Cookbooks today reveal a sense of nostalgia and a desire to preserve a past getting all-the-more distant moment by pandemic moment. Curiously, very similar – or at least comparable – anxieties and desires propelled the rush of cookbooks in the early 20th century. Hindi cookbooks from this period allow us to talk about a neglected cooking tradition that was the mainstay of upper-caste Hindu vegetarian cookery half a century ago.

Cookbooks also allow us to converse with the voices traditionally not heard. For example, a mid-20th century cookbook written by Vrindeshvari Devi, entitled Saras Bhojan Kaise Banayen, or How to Cook Tasteful Food, leads us into the intricacies of sattvik cooking: a form of kosher vegetarian cooking style that abjures onion, garlic and tomato, and similar “foreign” ingredients.

Drawing on some of the classical Hindu Ayurvedic and scriptural texts, this culinary philosophy understands food as made up of three intrinsic characteristics or gunas: virtuous/cool (såttvika), passionate/fiery (råjas) and dark or decadent (tåmas).

A relationship is thus posited between the character of the food ingested and the character and wellbeing of the person ingesting it in this life and the next. The recipes detailed in Devi’s cookbook are not listed in contemporary commercial menus, but it is obvious that the culinary tradition that Devi recorded was the subject of many Hindi cookbooks written in the first half of the 19th century. In their mundane unassuming manner, the inclusions and exclusions in these cookbooks went on to define the contours of a culturally “pure” comestible identity.

Even by the mid-20th century, writing a home cookbook and getting it printed was an atypical venture in Uttar Pradesh. Hindi publishing blossomed from the early 20th century, as a robust print culture emerged in premier cities like Banaras, Allahabad – now called Prayagraj – Lucknow, Kanpur, and Agra. Though this print endeavour was focused on the agenda of national, social and literary reform, a trickle-down effect was seen in the proliferation of small commercial presses.

These publishing houses offered rather more pleasurable, if ephemeral, publishing: almanacs, barahmasas, or songs of seasons, novellas, religious literature, advice manuals and, of course, cookbooks.

The high print run of some of these cookbooks attests that there was a demand for this literature. Most first editions produced at least 1,000 copies, while the more successful ones – Yashoda Devi’s Grihani Kartavya Arthat Pakshastra (1913) and Pak Chandrika (1926), for example – ran into four editions, and sold 6,000 copies each.

From the second half of the 19th century, the Uttar Pradesh towns – with their declining feudal shurfa culture – were spaces for the emergence of a new elite. Print histories have also documented the growing prowess of mercantile Hindu communities and their contribution to a burgeoning print output. The Hindi cookbooks expressly catered to the upwardly mobile Hindu middle classes, grounded as they were in a culture of thrift and evangelical vegetarianism.

In their eschewing of the “excess” associated with elite Muslim cuisine, we see the familiar orientation and identification towards a prescriptive nationalism, already so evident in the literary and journalistic endeavours of the early 20th century in most Indian languages.

The cover of Saras Bhojan Kaise Banayen from 1955.

Home and the women’s world

Women and their world formed a central focus of this printing output, so much so that Francesca Orsini of the SOAS University of London has perceptively termed such texts striupyogi sahitya – texts useful for women. Addressed to largely middle-class, upper-caste women, striupyogi texts were anchored in idealised domesticity advocating Hindu reformism.

This normative literature, meant to educate, guide and school the young girl into a prospective grihalaxmi, or housewife, listed cooking as their primary duty. These Hindi cookbooks were thus diadactic, anxious texts, negotiating the tensions emerging from modernity and its impact on age-old practices. The questions they raised about self and community, tradition and reform were posed through changes in culinary culture.

Most cookbooks start with a lament about how traditional cooking was being devalued. They proceed to criticise new dishes, novel culinary techniques and fads, and by extension the “new woman”. It appears as if the purpose of these cookbooks was to preserve and record conventional cooking, rather than teach unfamiliar recipes. What we find in these cookbooks is a conscious attempt to keep domestic diets habitual and unadventurous. Even as printed cookbooks were symbolic of the change that was inevitable, there was a reluctance to let that change enter the kitchen.

Whether penned by men or women, Hindi cookbooks regularly guided women into the kitchen – especially urban educated women, allegedly in danger of freeing themselves from the traditional culinary drudgery.

Pakraj, a cookbook printed in 1908, baldly stated that women should be taught cooking rather than any other skill. Pak Chandrika, a massive tome on vegetarian cookery from 1926, nostalgically remembers “olden times” when young girls were initiated into cooking and domesticity through their childhood play-acting. The present degenerate condition of the Hindu family, and by extension, the Indian nation, was supposedly due to the growing uninterest in traditional cooking practices among women.

Pak Chandrika cautioned that Hindu men were led astray into the suspect pleasures of street food cooked by unclean and unknown hands, primarily because their modern wives were uninterested or unable to cook wholesome and tasty food.

The cover of Pak Chandrika from 1926.

Women writers embraced education for women, as long as their primary role in the kitchen was not compromised or neglected. The indulgent mother Vrindeshwari Devi exhorted her young daughter to not neglect her domestic duties despite her education, for “we women cannot live by bookish knowledge only. Our main job is to run our houses, and in that, the main work is to cook. If someone comes home hungry and thirsty and is offered a reading from a book rather than food, then … he will only abuse rather than compliment the educated girl.”

