriptive nature acquired stridency. How did the colonials display these qualities in their food habits?

Some scholars, food historians like E M Collingham, Nupur Chaudhuri, Uma Narayan and Susan Zlotnick, claim that the British consumed a different diet to the local people in order to separate themselves as rulers. Others say that there was no clear-cut divide between the rulers and the ruled in relation to food and that in fact a close relationship existed between the British colonisers and their subjects.

The view that the British ate only British-type foods in India is not corroborated by these cookbooks. The recipes in many colonial-era cookbooks make it clear that ‘being hybrid’ was the primary characteristic of the food eaten by the coloniser. Colonial food incorporated the dishes most familiar to the British but also embraced the indigenous ingredients and cooking techniques of the colonies.

The recipe for Bombay toast in Mrs John Gilpin’s Memsahib’s Guide To Cookery In India calls for minced anchovy or redfish. Another breakfast dish, curry balls, has rice cooked with curry powder, sugar and salt, chopped apple and onion which is rolled into balls with minced meat, parsley and egg, and then fried or baked.

As food historian Cecelia Leung-Salobir points out, a cookbook that dispels beyond all doubt that myth is “What to Tell the Cook, Or The Native Cook’s Assistant, Being A Choice Collection of Receipts For Indian Cookery, Pastry, etc. etc”. Among the curry dishes are chicken kabob, prawn ball, sardine toast, salt fish and egg, cutlet, mutton, fish, sheep’s head, curry puffs, brain and gravy. Other Indian dishes include mulligatawny, sago pudding, mango fool, plantain fritters, coconut pudding and Bombay pudding.

Early Indian cookery books, published in Britain from the 1830s, were collections of original recipes developed into Anglicised versions of Indian cookery for English cooks in England, while other publications were specifically written for memsahibs in Anglo-India.

Bengali magazine Pak Pranali
Bengali magazine Pak Pranali|https://www.amarbooks.org/

A similar process of hybridisation was occurring in the culinary world of middle- and upper-class Indians in the 19th and 20th centuries. Magazines such as Bengal’s Pak-Pranali carried recipes and exhorted the Bengali woman to be an “ideal modern housewife skilled in traditional and modern ways of cooking”.

Another type of cookbook is the one that explains India to a foreign audience. American-Indian novelist Santha Ram Rau wrote The Cooking of India for Time-Life books in 1970. These books discussed the culinary tradition of a country within the geographical, cultural and historical milieu. She struggled to find a common theme of Indian food and then concluded that “there is no major body of dishes and techniques of cooking that one can combine to call a ‘national cuisine’.” In the words of one scholar, Rau’s work ended up being part autobiography, part travelogue, part social and cultural history, and part political platform.

Ni’matnama manuscript
Ni’matnama manuscript|Wikimedia Commons

The cookbook’s structure also offers interesting insights. Are the recipes arranged according to courses, as the French ones are, or is the classification system different? The 16th century Ni’matnama Manuscript arranges recipes in no particular order. Sweet and savoury are mixed. It shows a strong Western and Central Indian influence—khichri, piccha, bhat, khandawi, puri, chapati, bhuji (fried vegetables), rabari, laddu, khaj etc. There are recipes drawn from the Persian lineage—pilaf, sikh, yakni, shorba, kufta, kebab, sambusas (like a samosa), and a large variety of meats—mountain sheep, beef, rabbit, quail, kid, pigeon, and partridge. The recipes are neither detailed nor precise; quantities are not mentioned.

In another 16th century text, the Ain-i-Akbari (from Emperor Akbar’s kitchen), the recipes are divided into three categories—no meat is used, meat and rice are used, and meats and spices are used. Only the ingredients, quantities and servings are listed but a veil is drawn on the method of preparation.

This mish-mash of a structure is followed by the cookbook writers of the 1950s and ’60s such as Mrs Balbir Singh and Meenakshi Ammal, except that they do give precise instructions on quantity and preparation. The more recent Indian cookbooks (Tarla Dalal, Madhur Jaffrey, Monish Gujral, Sanjeev Kapoor) display a soup, salad, vegetable, meat, fish, rice, and dessert classification—reflecting the way we now consume our food.

If Jeremy MacClancy is right, that cookbooks also appeal to the aspirations of their readers, feeding their fantasies about the identities they wish to achieve rather than lending substance to the identities they already possess, then each of us has to examine our personal favourites among cookbooks to discover what underpins our aspirations.

This is an edited excerpt from Turmeric Nation: A Passage Through India's Tastes by Shylashri Shankar, published by Speaking Tiger Books, 2020

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