There is something to be said about old-school recipe books. The ones our mothers used; the ones without glossy pictures or expensive props, in which more than one paragraph of instructions meant that you were in for a complicated dish. Today, cookbooks are glamorous coffee table productions. Old recipe books, on the other hand, were mostly found wedged into kitchen shelves, dog-eared and spattered with oil stains. In this monthly column, we are going to look at community recipe books from our mothers’ and grandmothers’ generations.

Reading a recipe, as any cookbook aficionado will tell you, is like reading a novel. There’s a story arc: the early measuring, peeling and dicing. Then the plot complications of sautéing and braising, and – if your protagonists make it through unscathed – a final glorious coming together as you slide the dish into the oven, or slice and serve on the table with a flourish.

There’s something calming about reading a recipe: peeling onions in your mind never has the tedium that accompanies real-life prep. Slicing through crisp, fresh coriander, squishing potatoes for mash, bashing garlic, can be addictive, meditative. This is why most of my friends have cookbooks on the floor by the bed, in the living room, always within arm’s reach.

The genre of Indian cookbooks has only recently come into its own. Archana Pidathala’s cookbook on Andhra cuisine, Five Morsels of Love, with its fabric-bound cover and stunning visuals – a beautiful tribute to her grandmother – carries the reader effortlessly on the author’s personal journey through each new recipe.

But before this kind of cookbook was the simple recipe book. (Or as they were known in this part of the world, “cookery books”.) Straightforward, no-nonsense instructionals, written mostly for cooks, or women with a certain proficiency in the kitchen.

There was no handholding or mollycoddling, no details on heat and time, and measurements were broad at best – you could expect never to find precision such as 1 cup diced (1/4-inch dice) tomato. But for better or worse, it is in this format that most of the country’s regional cuisines are preserved. These recipe books were gifted at weddings as sturdy, practical guides, even if they were not as romantic or luxurious as their present-day counterparts. They played their role as beacons, securing regional cuisine firmly in kitchens around India.

Photo credit: Anisha Rachel Oommen.

In the Syrian Christian household, the recipe books that most new brides received were volumes by either Mrs KM Mathew or Mrs BF Varughese. Two doyennes who, between them, authored most of what was being cooked in kitchens in Kerala about 25 years ago. Recipes for All Occasions by Mrs BF Varughese is a three-part tome – Part 1 alone is spread over 350 pages, which incidentally, combines volume I, II and III of her iconic Pachakarani cookbooks in Malayalam. Originally published in 1974, the edition I found on my mother’s kitchen shelf is a sixth reprint from 1993, priced at Rs 50, with a glowing foreword by Mrs Thangam Philip. “I am very glad that an English edition has been brought out as the recipes combine taste and simplicity of operation,” Mrs Thangam Philip wrote – high praise from the principal of the Institute of Catering Technology and & Applied Nutrition in Bombay.

A bit of everything

Known not just as a compendium of dishes from Kerala (covering Hindu, Christian and Muslim communities, from both north and south Kerala), Recipes for All Occasions includes European bakes, soufflés, meringues and a collection of dishes from around the world, aimed at both “young and experienced housewives who wish to widen their culinary skills and increase their repertoire”. Also in it are a few Parsi, Bengali, and Kashmiri recipes, including a five-minute biryani.

An Armenian kebab recipe made with minced meat, yogurt, celery and cumin, is possible a hat tip to the influence of the Levant in Kerala’s history. It is through the Levantine connection that the church of St Thomas came to be known as the Syrian church. The Syrian Christian church, to which Mrs BF Varughese belongs, traces its origins to St Thomas, an apostle of Christ, who is believed to have arrived on the shores of Cranganore (or Muziris) in Kerala, in 52 CE, travelling down the Red Sea and across the Persian Gulf.

Photo credit: Anisha Rachel Oommen.

While the community retained many of its traditional Hindu roots (including the vilakku, or brass oil lamp, that is lit at weddings), it is interesting to note that the church liturgy is conducted in Malayalam and Aramaic – a language that considered dead until recently, is now facing a slow, deliberate revival. Mrs BF Varughese’s book details recipes for traditional Suriani dishes like vattayappam, pidi (or rice dumplings) with chicken curry, and meen moilee with appams.

