A paper route to the plate- The New Indian Express

A paper route to the plate- The New Indian Express

  23 Dec 2023

Express News Service

In the bustling pace of today’s digital world, where the Internet reigns as our all-encompassing resource, there’s a treasure often overlooked — humble handwritten recipes and comforting cookbooks, lovingly preserved within the four walls of our homes. When we immerse ourselves in the measurements and ingredients in these pages, we are surrounded by the culinary wisdom of cooks from the past, the guidance of those in the present, and the enduring legacy of closely guarded family traditions. This intimate connection to our roots cannot be replicated by the sea of recipes available on the web.

Tasty tributes

American writer Laurie Colwin’s quote ‘No one who cooks, cooks alone’ resonates deeply with Sunanda Vasudevan, who is currently pursuing her master’s degree in Graphic Design in Visual Experience in Georgia, USA. She sustains herself with the solace of her grandmother Vijayalakshmi Ranganathan’s self-published cookbook Unavu Vagaigalum, Thayarippu Muraigalum to satiate her cravings for home food.

Sundanda recalls the festival days when their landline would be abuzz with loved ones seeking her grandma’s guidance, who had jotted down the measurements in red and blue ink, safeguarding these heirloom recipes. With a large family and numerous recipe requests, the family meticulously transcribed her handwritten notes into English. This collaboration gave life to the recipes, and they managed to sell more than 1,000 copies. They priced the book at a nominal `60, using the proceeds to support a charitable cause.

“My grandma passed away in her early 70s, but her love knew no bounds. She would personally sign and gift each copy to every new bride with vethalai and paaku, blessing them. My thatha, TA Ranganathan, affectionately known as TAR, worked for the AGS office, and everyone associated that name with the privilege of savouring grandma’s handmade food. Her book is the Bible for our family and friends. To this day, I carry copies with me when I travel abroad,” says Sundanda who feels the closest to her paati when she cooks her recipes.

Echoing a similar feeling is Dhwani Sabesh. Dhwani and her family’s love language has always been food. Recounting a heartwarming family gesture when her maternal grandmother passed away, she says, “We photocopied our Sarasa paati’s recipes and compiled them into a booklet, a cherished memento shared with everyone. These recipes became a part of their beloved paati, forever etching her memory in the hearts and kitchens of the family.” She coauthored Paati’s Rasam, a children’s picture book, with her mother Janaki Sabesh, a well-known actor and storyteller, to drive home the memories and recipes of her culinary showstopper — delicious, piping hot rasam.

Tried and tasted

The charm of cookbooks was more than just the recipes. The tactile experience brought warmth and nostalgia and served as a portal to the past. Now, who knows this better than Sabita Radhakrishna, a food historian and the cookbook author of Annapurni — Heritage Cuisine from Tamil Nadu, Aharam… Traditional Cuisine of Tamil Nadu, Paachakam: Heritage Cuisine of Kerala and more.

At the age of 18, as a young bride, Sabita’s cooking skills were far from proficient. However, she found a lifeline in snail mail, where her mother sent cherished handwritten recipes, bearing the stains of turmeric and love. “Determined to preserve these treasures, I decided to collect and document them. A pivotal moment arrived when UBI Publishing commissioned me to create a cookbook encompassing the traditional cuisines of the four southern states. My mission was clear: to craft a cookbook that was practical, straightforward, and true to the original recipes. I measure my success by the feedback of my readers, young and old,” says Sabita, who painstakingly standardised and tested each recipe to ensure it tasted just as her mother had prepared it. The result was Aharam…Traditional Cuisine of Tamil Nadu, which won the Gourmand award for the category Best Local Cookery Book in India for the year 2002, sparking Sabita’s subsequent writing ventures. Currently, she’s on a mission to document 150 recipes, with the majority being her mother’s tried and tested dishes.

