Cooking isn’t learned from cookbooks. It is either a rite of passage earned through countless hours of blood, sweat and onion-tears, or a gift. There are those who have to stir a badam halwa countless times till they get the consistency right. And then, there are the lucky few who get the consistency and proportion right the first time and onwards. These are the culinary geniuses who didn’t learn cooking in an organized way. They hung around kitchens as kids, imbibing through osmosis, but without doing the hard work. When it comes time to turn out a meal, however, they just know.
Remember that uncle who made the best sabudana vadas or butter chicken without so much as entering the kitchen until it came time to show off a favourite dish to adoring nephews and nieces? Remember that bhabhi who walked into the household, fending off sneers from other sisters-in-law for having grown up abroad and then silenced all tongues by turning out the perfect upavas poha upma that she couldn’t have learnt in London? These are the ones that the culinary gods have blessed. They have an instinct for proportions; a knack for sprinkling masalas just so; and they have that elusive thing that we Tamilians call kai-manam, or “good smell in their hands”.
They are gifted cooks. They don’t have to toil. They roll their eyes at cookbooks and yet turn out a feast that will make us salivate. For the rest of us yokels, there are cookbooks.
A new page: Recipe books have evolved from simple lists to coffee-table books. Thinkstock
For a Tamilian bride, the iconic Samaithu Paar by Meenakshi Ammal was de rigueur. The English translation goes bollocks over the word ollocks, which is a measurement translation from the Tamil word, Aazhaakku. The Tamil original is archaic; the English translation, meaningless. Yet nobody, but nobody messes with Samaithu Paar. Countless NRIs carry it all over the world in suitcases along with the anjala-potti, the round spice box that contains the five elements of a Tamilian vagar: mustard seeds, urad dal, jeera, coriander, fenugreek and chana dal. With dried red chillies in the top flat counter.
I have been trying to procure the Parsi cookbook by the wonderfully named Time and Talents Club ladies but it is out of stock, both at Amazon and at several second-hand stores that I routinely scour. The great thing about the The Time and Talents cookbook was its recipes for leftovers such as egg on banana skin, which when you think about it, makes perfect sense. There was one for a dehydrated cabbage salan, all of which would have been great additions for my favourite cookbook which doesn’t exist but should: The Leftovers Cookbook. Bhicoo Manekshaw, Avi Dastoor, Villie Mehta and Delara Jejeebhoy should have written one.
Bengalis are funny this way. All my Bengali friends think that they are gifted cooks who don’t need a cookbook. Every Indian, for that matter, is pretty confident about cooking. We don’t have a culture of slavishly following recipes. It just is against our national psyche. Indians hate accuracy and measurements. Instead we do what we routinely say here in Karnataka: Swalpa adjust maadi, or please adjust. We fudge around with ingredients till something magical comes out.
The one cookbook that even these proud Bengali cooks admitted into the realm of possibility was by Tagore’s niece, Prajnasundari Debi. Her Aamish O Niramish Ahar, which means “Vegetarian and Non- vegetarian Food”, was given to every Bengali bride since 1900 when it was first published.
Today’s cookbooks are more like coffee-table books with great photographs and decent writing. It’s easy to dismiss them as lacking soul and romanticizing those moth-eaten, dog-eared handwritten cookbooks that were handed down generations. But for many of us, such cookbooks don’t exist. The women in my family rarely wrote down recipes. They didn’t have a clue about other regional cuisines, let alone international food. My mother, for instance, has never made a salan or an undhiyo in her life. She sticks to sambhar and rasam. For salans and sabzis, which are very different from what we call poriyals, I have to depend on store-bought cookbooks, which in my family are viewed with as much disdain as store-bought masalas.
Different people like different types of cookbooks. The gifted ones like those with proper recipes: accurate measurements, ingredients lined up according to usage; clear instructions and consistent style. Half-baked cooks like me go for the ones with poetic narratives, like Lathika George’s The Suriani Kitchen. Being vegetarian, I cannot appreciate the pleasures of fried beef, duck roast and fish but the narrative etched the ethos of Syrian Christians with the precision of a Chinese ink painting.
The next generation of cookbooks, however, aren’t in print. They are online. Today, when I want a recipe for eggplant parmesan or jolada rotti, I simply type it in on Blackle, the energy-saving Google that my daughter has introduced me to, and voila!
I am picky about the recipe blogs. I like photos, preferably of each step. I don’t like video—too long. I like prose accompanying each step and each photograph. Context is always good; as are either-or tips, such as: “If you don’t have cloves, try nutmeg.” Thankfully, both of Lounge’s food and recipe columnists do this—in fact, they come the closest to my dream leftover cookbook.
Shoba Narayan still uses Samaithu Paar even though the ollocks drive her nuts. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org