Cooking, it is clear, is one of most popular Covid-19-quarantine activities. Since the lockdown, Facebook and Instagram have been buzzing with images of culinary pursuits. Traffic to cooking websites has soared. Not just amateur cooks but celebrity chefs are also “inviting” fans into their home-kitchens through recipe livestreams. Food and lifestyle platforms have responded with promotions: How to cook at home during coronavirus, Our best recipes and tips for quarantine cooking, or as in the case of this publication, A top Indian chef’s guide to stocking your kitchen during coronavirus lockdown.

Even before the coronavirus-driven spurt in culinary content, the internet had transformed the ways in which we thought about food. Yet, printed cookbooks have survived, and in fact thrive in the digital age. This, as The New Yorker’s food correspondent Helen Rosner says, is because cookbooks reinvented themselves. “What once were primarily vehicles for recipes became anything but: the recipes still mattered, but now they existed in service of something more – a mood, a place, a technique, a voice.”

When it comes to Indian food, even a small sample of books that have made it to international bestseller lists over the past two decades showcase the subcontinent’s culinary riches: Niloufer Ichaporia King’s My Bombay Kitchen is at once a collection of traditional and modern Parsi recipes, a memoir, and a community history. Pushpesh Pant’s tome India: The Cookbook may appear like a more conventional cookbook but turning over its crisply-designed pages and inviting photographs gives the reader more than just a glimpse into the diversity of Indian cuisine.

And the more recent, multi-authored Dishoom recreates a culinary, literary, and visual walk through Mumbai’s streets. The modern cookbook, now more than ever before, is a literary genre, a cultural artefact.

The modern cookbook, now more than ever before, is a literary genre. Credit:

In India, some of the earliest printed recipe books became popular in the 19th century and were written for Anglo-Indians, the term used for the British settled there. While recipes were recorded in the precolonial era, these were in manuscript form, their production and use restricted to very elite, mostly royal settings. Even then, unlike our contemporary cookbooks, entire books containing only recipes, were rare: the late 15th-century Persian work Nimatnama from the Malwa sultanate and Supa Shastra or Science of Cooking, composed around the same period by a Jain king from the present-day Karnataka region, are some known examples of collections that contain recipes for food as well as aphrodisiacs and health potions.

Prescriptions for what people could and should eat as also recipes were more often assimilated into texts produced for broader purposes. For instance, the 16th-century work, Ain-i-Akbari, is primarily a record of Mughal emperor Akbar’s administration. But this compendium also contains sections on the management of various branches of the imperial kitchens and describes recipes that range from simple everyday items like khichdi and saag or greens and richer dishes including a saffron infused lamb biryani and halwa made in ghee. The Emperor, it seems, liked to oversee the management of every part of his empire.

Coloniser and colonised

The Anglo-Indian cookbooks, printed in multiple copies, brought the “modern” recipe format to Indian kitchens. Over the course of the 19th century, these books would define and redefine the ways in which the English household in India functioned and what the Anglo-Indians would eat. The expansion of colonial rule in the 1800s, and deepening racial divide in the post-1857 era, coincided with the convenience of travel introduced by steam navigation.

This meant more English women made their way to India in the late 19th century. It was then that a spate of cookbooks and household management guides intended to assist newly-arrived British women in running their households also appeared. Unlike their British counterparts, the striking feature of Anglo-Indian cookbooks was that they were intended not so much to teach Anglo-Indian women – and sometimes single men – to cook, but instead to be skillful managers and supervisors of their kitchens, and more importantly of the Indian servants who worked in them.

A page from Nimmatnama-i-Nasiruddin-Shahi which documents the art of making kheer. Credit: Wikipedia

“Virtually no one in the Anglo-Indian community cooked,” writes historian Mary Procinda in an essay on Anglo-Indian domesticity. But they did eat elaborate meals and maintain large homes. Anglo-Indian cookbooks gave detailed advice on teaching Indian cooks how to prepare European dishes, and on managing the household sternly but with minimum effort. Flora Annie Steele and Grace Gardiner’s extremely popular 45-chapter tome, The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook, which saw multiple print editions from 1888, notes, “it must be understood that it is not necessary, or in the least degree desirable that an educated woman should waste the best years of her life in scolding and petty supervision.”

Even so, Steele and Gardiner – both of whom were wives of British civil servants – counsel, “A few days or absence or neglect on the part of the mistress, results in the servants falling into their old habits.”

The earliest interactions between the British and the Indians had resulted in a hybrid cuisine including dishes like mulligatawny soup, kedgeree, pish-pash, and above all, curry. But the growing divide between the rulers and the ruled in the late 19th century also revealed themselves in cuisine and cookbooks. Cookbooks, as their users, began to show a clear preference for cooking English and European food in India.

The Complete Indian Housekeeper is squarely European in culinary bent, including recipes for soups, salads, sandwiches, as well as multiple entrees and desserts. Another, somewhat earlier work, Dainty Dishes for an Indian Table from 1879, was also published in Urdu characters so as to teach the servants to cook European dishes correctly. Sample menus printed at the end of Dainty Dishes – a book that contained over 400 pages of recipes – included dishes like Quenelle soup, vol-au-vent of oysters, Dresden patties, Russian pudding, and souffles.

The famous Indian “curry”, recognised as a product of the interaction between English housewives and their Indian cooks, met with a mixed response in the Anglo-Indian household. For example, the authors of The Complete Indian Housekeeper sound somewhat resentful about a chapter entitled Native Dishes: “The following native dishes have been added by request” and warn that these dishes are “inordinately greasy and sweet”.