Among the many followers of Sabita’s works is Muhilann Murugan, a pastry shop owner who embarked on his recipe collection journey just three years ago when he received Sabita’s cookbook as a gift. It ignited his culinary passion; offering more than just recipes, it connected him to a community-based cooking experience, where each dish was enriched with stories and tidbits. “What made Sabita amma’s cookbooks truly special was their ability to provide not only ingredients and instructions but also a profound understanding of the technical aspects of cooking, making it an enriching and educational journey. Besides recipes, cookbooks of those days also carry pin kurippugal (tips), random scribbles, and kolams. That’s what makes them truly special and personal. Collecting recipes from loved ones is also a way of maintaining relationships,” explains Muhilann.

Culinary chronicles

Cookbook enthusiasts remain staunch advocates of the enduring authenticity that printed cookbooks have maintained over time, refusing to be drowned out by the constant noise of YouTube videos and Instagram reels.

Aparna Raghavan’s job took her to rural areas. An unexpected but delightful consequence of it was a growing affection for regional cuisine. “My husband and I are avid collectors of cookbooks. We are currently experimenting with Marathi recipes from Pangat, a Feast. Personally, internet recipes don’t appeal to me; cookbooks are reliable, accurate, and lasting. They simplify recipe replication, eliminating the need to juggle multiple versions of the same dish in your mind. Back then, cookbooks were also a way of introducing a family to a cuisine other than its own,” notes Aparna, who remembers her mother compiling recipes from various editions of Ananda Vikatan.

Aparna’s periamma, married to a defence officer, introduced her family to Punjabi cuisine and other north Indian recipes using paneer. “The word ‘authentic’ has lost some of its luster in the modern culinary landscape, diluted by overuse. I go for works by seasoned cooks like Mallika Badrinath and Chef Damu. Sometimes, I’d even try out a recipe or two from the Kindle version of their books and if it works out then it will be a part of my collection. There is always trustworthiness for recipes tried, tested, and perfected over time,” she adds.

In most South Indian households, cookbooks are an intrinsic part of growing up, with seasoned authors like Meenakshi Ammal (Samaithu Paar) and Tarla Dalal providing the foundation for culinary exploration. Dhwani’s love affair with cookbooks began with a thoughtful gift from her best friend, a Nigella Lawson cookbook adorned with postits indicating the must-try recipes. Since then, her collection has grown to a staggering 51 cookbooks. “One of the joys of owning cookbooks is discovering recipes you’d never have stumbled upon online. With vibrant examples like Yotam Ottolenghi’s mango and aubergine salad with soba noodles, cookbooks inspire experimentation and creativity in the kitchen. My friend gifted me a personalised cookbook for my birthday featuring all my comfort foods. That’s my go-to book even now,” she fondly shares.

Cookbooks not only enhance personal cooking but also serve as cultural archives for lesser-known communities. Sumaiya Mustafa, a writer based in Kayalpattinam, emphasises that it’s the intent, rather than the mode of documentation, that truly matters. She highlights how recipes reflect lived experiences, providing insights into the rich history of trade and the fusion of culinary traditions in her coastal town. “Despite the culinary wealth of Tamil Muslims, particularly in Kayalpat t inam, remaining largely undiscovered, there’s a plethora of unexplored recipes beyond the stereotypes of biryani and kebabs. Representation and understanding are crucial to unveil the hidden treasures of this cuisine, often closely guarded within the community. Unfortunately, there aren’t many cookbooks that have our heirloom recipes,” adds Sumaiya, who writes extensively about microcultures and culinary practices and has a keen interest in Indian Ocean history. In a mission to spread the word about her coastal town, she’s been passionately compiling stories about people, food, and the culture of Kayalpattinam on her Instagram page, @readingtv.

Traditionalists like Sabita deem cookbooks essential for those seeking a profound journey into the culinary arts, rigorous research, and the preservation of culinary legacies. Her personal cookbook collection narrates the tale of her lifelong culinary exploration, a passion she eagerly shares with others who appreciate their worth.

As we traverse the everchanging culinary landscape, it’s essential to recognise that not all recipes are foolproof, and there will be successes and failures. Nevertheless, cookbooks will forever maintain a cherished position in the hearts of many, serving as revered custodians of the culinary heritage that enhances our lives.

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