One of the most interesting books in my collection is a slim volume called Anglo-Indian Cookery at Home by Henrietta A Hervey, who describes herself as “the wife of a retired Indian officer”. Published in 1895, it gives us recipes for all sorts of concoctions that had resulted from the collision of two very different worlds in the 19th century: that of the English memshibs and their Muslim khansamas. There are things like Fish Molee, described by Mrs Hervey as a favourite breakfast dish, the mulligatawny amidst other “dholls” and Madras’s pepper water, besides curries and curry powders.

Ball curry, khoormah curry, kabob curry, “dry” (mince) curry…all are carefully calibrated and recorded; a register of a world that interrupted the ponderous Mughal civilisation and abbreviated its laboriously slow-cooked kormas, kebabs, kofte, keemah to “curries”. These curry recipes seem unbearably simplistic compared to their Mughal inspirations, where dum was an art and spices were added in layers to compose a scent sculpture of sorts.

Instead, Mrs Hervey advises: “Get together 2 tablespoon of coriander, six cloves garlic, six red chillies, half ounce ginger, one tablespoon salt. Grind all to a paste. Take two pounds of mutton, mix with paste, mix in two tablespoons butter, two cups milk curds, allspice, and an onion thinly sliced. Put all into a saucepan, simmer, eat with chupatties or flour cakes.” This for a khoormah/korma.

To facilitate this curry in a hurry, there are also recipes for curry powders – different ones for Madras, Bengal and Bombay curry powders, each with about 12-15 ingredients. I have been unable to decipher any logic as to how these were differentiated: Madras contains saffron, Bengal is the hottest with three pounds pepper and two pounds chillies. Bombay gets mustard but not the others, etc etc, for no ostensible reason or basis in local availability or tastes.

The first cookbooks

Memsahib accounts such as these were the first few writings in English on “Indian” cooking, containing recipes, instructions and how-to-manage-servants tips for newcomers to India, or those going back, desiring curry, fashionable in Victorian England.

While these cookbooks detail the emergence of a new cuisine, Anglo-Indian – only vaguely related to the preceding power cuisine of the Mughals, and completely unrelated to complex, seasonal dishes of other regional Indian kitchens – it is astonishing how much these writings in English defined the image of pan-Indian food not just internationally but even within India for much of 20th century.

The memsahib’s gaze on Indian cuisines, as the reductive “curry”, was accepted as defining “Indian food” by the English-speaking elite of the subcontinent even after the Partition. In fact, even today, I come across TV shows and chefs wanting to teach us “curries”, not the Anglo-Indian recipes. This, without any heed to the fact that Indian regional cuisines have an entirely different nomenclature, and ways of classifying, and cooking food.

There are dals, sookhas, rasas, iguru, pulusu, qorma, qaliya, bhuna, and so on – not generic curry. Instead of a homogenisation, differentiation occurs through souring agents and spices. A potato rassa from old Delhi is distinct from Agra’s, for instance, because while Delhi uses fenugreek seeds, Agra’s is pepper-rich. Fish preparations differ from one region to another as souring agents change. This diversity is key to any understanding of Indian cuisines.

Drriad / CC BY-SA

What came earlier

It is interesting to compare “Indian” as seen through the memsahib’s gaze, with earlier accounts in English by Indophiles, earlier in the 19th century before India came under The Crown. Sanford Arnot, in 1831, translated recipes from Persian and Hindustani. His book Indian Cookery, as practiced and described by the natives of the east, part of the royal Asiatic collection, makes no mention of the curry, giving us, instead, detailed recipes of qorma, kebab, do piyazah, pursindah, pulao, and even khagina (Persianised omelette), with measures in maasha, tola and chattank, the units of Mughal India.

This was before the Revolt of 1857, and though Company power had been rising steadily since the Battle of Plassey a century before, Qila-e-Moalla in Delhi was still the exalted fort of a sophisticated composite culture, the emperor within still the figurehead of a culturally rich though politically crumbling state.

Mughal recipes that grew as subcontinental tastes and ingredients merged with influences from Iran (the Persian empire was the medieval world’s dominant cultural powerhouse), khansama hierarchies and arrangement of kitchens had already been recorded in tomes such as the Ain-i-Akbari, and the 15th-century Nimatnama from Malwa. But most of this knowledge was passed down generations orally, and khansamas were as proud of their lineage as emperors.

Other regional cuisines of different communities remained even more insular. Strict caste and religious taboos operated in societies. Where what you ate and who you could eat with were strictly defined.

