Young foodies in Mumbai are curating their communites’ long-lost recipes, reviving old food traditions and sharing tales of their food culture with thousands via the internet.
It was only when Harshaja Ajinkya married into the Pathare Prabhu community in 2008 that she realised how little she knew about the cuisine and food culture of this sub-community.
“I am a Maharashtrian too, but much of their food was new to me,” she says. “Just their basic masala mix has over a dozen ingredients. And they have very unique food traditions during the Diwali and Ganeshotsav festivals.”
As she began to find her way around the unique culture, the 32-year-old dentist decided to document its recipes and food tales online.
Eighteen months on, Ajinkya’s blog (recipes.pathareprabhu.com) and Facebook page together feature more than 150 posts — including community specials like the kaju puran poli made on festive occasions.
Among her Facebook fans is Priya Jhunjhunwala, 34, a foodie and social media marketer from Bhandup.
“I found out about the group through a friend,” she says. “I am not from the community, but I have been trying out recipes like the shingdi or baked karanji because they are so unique, and healthy as well.”
Ajinkya, for her part, is drawing on traditional kitchen secrets and heirloom recipes to create what is effectively an archive of a rare cuisine.
“I got the shingdi recipe from my mother-in-law’s aunt. It’s been in the family for generations,” she says.
Ajinkya may not know it, but she’s part of a new breed of amateur archivists using the Web to create repositories of niche or disappearing cuisines, heirloom recipes and kitchen secrets.
In multicultural Mumbai, her counterparts include Kalina’s executive assistant Sybil Rodrigues, 46, who is collecting East Indian recipes and sharing them on a Facebook page; Juhu food entrepreneur Gitika Saikia, 37, who is collecting north-eastern recipes on a blog; Malad-based web designer Pinank B Shah, 33, of e-venture Goosebump Pickles, who is holding a contest for the quirkiest pickle recipes from home chefs across India, all of which will then be posted online; and Dadar-based caterer and food blogger Perzen Patel, 28, whose digital archive of Parsi families’ recipes was launched last August.
For many, it was discovering hidden aspects of their own culture that made them realise what was disappearing or staying undiscovered. Sharing elements online led them to discover how much interest there is in niche cuisines and recipes among the city, and the country’s, growing number of foodies.
Encouraged by the response, some, like Patel, are travelling to homes in Gujarat to note down recipes for classic Parsi dishes; others, like Rodrigues, are carrying out informal surveys among neighbours to find the best recipe for the traditional, deep-fried fugia bread.
For many, the process of exploring the food also becomes a means of exploring the culture.
“In Gujarat, as I traced the roots of our recipes, I also found myself retracing the steps of our community and hearing and retelling a sort of oral history of how the recipes came about,” says Patel. “One woman, for instance, told me how the cooking and eating of egg chutney patties had played a big role in her courtship with her husband.”
For Ajinkya too, the recipes became a means of exploring her husband’s heritage. “I didn’t know, for instance, how heavily Rajasthani and Gujarati food influence Pathare Prabhu cuisine, because of their history of migration from Rajasthan over 500 years ago,” she says.
On the plate
* Sybil Rodrigues, 46, executive assistant from Kalina
Rare East Indian recipes, food photos on Facebook
Rodrigues, 46, logs on to Facebook every day, posting either an old recipe, maybe for duck moile, or pictures of utensils such as the netli maker, which is used to fry anchovies. She also posts the stories of how she got the recipes and photographs, harking back to aunts, grandparents and neighbours in her community. Her page, East Indian Cuisine, has 800 followers.
“I started typing up and posting the recipes in early 2014, mainly for myself, since I love to cook. Facebook was an easy place to store everything — notes, photos tips from relatives,” she says. “Then other people started showing an interest and I started posting more often, seeking out special community recipes from other families too.”
Now, others are contributing to her page too. Like Anthony D’Mello, 43, a software engineer from Chembur and a foodie. He shared his grandmother’s recipe for bangda or mackerel masala, last August. “It’s a traditional dish,” D’Mello says. “But I hadn’t had it since I was a child. When I saw the Facebook page, I immediately called my grandmother, who was very happy to share the recipe with me — though she did insist I wouldn’t be able to make it as well as she does.”
* Perzen Patel, 28, caterer and food blogger from Dadar
Tracing Parsi bhonu to its roots
Perzen Patel married in June 2013 and soon realised she didn’t know enough about traditional Parsi food. “I started asking friends for recipes and realised a lot of young Parsis didn’t know their traditional recipes either,” she says.
Now, the food blogger and cook curates family recipes from across her community on her blog, bawibride.com. She also undertook a project last year called #bestkeptsecrets, which had Parsis from around the world submitting stories of making puranpoli in Muscat, saraswat fruit chaat in times of scarcity, and gossiping over home-made papad in Sindh.
Patel has shared her own heirloom secrets too, including her grandfather’s recipes for kheema kebabs and a traditional dar ni pori recipe from a friend’s mother.
* Gitika Saikia, 37, food entrepreneur from Juhu
Tales and recipes from across the north-east
In the newest entry on her blog, Gitika Saikia describes a visit to an Assamese tribe last October.
“My uncle mentioned Bookajan, a small Mising village nearby,” she writes. When they visited a local home there, the lady of the house treated her to some Mising delicacies. After her account of the visit, Saikia offers a recipe for one of those delicacies — pork with misika leaves.
Saikia has been detailing such lost north-eastern recipes on her blog, gitika.me, since early 2014. “The recipes I collect are not just about the food,” she says. “They’re also about the rich history behind them.”
In another recipe, Saikia details the tradition of koni-jooj (egg-breaking) held every year in Assam. “For that day, we made kumal chaul (par boiled sticky rice) and narikol laru (coconut laddoo),” she says. Saikia’s blog has over 100 such recipes and food tales.
Saikia also now hosts home-cooked meals for pop-ups at her Juhu home, where she serves up heirloom dishes and tells her guests about the traditions behind them.
Vikram Shastri, 22, a Master’s student in literature and a foodie, attended one of these meals, went home and recreated one of the dishes.
“I tried making the pork with mustard greens, with limited success,” he says, laughing. “But it was great to learn about unknown variations and nuances of one of our own Indian cuisines.”
* Pinank B Shah, 33, web designer from Malad
Creating quite a pickle
When Pinank B Shah founded Goosebumps Pickles in 2013, he was surprised at the variety of regional pickles that found favour with customers.
“We started out with a basic menu but soon realised that there was no end to what Indians would relish in a pickle,” he says. “In fact, the business was inspired by my mother-in-law’s traditional recipes for chunda and gor keri.”
As part of an effort to archive the recipes Shah has sampled across India, Goosebumps is now holding a contest inviting people to send in their quirkiest pickle recipe. Shah says he has already received strange combinations “involving a mix of fruits and unusual vegetables”.
The competition, which closes today, will culminate with three winners being chosen. All the quirky recipes received will be archived and showcased on the Goosebumps website, goosebumpspickles.com.
(HT photos: Vidya Subramanian & Satish Bate)