Compiling a family cookbook can be as complex as cooking the perfect Indian sabzi (vegetable dish). No matter how simple or random it looks, the result has to possess the right balance of all the flavours, the constituents done just so, the touch-feel as inviting as its visual appeal. And yet, it needs to leave room for improvisation and innovation, the spontaneous decision to throw in a new ingredient or size them differently.

More than five years after Aparna Jain proposed the idea of The Sood Family Cookbook to HarperCollins India, the 43-year-old has every right to feel like a triumphant executive chef. Not only does her end product tick all the above-mentioned boxes, she actually successfully orchestrated a vast number of family members—formidable aunts, friendly cousins-in-law, elderly bhabhis (sisters-in-law), indulgent uncles—into contributing to a magnificently produced volume that would add value to a home kitchen anywhere in the world, with recipes ranging from pahaadi fiddlehead ferns to fish en papillote.

This crispy ‘bhindi’ from cousin Priti can be served in multiple ways. Photo: Deeba Rajpal
This crispy ‘bhindi’ from cousin Priti can be served in multiple ways. Photo: Deeba Rajpal

The Cookbook began life as a three-ring binder, compiled and circulated within the family in 2005 after Jain was hard-pressed to produce a best-of-the-aunts Indian meal for her brother’s friends in far-away Switzerland. “But the family kept expanding and newer members, too, wanted copies. So we finally took it to a professional publisher. Karthika (V.K., publisher and chief editor at HarperCollins India) greenlighted the project in 5 minutes," says Jain, who is a leadership coach and marketing consultant by day and cellist and cook-reader-writer by night.

“I think all women of my generation have memories of our mothers and aunts cutting out recipes from magazines and exchanging recipes with other women—always women! When Aparna brought the idea and sample recipes to me, the warmth came right back. Cooking then, and now, is so much about love and caring about who are you cooking for, and I thought it was a great angle to approach a cookbook from," says Karthika.

From the 40 recipes of the original, the collection grew to 160, which Jain pared down to 101, broken into nine sections, including breakfasts, convalescent cookery and pahaadi comfort food. The toughest part, perhaps, was eliciting reliable responses from the older generation, because they habitually worked by instinct, rarely measuring or weighing ingredients. “The funniest was Renu maasi. She gave me a recipe for a dry teliyamma dal, but the proportions seemed completely off and, of course, it tasted different when I tested the recipe. I called her back and then she said, ‘Oh haan, yeh to bahut zyaada ho gaya (oh, yes, that is too much)!’" laughs Jain.

As the Indian market evolves to embrace everything from community cookbooks to celebrity chefs’ compilations, the challenge of the family cookbook—not to be confused with a cookbook for families—is perhaps to preserve and pass on the all-encompassing affection of remembered family meals. It’s tricky territory because it competes with the reader’s own memories and may fail to establish a commonality with vastly different cultures. Jain overcomes the trap by adopting a conversational tone in her short prefaces to individual recipes, introducing her family by their first names, and using earthy illustrations by Ayesha Broacha, Priya Hegde and Anusheela (who uses only one name) to complete the “family" feel.

The recipes themselves are un-intimidating and matter-of-fact, presuming the reader’s intelligence and his access to other resources (can’t figure out what’s malka dal? Google it). Jain also promises to hand-hold readers through the book if they tweet @aparna_jain or emailsoodfamilycookbook@gmail.com.

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