Some knowledge about a vast and complex culinary culture was recorded through history in works ranging from Buddhist and Jain texts to Sangam literature, accounts such as the 12th century Mansollasa in Sanskrit by the Kalyani Chalukya king Someshvara III, and those like the 16th century Bhojana Kutuhala written on palm leaves in Devanagiri. Many of these gave glimpses of dishes and techniques common throughout the subcontinent, a knowledge of spices linked to Ayurveda, that treats food as medicine, and of a large variety of seasonal ingredients.

However, it was only after KT Achaya’s landmark research produced in Indian Food: A Historical Companion, in 1994 that one could access much of this historical context in English in one place. Achaya delved into diverse religious and secular texts in many languages to compile information on the history of Indian foods right down to the Vedic age.

Modern ‘Indian’ cookbooks

Meanwhile, post Independence, new food writing about Indian food by Indians took its cue from older Anglo-Indian accounts. The colonial gaze is unmistakable in Mrs Balbir Singh’s Indian Cookery, published in 1961.

After a course in cooking at City & Guilds London, Singh came back to Delhi to start immensely popular cooking classes for eligible girls from well-to-do families training for matrimony. Her book details recipes such as kebab croquets and minced meat balls for the eligible bachelorettes. The cuisine seems a mishmash of Mughlai and Punjabi dishes, some with anglicised names. This was the “party cooking” of the new emerging elite of a post Independent India, the kind of food you ate at restaurants such as Kwality and United Coffee House in Delhi, set up in the 1940s.

Madhur Jaffrey brought out her first book, An Invitation To Indian Cooking, in 1973. Since then she has written 29 others, including Instantly Indian Cookbook, last year. Though Jaffrey began to point out regional differences in Indian cuisines later in her career, much of her writing saw Indian food through a western perspective and tried to reduce its complexity to make it accessible for that audience, instead of letting the audience itself learn the unfamiliar.

Early recipes such as “easy vegetable curry” or stir-fried prawns in tomato-cream sauce that I dug up from the BBC’s archives are without any sort of regional provenance, and unlike any food cooked within homes in India. More unforgivably, even the latest book flounders while trying to peep into regional complexity.

In one instance, Jaffrey clearly confuses the Hyderabadi “tamatar kutt” with a similar Andhra-style pulusu, where the souring agent is tamarind. Jaffrey unwittingly conflates two distinct cuisines and dishes, finally settling for both tomato and tamarind in the same dish without asking that one question any cook must ask oneself: Why use two similar ingredients when one would be perfectly adequate?

This may seem like splitting hairs – but in 2020, when Indian food writing, as well as restaurant food, has evolved and the accent is on “authenticated” regional cuisines, writing like this is anachronistic. Even globally, millennial consumers are more engaged today with ideas of provenance and “authenticity” about food’s cultural context.

A naan vendor in Hyderabad. Credit: Krishnendu Halder/Reuters

‘Royal’ cuisines

Post-Independence, another type of elitist food writing emerged by way of princely legacies. In the early 20th century, many rulers of princely states cultivated an interest in cuisine since political and cultural diplomacy more or less revolved around entertaining officials of the Raj and other princely states. Some descendants of these erstwhile rulers started bringing out books on recipes developed in their royal kitchens. Shivaji Rao Holkar, the former maharaja of Indore, and his American wife brought out The Cooking of The Maharajas, in 1975, primarily meant for an American audience.

However, it’s The Cooking Delights of The Maharajas (1982) by Digvijay Singh, former Sailana ruler, that is regarded as one of the best cook books on royal Indian cuisines, even by Indian gourmands and readers. The elaborate meat dishes, including recipes such as “gosht ka halwa”, a dessert made of meat, are now celebrated by discerning cooks and even professional chefs all over the country.

Jiggs Kalra’s Prashad, arguably the most famous Indian cookbook till date (it is part of the curriculum in hospitality schools), was published in 1999, and follows this pattern of food writing that only focussed on codifying recipes of the elite. The dishes are rich, flavourful but do not look into tenets such as the local and the seasonal.

Cultural cookbooks

At the turn of the millennium, this approach to writing about Indian cuisines started to change with a shift to personal and community histories ushered in by the likes of The Suriani Kitchen by Lathika George and Bangla Ranna: The Bengal Cookbook by Minakshie Das Gupta both published in 2003. Does Indian food writing that is more than a sum total of recipes sell? Does it have the potential to sell? Should Indian publishers invest in say a book like Salt: A World History, Mark Kurlansky’s narrative about sodium chloride’s 5000-year-old journey around the world and its civilisational impact?

