For a country with its breadth and depth of cuisines, culinary styles and traditions, the Indian cookbook market is flooded. There’s a recipe book for every little mini-genre and subset of regional cuisine in a country that takes its food very, very seriously. A strong part of India’s culinary tradition however, is still passed on the old way, from one generation to another. The wisdom and experience of thousands of years of eating well, is transferred within families. It’s the stuff that eventually forms the memories behind a good meal — the kind of strong memory that can kindle the warmth of nostalgia and take you back in time, with every bite of the humblest home cooked food. It’s likely that every good meal has a memory behind it, or vice versa.
It’s no wonder then that food forms the centerpiece of so many relationships, connecting us to our families, generations past, our culture and traditions, and is the way we pass it on too. Here are four Indian cookbooks that draw heavily from memories and thus transform from mere cookbooks into memoirs as well. These cookbook memoirs capture that sweet spot between documenting recipes so they will never be lost, and recording the warmth of family memories that bind the recipes together.
Archana Pidathala, Self-Published
This stunning collection of over a hundred heirloom recipes began as a translation of the original cookbook in the vernacular South Indian language Telugu, but grew into a project to document some of the most loved home-style recipes from an Andhra kitchen. It is a delightful collection of recipes interwoven with anecdotes and memories from Archana’s own childhood, especially food memories that grew into a deep bond she shared with her grandmother. From humble vegetarian curries to Andhra Pradesh’s infamously spicy meat dishes, homely concoctions like spice powders, festival sweets, Five Morsels Of Love is detailed, wonderfully compiled and deliciously unique.
Discovering not just food, but the stories and memories behind them certainly makes for a unique way to escape into a different time and place. For authors, of these memoirs, the journey is particularly special. Archana Pidathala tells me the strongest memory from her childhood is of her grandmother’s five grandchildren sitting in a semi-circle, knees bumping, eagerly waiting to be fed lunch. “Our tiny mouths would be filled with morsels of rice and dal with plenty of ghee, followed by yoghurt and rice. And I wanted to keep that memory alive, it’s what kept me going with finishing the book,” she says.
Aparna Jain, Harper Collins
What makes this cookbook truly special is that it isn’t restricted to recipes of a particular community as it might seem, but recipes loved by a truly diverse, global family. Most loved recipes and memories collated from this family of about 56 people, the book presents food, memories lovingly preserved by various member of the Sood family. The formidable job of collating them from various sources, along with notes for the perfect occasion for each dish, or tips on how to make something in a jiffy, this is a true labor of love. A large segment of recipes are from the Pahaadi community, but you’ll find smatterings of everything from Bengali, Thai, Italian, Punjabi, Sindhi and Swiss recipes in this melting pot of a cookbook.
Saee Koranne-Khandekar, Hachette India
Truly niche, and the first of it’s kind, Crumbs is a book that demystifies bread – all kinds of it – for the Indian context of warm climes, coarse whole-wheat flour. But more than just collating a host of recipes for a variety of leavened and unleavened bread the far corners of the country as well as some international favorites, the book provides anecdotes of the authors travels, visiting some of India’s traditional bakeries to uncover age-old secrets of making some of India’s most loved forms of bread.
Pamela Timms, Aleph
Spanning five seasons of the author’s life in India, this is a thorough food memoir that journeys through the exotic and delicious spread of food of the region of Old Delhi. As an expatriate living in Delhi, Timms finds herself drawn to the chaos of the tiny nooks and crannies of one of the oldest parts of the city, where a whole new world of flavor, palates, colors and aromas awaits her. Her journey discovering the area over a year, leads to some tremendous explorations as she befriends families of sweet makers and restaurant owners who have been cooking the finest food for generations together.
Despite being from outside of India, Timms digs deep and gets to the bottom of some of the most incredible delicacies, unearthing culinary secrets that were hitherto hidden away with utmost care. “I’ll never forget the night I spent watching the young men churn gallons of milk by hand every to make the winter delicacy Daulat Ki Chaat. It had been very difficult to get them to agree, so when they did, I felt as if I’d gained access to a magic kingdom!”
Revati Upadhya, based in Goa, India, writes on food, travel, culture and lifestyle.