What comes to your mind when you miss home? For most of us it's food. But for some of us, it's very specific memories of time spent with family, siblings, cousins and friends in the kitchen.
Dal-chawal prepared for comfort, Sunday feasts with farsan and sweets, Marie-biscuit-and-jelly pudding for special occasions.
So when Aparna Jain writes of her Behenji Maasi's famous Himachali mutton and Peggy Maami's celebrated chocolate cake in The Sood Family Cookbook, it sounds warmly familiar. You're drawn in by Jain's colourful family and the back stories accompanying each recipe. You want to know all about her brother Aditya and his culinary experiments, and you feel Peggy Maami is just like the culinary genius in your family, probably your own aunt.
The interests of the cook, the foodie, the non-cook and the bibliophile in you have been piqued - should you continue flipping through the pages or tumble out of bed to make the 'I-Don't-Cook Tagliatelle'?
In A Pinch of This, A Handful of That, another food writer and consultant Rushina Munshaw-Ghildiyal beautifully captures a similar sentiment attached to memories around food. She describes preparing a year's supply of tomato ketchup as ordered by Moti Mummy, her Nani's Chak-Chak Continental meal and how her mother's dal soup was always the perfect antidote to her problems. The recipes and cooking secrets hold generations of zest for food - you're moved far more than you'd be by an ordinary cookbook.
A CHANGING TASTE
While regular recipe books continue to sell well, a whole subgenre in food writing is making its presence felt on Indian bookshelves. These are titles mostly by first-time authors that go beyond the idea of a cookbook as a mere instruction manual. Some feature non-celebrity chefs who are documenting community recipes, others weave in anecdotes and stories of growing up around the table. New releases like Bong Mom's Cookbook by Sandeepa Mukherjee Datta, The Married Man's Guide to Creative Cooking by Samar Halarnkar and A Sense for Spice by Tara Deshpande Tennebaum, offer a window into the lifestyles of the authors, their homes, families, communities and eating habits. And of course, there are scores of recipes (many collected and handed down by family members or perfected over time) to try if the writing makes you hungry.
The personal touch is what's elevating the books above mere repositories of recipes and connecting readers (and cooks) with authors. Aparna Jain says she receives at least one tweet a day from a follower experimenting with a dish from her book. It's also what's tapping in to the idea of cooking as pleasure for so many urban Indians today. "Food and cooking food at home have become a leisure activity; it is now seen as a sophisticated form of entertainment even," says Karthika VK, HarperCollins India's publisher and chief editor.
|Word of mouth: Get your hands on these|
|The Sood Family Cookbook by Aparna Jain|
A Pinch of This, A Handful of That by Rushina Munshaw-Ghildiyal
A Sense for Spice by Tara Deshpande Tennebaum
More Than Just Biryani by Andaleeb Wajid
The F-Word by Mita Kapur
The Married Man's Guide to Creative Cooking by Samar Halarnkar
Bong Mom's Cookbook by Sandeepa Mukherjee Datta n Dining with the Maharajas by Neha Prasada and Ashima Narain
Diva Green by Ritu Dalmia
A Chef in Every Home: The Complete Family Cookbook by Kunal Kapur
THE TIME IS RIGHT
Those who have been following Indian food literature and cookbooks will know that food memoirs have been on slow simmer for a while. Madhur Jaffery's award-winning books have been around since the 1970s, but aimed mainly to acquaint Westerners with the sights, sounds, moods (and, of course, flavours) of India. Two decades later, Chitrita Banerji's books aimed to do the same thing for Bengali food and culture. And in the 2000s, Shoba Narayan's Monsoon Diary and Mita Kapur's The F-Word found some success in veering from the straight-up cookery book.
The new releases, however, are much grander than their predecessors and they don't even need a celebrity chef (or even a well-known celebrity) to find takers. "There are many good writers, cooks, photographers and researchers who have a passion for food and fit a project," says Priya Kapoor, editor-in-chief of Roli Books, which recently released Dining with the Maharajas, a coffee-table anthology on the royal kitchens of India. The book was put together by freelance political journalist Neha Prasada and portrait, fashion, wildlife and documentary photographer Ashima Narain.
It helps that the new books break away from the recipe-and-photo format. Westland's A Sense for Spice gave Tara Deshpande Tennebaum's stories and recipes a smart design, and size that fell somewhere between paperback and coffee-table book. Indeed, you'd want to keep it somewhere between your kitchen and your living room.
ALL THE FRILLS
Perhaps the biggest reason to pick up books like these is that the writers are just like us. They've grown up with traditional cuisines and family recipes (with the occasional treat at a fancy restaurant); they've begun to explore a new side of food as adults; they've begun experimenting in the kitchen; and they've made the same mistakes and incorporate the same jugaad afterwards. And unlike a long-dead author or one who's too famous, readers can tweet to them, connect on Facebook or email them to develop a better relationship with the author (ensuring a captive market for a possible sequel too!)
That an author just like you is also introducing you to the cuisine of a community wholly unlike yours is an added advantage. Several of these books take a journey through the many cuisines across the Konkan coast (A Sense For Spice), through flavours of typical Gujarati food (A Pinch of this...), or those that indulge you unabashedly in meat and fish specialities from the Deccan (A Married Man's Guide...). It's a wonderful path to national integration, believe publishers. "Until now, we have no documentation of heritage when it comes to food," says Gautam Padmanabhan, CEO of Westland. "These books are playing that role." Rushina Munshaw-Ghildiyal also sees the books as a chronicle of traditions in our fast-changing communities. "We must document how everything was once made at home to recognise something from our past," she says. "We are also re-realising the value of home-cooked meals and bonding, and these books help professionals reconnect with the kitchen."
For these first-time authors, of course, the books present an opportunity (and freedom) to write the book they imagined, and not one that can become a bestseller. Journalist Samar Halarnkar, writer of the "overwhelmingly non-vegetarian" blog and column, Our Daily Bread, builds on his love for meat and fish in his book. He says that at the inception of the project, his publishers asked if they should throw in some more vegetarian recipes as well. "I said, no," Harlankar says. "That's not who I am; that's not what my column is about. They agreed, and there was no notion of popularity attached as they allowed me to write a book just like my blog."
|What's coming up|
|A cross-community book, The Khan Family Cookbook by Zarine Khan (Roli Books)|
A cookbook about the Tamil Nadu communities by Sabita Radhakrishna (Roli Books)
A book on Amritsar by chef Vikas Khanna (Roli Books)
A guide to the food, lifestyle and traditions of Awadh (HarperCollins)
A Kutchi Memons cookbook (HarperCollins)
Inventive cuisines (HarperCollins)
While it's wonderful to now have more than recipe guides to choose from in the Indian food section of the bookstore, most fans of food literature may still find the choices a bit lean. We're ready and waiting for accessible discourses on the act of eating, dining and cooking. We hoping for biographies on khichdi, sorpotel, prasaad and the samosa by Indians, not foreigners going nuts over curry and spice. "We need a lot more to happen," says Mita Kapur, author of The F-Word and founder of the Siyahi literary agency. "...Food anthologies and literature such as Drinking, Smoking and S**ewing by Bob Shacochis, My Life in France by Julia Child, and Poor Man's Feast by Elissa Altman. We need to hone our food critics, poke them a little more to get under the skin of food, ingredients and flavours."
From HT Brunch, March 23
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