My own 2016 book Mrs LC’s Table: Stories about Kayasth Food and Culture was nowhere as grand in its scape but the attempt was to not be a recipe book. The idea was to explore India’s rich ganga-jamuni culture through the lifestyle and food of a community that I had been born into; a community of medieval scribes, who shifted allegiance from the Mughals to the English, from Urdu to English, as political power in the Subcontinent shifted, and whose lifestyle and thus food is a blend of all these diverse influences.

I told the story through the character of my grandmother, ironically proud of her “exclusivist” culture even though in reality it was a composite culture. I can safely say that none of my readers saw this irony.

I get messages on social media on how they enjoyed the anecdotes, how they wished for a grandmother like mine, how they identified with it all, how it is a “pucca” kayasth book, but not one message in these four years has been about the inherent tension between parochialism and cosmopolitanism that the book intended to explore and one that is playing out in how we are looking and consuming food in India today.

The spotlight on regional Indian cuisines, of people reclaiming their histories through the foods of their communities, of restaurant chefs travelling to different micro regions to unearth dishes unknown outside of those microcosms has been very bright in the last decade. It’s almost a cultural renaissance as a new generation of self-confident chefs and consumers starts engaging with their own food without the need for global referencing. This is in stark contrast to the way Indian food writing in English had approached its subject in the early years post Independence.

However, while discovering lost heritage or prizing your own cultural context is a moment of an assertion of our identities, the obvious fallout is increased parochialism. Are we becoming more chauvinistic? And is food aiding it?

Without an awareness of the larger context of food – that though it is a cultural expression, no culture or cuisine is insular – how we think about food, cook and consume it will become more and more chauvinistic. Kayasth, Marwari, Gomantak, Mangalorean, Gowda, Brahmin, Brahmin, Rajput…these are micro identities, and while the dishes may be satisfying, I feel a distinct discomfort as more and more food writers focus on these fissures, oblivious to deeper connections that in fact exist between different cuisines of the subcontinent.

Food history focussing on connections instead of divisions may thus be a welcome change. But Indian readers will need to show a willingness to move away from a pursuit of only exotic recipes and food as entertainment for that to be cooked up.

Dina Said / CC BY-SA

Recipes for the pandemic

With the pandemic unleashing a million home cooks, recording recipes is only set to get more furious, as will games of oneupmanship in unearthing the more exclusive, micro, and exotic. Home cooks rediscovering their roots and identities are likely to be the most dominant strain of Indian food writing in English in the near future thanks to its marketability, but one other category of cookbooks that seems likely to get a boost from our dalliance with pandemic cooking is cookbooks by celebrity chefs.

Internationally, these generate a substantial revenue stream for top restaurants and are coveted by food enthusiasts. Even in India, the cult is growing as can be seen from The Indian Accent Cookbook that came out in 2016, and which has already done three editions. The first two, priced at Rs 3,499 and Rs 3,999, had a print run of 2000 and 1500 copies respectively. Restaurants hit by the pandemic will turn to more such experiments to augment revenues and direct their marketing and PR machineries to the success of such books.

Celebrity and Instagram savvy chefs are already seeing an increase in the sales of their cookbooks bought by the elite reader, who is increasingly seeking entertainment not just by way of eating restaurant-style food at home, but cooking it too. As Pooja Dhingra, India’s desserts queen, told me, the sales of her latest book Can’t Believe It’s Eggless picked up during the lockdown and brought in some much needed revenue in an otherwise dismal scenario, where she had to shut down her popular Mumbai café.

The world over, chefs and restaurants are re-examining the business model of retailing food that had been unsustainable even before the pandemic. Empires built on private equity speculation had been flailing since restaurants are not commodities but complex organisations requiring personalisation at every level. But in the race to deliver cheaper food and add scale, the human element that is crucial to every restaurant’s success was being sacrificed.

It will be interesting to see how this complex world shapes up in the era of social distancing, fewer customers and higher costs. An analysis of the changing business is an obvious book to write, and a restaurateur friend suggested that I now write Business On A Scooter (!), a sequel to my last year’s book Business On A Platter, exploring new emerging retail formats such as deliveries that all restaurants are increasingly engaging with.

One genre that fascinates me and is markedly absent from Indian food writing in English is that of food fiction. Well-researched novellas like Anthony Capella’s The Food of Love and many others, centred around Italian food in particular, represent a gap in the Indian market that needs to be filled. If food is entertainment, I don’t see why food writing should not be part of the new pop lit. An audience not used to “intimidating literature”, used to consuming food as entertainment, may just cosily settle down to chew on say a Malabar adventure! And escape the horrors imposed upon our lives by the pandemic.

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.