But they also acknowledge that the Indian dishes – “burtas”, “dal”, “dal pooree”, “kidgeree” and “pilau”, among others – “your native cooks know how to make them fairly well.” The book also contains recipes in other sections for curry fish; Ferozepore cake, made with almonds, pistachios, and green limes; and condiments like mango and sultana chutni. This columnist was particularly intrigued by “Eggs A la Byculla” – poached eggs eaten on “circles of fried toast soaked in a gravy to which some curry powder has been added”.

The authors instruct the reader to “dish eggs on them [the toasts] with a boned anchovy curled on each”. Somewhat more open-minded than The Complete Indian Housekeeper, perhaps because it was published nearly a decade earlier, Dainty Dishes includes entire chapters on curry powders, curries and “pelaus” or pilaus.

The new elite

After the British readers, the next audience for printed cookbooks were the emerging Indian elite and middle-class households during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. If the cookbooks for British ladies were about managing the servants, the ones written explicitly for Indians were guides for women on how to run the kitchen and prepare food hands on. As Jayanta Sengupta, historian and head of Kolkata’s Victoria Memorial Hall, remarks, “these cookbooks were a part of the larger discourse that sought to limit women’s roles to those of wife, mother, and homemaker.”

For instance, Pak-Pranali, meaning Cooking Techniques, a Bengali monthly magazine published from 1883 that was entirely dedicated to cooking, “aimed to teach ‘modern’ women the culinary skills allegedly lost through education and refinement”. Similarly, as the male author of the Hindi cookbook, Pak Chandrika wrote in the preface to the 1926 text: “the dedication and purity with which family women prepare food and feed their households, this can never be expected from a paid cook.”

In other words, in contrast to British women – the “memsahibs” who hardly entered their kitchens – the ideal Indian wife’s virtues lay in the exact opposite ability to be a skillful home-manager and cook.

Indian language cookbooks were distinctive in the regional diversity of cuisines they showcased. Indian society was rapidly changing from the late 19th century: nationalist politics was on the rise, people were more conscious of regional and community identities, cities were more populated. The fast expanding print media – newspapers, magazines, and books – also facilitated these transformations. The evolution was reflected in the cooking traditions as well. Meherbai Jamshedji Wadia’s Vividha Vaani (the subtitle for which was Pakwaan Banvavanu Pustak, or, A book for cooking), a Gujarati work first published in the 1890s, featured a wide variety of traditional Parsi dishes; Pranasundari Devi’s Amish o Niramish Ahar (Non-vegetarian and vegetarian cuisine) from 1900 focused on Bengali cuisine; and Laksmibai Dhurandare’s 1910 volume, Gruhinimitra Athava Hajar Pak Kriya (Housewife’s Friend or Thousand Cooking Methods) is considered one of the earliest cookbooks of the modern variety written in Marathi.

This trend towards showcasing regional and community cuisines continued even in later decades: Rasachandrika, a book sponsored by the Sarawat Mahila Samaj or Saraswat Women’s Association, was published in the 1940s.

Like so much of society, the colonial encounter transformed India’s self-image of its own cooking traditions. The Indian elite first copied, then adapted these forms. The cookbooks also kicked-off the process of a more mixed “Indian” cuisine. For example, Gruhinimitra includes Mughal-inspired dishes like biryani. Similarly, in Bengal, Sengupta writes, the elite Hindu woman’s “expected culinary repertoire displayed an eclectic, communal mix, granting Islam its rightful place on the bhadralok’s table”. Moreover, many such cookbooks including, Vividha Vaani, Gruhinimitra and Rasachandrika included European dishes especially cakes, jellies, and puddings.

The growing divide between the rulers and the ruled revealed themselves in cuisine and cookbooks. Credit:

Persisting inequalities

What the Mughal, Anglo-Indian, later Indian, and today’s digital avatars of cookbooks all have in common is that they are produced for a tiny fraction of elites. Journalist Shahu Patole’s 2015 book Anna He Apoornabrahma or Food is an Incomplete Creation, which chronicles Marathwada-Dalits’ food history in Marathi, is an exception but also a stark reminder that we have not yet fully begun the much-needed documentation of culinary traditions marginalised for centuries.

The historic inequities of the Indian kitchens and households – and those around the world – are not just about the uneven burdens in the role of women and men. These spaces are also rife with caste and class biases –a fact not hidden from even the decidedly elite concerns of online Indian food discussions. A small but significant reminder came just recently in the form of a controversial advertisement for an electric atta and bread maker. The ad’s claim that a “maid’s” hands used to knead dough, could be infected, while in contrast, the advertised appliance, would ensure purity and hygiene, revealed the deep prejudices that still shape contemporary India’s kitchens. The social media outrage it drew forced the CEO to apologise and pull back the ad.

Next time we settle down to watch our favourite star chef’s latest Instagram livestream, it is important to remember that our engagement with the subcontinent’s cooking and eating traditions and history are still very shallow. This does not entirely limit the range of food we might discover, but it does severely gloss over the shadow of purity and caste that is as much a part of our culinary history as its extraordinary diversity.

Aparna Kapadia is a historian of South Asia at Williams College in the US. She is the author of In Praise of Kings: Rajputs, Sultans and Poets in Fifteenth-Century Gujarat.