Cookbook clubs are springing up across the metros to explore new cuisines
Technology helps these food-and-book lovers stay connected
On a Sunday afternoon every month, a group of 15 people meet at a home in Pune. A cookbook is open, the kitchen buzzes with activity, and there’s plenty of last-minute plating.
“We’ve been meeting since March 2017. We pick a cookbook, choose a date, allocate recipes, and enjoy a cookbook potluck—which includes a lively debate over the food and the recipes at a member’s house," says Sahil Khan. The interest and popularity has been so high that the Pune Cookbook Club has hived off meetings; they now have two groups that meet separately to ensure their meet-ups aren’t too crowded.
Jewish-American writer Harry Golden famously declared, “No eating, no meeting". A growing number of book lovers in India are taking this to heart, and have devised a new recipe to spice up the age-old book club.
Exit regular book clubs, and welcome cookbook clubs, which bring together books, food, debates, discussion, over a fine meal.
Khan, a senior user experience engineer at Sminq, a Pune-based startup that runs a queue management app, retraces his steps to the beginning. “I’d been writing restaurant reviews since 2008 and even had a restaurant, but I hardly used the kitchen. In 2017, I was keen to cook a new dish every weekend. Serendipitously, when Meha Desai my friend moved back to Pune that year, wanting to build a community around food, cooking, and books, she reached out to me. We found one more person via social media, and that’s how the club started," he says.
The tribe grows
Desai, a software engineer, is passionate about cookbooks, and wanted to put the many stacked up in her kitchen to good use. Her stint in Bengaluru introduced her to Anisha Rachel Oommen and Aysha Tanya, co-founders of Goya Media, which focuses on food-related content. The duo started their cookbook club with a potluck in October 2016, where people met at Cubbon Park with dishes cooked from Madhur Jaffrey’s Flavours of India.
“The cookbook club began as a way to meet people in a new city, bringing together our love for food and cookbooks. We felt cookbooks deserved love and attention, especially with the internet changing the way recipes are shared," Oommen says.
Typically, the cookbook meets are announced with an invite to Goya subscribers, letting them know the date and theme of the next event. “It is a community-based event, and we try to keep the crowd small and intimate so people can chat, get to know each other, and discuss the cookbook, of course. We try to make sure all sections in the book are covered and there’s something to go around at appetisers, drinks, main course and dessert," says Tanya.
Interestingly, unlike other home-based clubs, The Goya Cookbook Club, which meets about four times a year, collaborates with venues to host the club meets. “We try to tie up with interesting venues—we’ve had Nicobar host the The Suriani Kitchen (by Lathika George) meet, the Olie store hosted the The Christmas Chronicles (by Nigel Slater) meet. We also see this as a fun way to occupy public spaces, and we’ve had several meet-ups in the city’s parks including Cubbon Park and Lalbagh," the co-founders say.
Technology helps these food-and-book lovers stay connected. “We have a WhatsApp group where book options are discussed and finalized. Recipes are picked from the book, keeping in mind everyone’s dietary restrictions, and the options are spread across courses. We map this out in a shared Google sheet," Khan explains.
In Mumbai, food writer and consultant Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal started the APB Cook Studio six years ago to inspire people to cook together. A cookbook club seemed a natural progression. “People either love cookbooks or they don’t; these books speak a different language. We started our club as a subscription-based event. The price included a hamper of books that cost almost as much as the fee and guaranteed a meeting every month. We invited cookbook authors, launched their books; they cooked here at the studio," says Ghildiyal.
The meet-ups at the club are not as regular as they were earlier though Ghildiyal still believes that Indians still love their books—and food—makes cookbook clubs “ideal".
At Goya, the people who sign up for cookbook club activities, are usually people who follow Goya, and that’s a wide audience. “We don’t impose any restrictions, and participants vary from age 20 to 45, both men and women; we’ve had a few students too. What brings all these people together is a love of food and a willingness to cook," says Tanya.
Khan agrees that cookbook club members span the spectrum. “We’ve got folks in their early 20s to those in their 40s. People working in startups, running their own businesses, social media marketing consultants...There are varied backgrounds, but everyone who comes here is there for their love of food and wanting to cook outside their regular comfort zone," he says.
Amita Gadre Kelkar, a Pune-based nutritionist, says she joined the Pune Cookbook Club because she loves cooking. “Joining the club seemed to be a great way to explore new foods and cuisine without eating out," she says.
The ease of meeting up and connecting with like-minded people from across the city interested her as well. “We vote and pick one cookbook to cook from each month. Then we pick a date, usually a Sunday, and everyone picks a dish or two from the book so there’s something from each course of the meal type. One person volunteers to host the cookbook potluck and everyone brings their food and discusses/reviews the book while enjoying a good meal. There is a lot of social interaction with food nerds," Kelkar says.
Most cookbook clubs try to pick books that at least one of the members already has. Sharing is common, and pages are often photocopied furiously. Book choices can also depend on seasons or events. “We went with Mango Mia (by Vikas Khanna) during the mango season, and Les Halles Cookbook the month Anthony Bourdain passed away. Ahead of Christmas, we chose The East Indian Kitchen (by Michael Swamy)," Khan says.
Cookbook clubs can be intimate or large gatherings. The Pune club usually sees an attendance of 10-12 people every meeting; APB Cookbook Club at its peak signed up 100 members, and then stopped subscriptions. It now offers a free subscription, allowing anyone to walk. “Every time, we announce a meet-up, we have between 15-30 people," Ghildiyal says.
There are no rules, really. All depends on the cookbook, and the cooks of the club.