Srimati Jyotirmayi Thakur, who wrote on home management, combined the twin foci of a woman’s life in her book Gharelu Shiksha tatha Pakshashtra – Home and Cooking Science, 1945. Similarly. Yashoda Devi, a famous medical practitioner and a prolific author, advocated ayurvedically sound culinary practice as a panacea for ill-health in Grihani Kartavya Shastra, Arogyashastra arthat Pakshastra – The Duties of a Housewife, Medical Science alias Cooking Science, 1913.

Textures of the local

What was being cooked in these vegetarian cookbooks? The overlap between cookbooks and ayurvedic advice manuals with cooking as a central practice is too obvious to be missed. An almost therapeutic diet was advocated – with great importance placed on the bio-moral focus of cuisine, dietary habits and daily routine. This is to be expected in the cookbooks authored by ayurvedic practitioners like Yashoda Devi, but it is found even in family cookbooks like Saras Bhojan.

Hindu gastronomic theories and ayurvedic principles about food, cooking and eating were naturalised as a universally understood template. Thus sections on dals, vegetables or spices would start by detailing their humoral properties and their hot or cold taaseer, or inherent nature, before going on to suggest spices to balance these effects.

For example, Yashoda Devi spelt out the different outcomes of cooking fresh radish leaves: “When made without roasting, it increases kaph and pitt, but when fried in oil it neutralises the three humours [tri-dosh comprising kaph, pitt and vat].”

The cover of Grihini Kartavya Shastra Arthat Pakshastra from 1913.

The primary food classification used in these sattvik cookbooks was a distinction between kaccha khana and pakka khana. Certain cookbooks like Saras Bhojan adhere to this classification straightaway, but even in others, this distinction is implicitly maintained.

Kachcha khana, cooked in water, is supposedly the purest form of food, and also the most liable to ritual contamination. This is why it is to be shared only with close family members, within the confines of the domestic hearth or chauka. Pakka khana, fried in ghee or oil, is more ritually stable and is the food shared during feasts and festivities.

At its most elemental, this distinction is rooted in the rules of commensality that were designed for maintaining ritual and comestible distance from lower castes and Muslims.

The difference between rasdar and sukhi sabzi, or wet and dry preparations, was another central typology. The ras was a lighter watery gravy, at times with a base of dahi, seasoned with jeera, or cumin, laung, or cloves, and red chillies. However, depending upon the primary vegetable, the melange of spices and tempering changed; for example, brinjal was to be tempered with methi dana, or fenugreek seeds, radish leaves with ajwain, or caraway seeds, and cauliflower with asafoetida, or hing, and ginger.

Onions and garlic were extolled for their ayurvedic properties but never used as cooking bases for vegetarian curries and sauces. The most common tempering remained ghee, cumin and asafoetida, to which was added turmeric and coriander powder. Asafoetida is the substitute for garlic and its use is often a ready reckoner for identifying a culinary tradition as Hindu or Muslim.

Most recipes used locally available ingredients. Everyday dishes were categorised as shaak, or leafy vegetables, kand, or tubers, phal, or fruits, and phool, or flowers. Some of these have gone out of fashion now, and there is little remembrance of forgotten vegetables like dhendas, pindalu, noniya, chuka, and marsa, which appeared regularly across various cookbooks.

Some familiar vegetables appeared with their forgotten names, like karamkalla, which is known today as cabbage, or bhis, which is another name for lotus stem. The souring agent for curries was curd, dry mango powder, or amchur, and lemon being utilised for drier preparations. Though the tomato had entered the culinary repertoire of the region by the 1920s, it was not used as a souring agent yet.

Rarer still was the use of Indian cottage cheese – chhena or paneer – not really favoured in sattvik cooking due to the curdling of milk required to produce it. When included, dishes made of paneer are found mentioned under milk recipes and cooked without the ubiquitous onion–garlic–tomato base that has become the mainstay of contemporary vegetarian cookery.

Sattvik food today

It is a given that cuisines and cooking cultures are fluid artefacts, meaning that attempts to contain them in one straitjacket have rarely been successful. Building boundaries around Hindu and Muslim culinary traditions did not quite succeed in the manner anticipated by the Hindi cookbooks.

Though many of these recipes are still cooked daily in homes in Uttar Pradesh, the flavour principle and cooking technique has been completely transformed with the entry of “new world” ingredients such as tomato, chillies, sago and corn. Thicker curries and sauces are favoured now over thin gruel-like rasdar sabzis.

Sattvik food, the everyday fare of a century ago, is now primarily cooked during religious festivals, and appears more as a forgotten archive of an ancient culinary tradition – found only within the pages of old Hindi cookbooks. Given below is the recipe for a sattvik doodh ki sabzi – a proto-avatar of the paneer curry that has become a staple vegetarian delight.

Doodh ki sabzi

1. Boil milk and use lemon to curdle it.

2. Hang the chhena in a cloth to drain all water. This needs to be hung for at least two hours to be well drained. Cut the chhena into pieces.

3. In a pateeli prepare a tempering of ghee and cloves and put the chhena pieces in.

4. Lower the flame.

5. Add salt, turmeric, red chillies, and coriander powder mixed with a little water.

6. Clean and wash some raisins and add them to the dish.

7. Remove from fire when the gravy is done.

Saumya Gupta is an Associate Professor in History at Janki Devi Memorial College, University of Delhi, and a Fellow at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (2021-’23). Her research focuses on urban social history, partition studies and north Indian foodways.

This article is part of the project ‘Forgotten Food: Culinary Memory, Local Heritage and Lost Agricultural Varieties in India’. The series is curated by Tarana Husain Khan and edited by Siobhan Lambert Hurley and Claire Chambers. It has been funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund through the Arts & Humanities Research Council in the United Kingdom.