Telling stories

One of the great things about cookbooks is that recipes often tell us a great deal about the people and the times they lived in. Split over sections that cover soup, fish, liver and brain, meat, puddings and payasams, cakes and palaharams, Mrs Varughese’s recipe book is literally a peek into everything that was in vogue during the 1970s and 1980s. One especially definitive recipe for me is an American Chop Suey – egg noodles tossed with onion, tomato, a bit of “soya” sauce and beef – that my mother (and as I remember, everyone else’s mothers, too) were forced to cook, by popular demand, at least once a week.

The soup section includes an ox tail soup that my grandmother would cook with surprising regularity, to harvest its calcium and B12 benefits for her children. My father, the oldest of her three children, would wait in line every Sunday at Russell Market, responsible for the family’s ingredient sourcing. Another beef tea soup describes a three-hour process of steeping and double boiling meat, before straining into a cup and salting.

Old-fashioned comfort

The book begins with some sound advice on cooking and running a kitchen, most of which stands up to the test of time. My favourite is one that would appear to be common sense but is invariably the point my mother and I can never seem to agree on: “Always assemble all ingredients before you begin.” Together, we cooked a couple of recipes from the book, even though mum rarely consults it now, especially when it’s a traditional Kerala recipe. We cooked a Kerala fish curry, or meen vevichathu, and a batch of crumb cutlets – two household favourites. The meen vevichathu is a staple condiment in most Kerala homes. The ingredients, aside from kudampuli (a variety of tamarind used in Kerala), coconut oil and shallots, are common to most Indian kitchens, but the recipe requires a bit of patience and reading between the lines when cooking in a chatti (a clay pot) – and I was grateful to have my mum guiding me.

Photo credit: Anisha Rachel Oommen.

The meat cutlets were infinitely more painstaking. First, the ingredients needed to be cooked separately. Then began the meticulous task of delicately rolling and shaping in the palm of your hand, while the meat was still warm, carefully watching to ensure no cracks form in the patties. My most vivid memory of birthday parties growing up was never cake, but instead, the crisp brown cutlets mama would make. Hot, straight from the pan, they would vanish within minutes. It is only now, after experiencing the laborious tedium of cooking them first-hand, that I have come to appreciate what a gesture of love they are.

Few things betray the book’s vintage. One of them is the listing of ajinomoto in the ingredients section – monosodium glutamate would certainly never be spotted in the kitchen of any self-respecting cookbook author today. But those were different times, and we must judge accordingly. Besides this, having my mother with me in the kitchen played a more significant role in the success of these recipes than I would happily admit. At many points the instructions were ambiguous and abrupt, leaving first-time cooks hanging uncertainly in the balance.

Not much is known about Mrs BF Varughese except that her name was actually Saramma Varughese. She was a prolific writer and her work found a place in nearly every Malayali home, regardless of religion. Pachakarani (The Queen of Cooking) volumes I-VIII, and Recipes for All Occasions remain her most popular publications. Here is her recipe for Meen Vevichathu, best paired with steamed tapioca, or hot appams, or even just plain white rice.

Kerala Fish Curry (Vevichathu)

Fish pieces 2 lbs
Dry chillies fried and powdered 4 level dsp
Turmeric 1 small piece
Curry leaves 3 sprigs
Fenugreek and mustard ½ tsp each
Kudampuli 1 ½ oz
Water 2 cups
Coconut oil 2 oz
Cloves of garlic ¾ tsp
Button onions 6

Wash and clean the pieces of fish, drain and keep aside. Grind chillies, garlic, turmeric and onions to a fine paste and mix with a cup of water. Pat curry leaves at the bottom of a dekchi and put the pieces of fish on top of it with the kudampuli pieces in between. If kudampuli is not available, you can use tamarind instead. Add the tamarind juice and chilli water with salt added to it. Put on fire and boil well. When the gravy starts boiling on all sides of the pot, fry ½ tsp each of fenugreek and mustard and two small onions sliced in coconut oil, and pour into the fish gravy. Allow to simmer on a slow fire for half an hour. When the gravy thickens, remove from the fire.

If kudampuli is not very sour, you can use 2 oz of it.

Anisha Rachel Oommen is a food journalist and cofounder of The Goya Journal.