Wherever you turn in India today, heritage food seems to abound.

From Amritsar to Chennai, food festivals are bringing delicacies from various regions, cities and neighbourhoods to a general public hungry for food with provenance. At local cultural events such as the Sanchaari Sanskritik Parv in Allahabad and the Mahindra Sanatkada Lucknow Festival, audiences are treated to morsels of food history and traditional cuisine alongside literature, music, cinema and dance.

If you are on the five-star circuit, you may be drawn into luxury restaurants showcasing the finest dishes from historic royal courts. Last September, the Conrad Pune celebrated the “royal flavours of Rampur” with a special dinner curated by Chef Suroor Khan. On the menu were “lost recipes” from the glory days of the former princely state. Visit the ITC website and you’ll read about the hotel group’s “relentless pursuits in presenting the gastronomic traditions of India’s centuries old heritage” through signature restaurants such as Dum Pukht and Dakshin.

More accessible eateries have turned history into franchise. The famous Karim’s Hotel opened near the Jama Masjid in old Delhi in 1913, when the British Empire was still in its heyday. But, since branching into Nizamuddin West in the 1990s, it has spread across Delhi-National Capital Region, taking its famous kebabs everywhere. History is also a part of newer restaurants such as Naimat Khana in Lucknow, which are bringing heirloom recipes passed down generations to the table.

Reliving history

There are growing opportunities to carry historic flavours into your own home too. Browse the shelves of your local bookshop and you will be treated to lush cookbooks promising the best recipes from the “last thousand years” of India’s rich culinary heritage. Neha Prasada and Ashima Narains’s Dining with the Maharajas, published by Roli, even provides a handy, paperback “kitchen copy” of recipes. This means you can recreate a royal banquet at home without messing up the lavish illustrations of the coffee-table book.

Increasingly, recipes come with memories attached. A delightful example of this is Daastan-e-Dastarkhan (2019) by MasterChef India contender Sadaf Hussain. Combining “stories and recipes from Muslim kitchens”, it embeds “easy-to-follow” instructions for mouth-watering dishes within an autobiographical account of his culinary journey from Bihar to Delhi and beyond.

One difficulty in recreating historic recipes can be the availability of ingredients. India’s Green Revolution in mid-20th century increased rice productivity by around 50%. But, as government programmes pushed high-yielding varieties, so the number of India’s rice varieties dwindled from over 100,000 to a few thousand. Now, heirloom rice is making a comeback buoyed by concerns over biodiversity, obesity, nutrition and, of course, taste. Handy online providers bring it straight from the farmers to your door.

There is plenty in India’s heritage food boom for armchair aficionados too. A major series, Raja, Rasoi aur Anya Kahaniyaan, originally shown on Indian channel EPIC, was bought by Netflix because of the runaway success of its first 11-part season in 2014. Taking a regional approach to Indian cuisine, the show claims to offer an “inside look” into the kitchens of India’s former royals. If you prefer the written word to the moving image, you can read the writings of bloggers and journalists, who have also hit on food heritage as a means of exploring local cultures and mediating difference.

Deeper dive

And yet, as one Delhi-based columnist and blogger Sourish Bhattacharya noted in Mail Today in 2015, much of the hype around “lost recipes” and “heritage cuisine” in India remains mere “chatter”. Practitioners have been successful at transmitting heritage food into the public domain. However, to do more than “scratch the surface”, they need bona fide historians. In other words, trained scholars are required to gather oral testimony and mine the archives for original texts to provide historical meaning and texture.

That brings me from heritage food to the world of academic food history. Here there is a broad array of scholarship that addresses the preparation, consumption and distribution of food in historical context. As Concordia professor Rachel Berger observed in History Compass, food history is only just beginning to coalesce as a defined area of study in South Asia. But the potentials for understanding the past’s relationship to India’s present are clear.

For heritage food to achieve its full potential, we need to open up channels of communication between practitioners and scholars. This exchange is at the heart of the project “Forgotten Food: Culinary Memory, Local Heritage and Lost Agricultural Varieties in India”, funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council in the United Kingdom. Bringing food historians, sociologists, literary scholars and plant scientists into dialogue with heritage practitioners, authors, cooks and street vendors, our project seeks to address challenges linked to local communities and food sustainability in India.

And, in the process, we may recover some great recipes and delicious food too.

Siobhan Lambert-Hurley is Professor of Global History at the University of Sheffield. She leads the project “Forgotten Food: Culinary Memory, Local Heritage and Lost Agricultural Varieties in India” funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council in the United Kingdom. Her most recent book is Elusive Lives: Gender, Autobiography and the Self in Muslim South Asia (2018).

This article is part of the project “Forgotten Food: Culinary Memory, Local Heritage and Lost Agricultural Varieties in India”, curated by Tarana Khan and edited by Siobhan Lambert Hurley and Claire Chambers.

Read all the articles in the series here.