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SHELF LIFE: Thought for food

By Sumana Ramanan

15th June 2020

Like many privileged Indians, I lost the services of my cook after the lockdown came to effect in mid-March. Like many privileged Indians, I have had to take full charge of the kitchen, after years of being a weekend cook and baker, whipping up indulgences without the pressure of having to rustle up the main meals. Initially daunted, I quickly decided to make a virtue of necessity and enjoy the process of rediscovering cooking.

With my 20-year-old twin son and daughter back from their respective colleges, displaying healthy appetites and an understandable desire to be indulged, I had to raise my game. Although everyone contributes to doing household chores, I am primarily in charge of planning the meals and cooking half of them.

An obvious source of recipes is the internet, with its treasure trove of food websites and YouTube channels, often hosted by well-known chefs. Another source is simply the older generation: I sometimes turn to my mother, mother-in-law and aunt for recipes and tips. But even in this digital age, I find myself also regularly dipping into my old cookbooks – and thinking about how they are written.

At the core, a cookbook must have lucidly written recipes. But the best ones should include information about the cookware and utensils that will best suit the dish, suggest substitutes for ingredients that you might not have, and anticipate some of the problems. Surprisingly, these three elements are often missing. Cookbooks might also benefit from rating the degree of difficulty of each recipe, even perhaps mentioning how many times someone should try it out before serving it to guests.

A cookbook can also gain considerably from excellent design, including photos and illustrations. Indeed, I am surprised that cookbooks do not experiment more with new ways of representing recipes, such as in the form of flowcharts. Books with a dash of cultural context, although not strictly needed, might also help readers decide when to make a particular dish.

Some cookbooks are, however, valuable merely because they are classics. They beckon you because of nostalgia and reliability: they have been tried and tested. Cookbooks dedicated to recipes from regional Indian cuisines seem to dominate this category. Among my cookbook collection, for example, I have over the past three months referred to three in this group – each representing a different corner of the country.

The first is Cook and See, by S. Meenakshi Ammal, an English translation of the original Tamil book Samaithu Paar, a compendium of classic dishes from Tamil Brahmin cuisine. First published way back in 1951, when cookbooks were rare, this collection became a hit in the community, and copies were passed down from generation to generation. It was telegraphic in style and assumed some cultural knowledge. It perhaps assumed that people referring to it would be within the community. Those were the days before the dinner tables of this country’s elite went eclectic to include pan-Indian and global fare. The original and first translation had no photos or illustrations. Recent translations are more elaborate, and there is even an attractive website of the same name with many of the recipes.

The second is Ruchira, a classic of Marathi Brahmin cuisine, by Kamalabai Ogale, which was first published in the early 1970s. The English translation is better produced than its Tamilian counterpart originally was. The instructions are also clearer. But like Cook and See, it is limited to recipes from a specific community, and are all vegetarian.

The third is as much a book of recipes as a work of food anthropology, by the fine writer Chitrita Banerjee. Her book Bengali Cooking: Seasons and Festivals takes in the full swathe of Bengali cooking, from a cross-section of communities, including Muslims and Bangladeshis. Now that the rainy season is upon us, I turned to the chapter titled ‘Barsha: Monsoon’. “The best known Bengali dish associated with the monsoon is khichuri, rice and dal cooked together with certain spices…It is perhaps the oldest surviving dishes in the Bengali repertoire,” she writes. The chapter has several recipes, including one for the basic bhuni khichuri, the Bengali version of a basic khichdi.

Perhaps that will take care of one meal this week.

(SHELF LIFE is a weekly post from the world of books: literature, ideas, reading, writing, publishing, and anything in between.)

(Facebook: Sumana Ramanan, Instagram: sumanaspirit, Twitter: @sumana_ramanan)

(Sumana Ramanan is on the committee of the Literature Live! Mumbai International Literature Festival. She is an independent journalist who has worked in leading media organisations, such as Business World, Economic and Political Weekly, Hindustan Times, Reuters and Scroll.in.)