September 19, 2021

Zaika

Livingston

The cookbooks helping India’s regional cuisines make a comeback

7 min read

Indian food is as diverse as India itself. But at some point in the late 1980s, it began being represented both globally and nationally as one homogeneous mass, full of curries and chicken tikka masala – a dish most Indians have never heard of. Regional cuisines began to be relegated to the kitchens of more discerning home chefs, or were carried abroad by Indian students dreaming of their mother’s culinary creations. 

Today, that’s changing. Regional Indian cuisine is being rediscovered and celebrated once again through trendy pop-up brunches and specialty restaurants. And a growing number of regional cookbook writers are publishing recipe collections that echo those of decades past, when modern life began to displace multiple generations of women sharing the kitchen and dispensing wisdom.

Why We Wrote This

Too often, “Indian food” is portrayed as one cuisine. In reality, it’s dozens. Recent cookbooks are rediscovering and celebrating that heritage, preserving wisdom and identity traditionally passed down in the kitchen.

“We have begun looking inwards rather than taking our cues from the West on what to eat,” says food writer Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal, referring to the recent Indian craze for kale and quinoa. “Now many of us are interested again in local ingredients, and are curious about how other people in our country eat.” 

And like their predecessors, these books offer glimpses of hidden cultures – culinary and otherwise – to a larger audience.

When I got married a couple of decades ago in the south Indian city of Chennai, my aunt gave me a cookbook on traditional vegetarian Tamil cooking. “Samaithu Paar” (“Cook and See”) by Meenakshi Ammal, first published in 1951, was still considered a go-to guide for any young Indian bride. I found myself often opening the book to rustle up simple meals, including staple stews like lentil-based sambar and the tangy-spicy rasam

“Cook and See” is just one of several community cookbooks from the decades when modern life began to displace multiple generations of women sharing the kitchen and dispensing wisdom as they prepared family meals. Through these books, the authors offered glimpses into their lives. For example, “Time & Talents Club Recipe Book” (1935) – packed with 2,000 recipes by a variety of contributors, sold as a fundraiser, and republished six times – is still held as the beacon for Parsi cooking, a meat-rich cuisine shaped by influences from Persia, where the community comes from, and from Gujarat, the Indian state they first called home in India. “Rasachandrika” (1943) by Ambabai Samsi featured recipes from the Saraswat Brahmin community on the western Konkan coast. 

These cookbooks by homemakers for homemakers were compilations of not only recipes but also practical information – from essential cooking to festival rituals and home remedies for common ailments. Each community in India had, and still has, its own unique ingredients, techniques, recipes, and eating rituals, and these collections ensured this knowledge was passed down through the generations.

Why We Wrote This

Too often, “Indian food” is portrayed as one cuisine. In reality, it’s dozens. Recent cookbooks are rediscovering and celebrating that heritage, preserving wisdom and identity traditionally passed down in the kitchen.

Somewhere in the late 1980s, however, Indian cuisine began to be seen and represented globally and nationally as one homogeneous curried red mass. Perhaps it was because the flavors of garlic naan and chicken tikka masala (a dish most Indians have never heard of) traveled well across continents and palates, or perhaps because the Punjabi people successfully managed to showcase their cuisine wherever they went. But the result was that representations of Indian food were cleaved into two neat south and north divisions as far as restaurant cooking was concerned. Regional cuisines and their cookbooks began to be relegated to the kitchens of more discerning home chefs or they were carried abroad by Indian students dreaming of their mother’s culinary creations. 

But regional Indian cuisine is being rediscovered and celebrated once again through trendy pop-up brunches and specialty restaurants. More important, a growing number of regional cookbook writers are publishing new cookbooks, complete with easy but largely unknown recipes and glossy photographs highlighting regional spices, legumes, millets, oils, and grains. 

Courtesy of Archana Pidathala

Archana Pidathala holds her self-published cookbook “Five Morsels of Love.”

“We have begun looking inwards rather than taking our cues from the West on what to eat,” says food writer Rushina Munshaw-Ghildiyal, referring to the recent Indian craze for kale and quinoa. “Now many of us are interested again in local ingredients, and are curious about how other people in our country eat.” And like their predecessors, these books offer glimpses of hidden cultures – culinary and otherwise – to a larger audience. 

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