In this edition of our monthly column on old community cookbooks, we look at The East Indian Cookery Book, first printed and published by the Bombay East Indian Association in May 1981. You can read the previous column here.

When the Portuguese arrived in India in 1498, bringing a new wave of Catholicism with them, they weren’t aware that they had arrived in a land with the unique distinction of having received the good word from not one, but two of the apostles of Christ – St Thomas who preached in Kerala, and St Bartholomew, who preached in Kalyan.

Under Portuguese conversion, new Christians and the older Christian community were welded into one, in and around present-day Bombay. But this integration proved fragile not long after Bombay was transferred from Portuguese to British hands. To distinguish the native Christians of the north Konkan who were now British subjects from the Goans who remained Portuguese subjects, the former adopted the designation of “East Indian”, in allegiance to the Queen and the East India Company.

The community consists of five broad cultural groups – the Samvedi Christians, Koli Christians, Vadvals, Salsette Christians and what is referred to as the urbanised section. But it is the Salsette Christians who are generally recognised as the originators of East Indian Cookery, having the largest variety of dishes. Their East Indian Cookery Book was first printed and published by the Bombay East Indian Association in May 1981, with five reprints, one as late as 1998. East Indian cuisine carries Marathi, Portuguese and British influences, and the community is famous for its love of cooking and warm hospitality – which makes the absence of a community cookbook prior to this one very conspicuous.

The foreword by Mrs Thangam Philip (principal of the Institute of Hotel Management in Mumbai, and recipient of the Padma Shri in 1976), credits Mr Martin Fonseca, Mrs Elfreda d’Almeida and the Ladies’ Sub-Committee of The East Indian Cookery Book, for putting together the volume and documenting – formally, for the first time – these traditional recipes, now available to the community at large.

Photo credit: Anisha Rachel Oommen & Aysha Tanya

As any East Indian will confirm, families have typically been reluctant to share their recipes, which are treasured and passed down as family secrets. That makes this book even more of a treasure – the recipes here have been compiled from several families in the community, referring to handwritten recipes, painstakingly recorded by older members of the family. Besides a few minor modifications on measurements and weights, everything else remains true to the source. The names of all the collaborators of this book are mentioned in the appendix.

Gresham Fernandes, executive chef at Impresario Hospitality (which owns Smoke House Deli, The Social and Salt Water Café), lent us his copy of The East Indian Cookery Book on the condition that we guard it with our lives – it is now out of print. He refers to the book often when he cooks traditional recipes. “The secret to East Indian cooking is to use the best palm vinegar and bottle masala you can get your hands on,” he said.

Mrs Dolcey D’Souza, 68, of Vile Parle, learnt most of her cooking by watching her mother, but maintains that she has no written record of recipes. “All my curries and masalas are made from memory,” she said. “Even my bottle masala, I make at home to send to my daughters in the UK and Bahrain. Our bottle masala is made with thirty-two ingredients.”

Comprehensive volume

The recipe book has entire sections dedicated to rice, fish, meats, pickles, puddings and masalas. Rice features predominantly in the cuisine, with pullaos, arros, and a flat, thin bread made of rice flour, called bhakri or aps. Fish is part of the daily Koli Christian meal, and pork is almost always the pièce de résistance on the menu, especially during festive occasions – a remnant of the Portuguese predilection for pork, no doubt. Vegetables are pickled when they are in season and plentiful; balchow is made with the spawn of shrimp; and the salted Bombay Duck is a community favourite.

A section on liquor is fascinating evidence of the role it plays in community. Toddy, a mild sweet liquid obtained by tapping the coco-palm and palmyra trees, was a daily morning beverage to fortify against fatigue from working the fields. It was also called Maria Branca, stored in wooden casks in well-to-do homes, used as medicine and given to women after childbirth. Single distilled, it is drunk warm, or sweetened and spiced, for festivals.

Christmas is the biggest and most extravagant festival in the community, and preparations often begin months ahead. Recipes for kalkals, marzipan, Christmas pudding, and rose cookies, to prepare the traditional kuswar are described in detail. On the big day, beautiful glass plates are laid out with these home-cooked delicacies, covered with delicately embroidered lace or handkerchiefs and sent around to neighbours and friends, to mark the festive season with peace and goodwill.

In keeping with the norm of the day, the recipe book features neither photographs nor flowery introductions that gently ease you into the recipes – an expectation from modern-day cookbooks, the lack of which is somewhat unsettling, at first glance. In other words, there is no soft landing to a recipe – there is no roadmap for how it should taste or look.

Rich rewards

However, having cooked from the book, I have come to the conclusion that perhaps this is how home cooking should be. Providing a detailed account of the mouth-feel, texture and flavour is counter-productive to following your gut, gently prodded by sparse directions from the book. Perhaps, “Is the crumb supposed to be lighter, or the curry spicier?” are inconsequential questions, with the primary concern being, is this easy to make? Pleasurable to put together, and then eat?

Keeping the recipe to the most basic instructions (“Fry the onions, add cauliflower and cook with coconut juice, lastly add pepper” being the entire recipe for the Cauliflower Foogath) also has the added advantage of looking more accessible. The 1980s’ equivalent of a one-minute tasty video, shall we say?

Photo credit: Anisha Rachel Oommen & Aysha Tanya

With no more than six lines, and most recipes not crossing three, it looks deceptively easy to the inexperienced cook. However, only when you have dived into the deep end, do you realise that the recipe expects a certain amount of expertise. Time specifications – forget flame adjustments – are completely overlooked. The assumption is that if you’re making a chicken and apricot curry, you already know to cook your onions on low till they turn colour.

The chicken with apricots is the first recipe we attempt and of the three dishes from the book we tested, it was most familiar to us in terms of taste. Delicious, and both spicy and sweet, it came together easily despite a long list of ingredients. The second recipe, the Cauliflower Foogath, looked completely unpromising. The weak link in the book, we imagined. How could sliced onions, coconut milk – or “coconut juice” as it is called – and cauliflower, make a dish that is so simple that it is almost suspect? However, the resulting dish was a pleasant and delicious surprise.

Ready to take on a bigger challenge, we opt for a sweet as our final recipe – coconut cake. Calling it a cake however, is a disservice to the dish. What it really is, is the squidgiest, richest coconut and rose flavoured fudge you could imagine. The recipe is, again, deceptively simple and would have been impossible to pull off if I didn’t have my mother, who has been an avid baker for the better part of three decades, by my side. The recipe doesn’t mention baking time or temperature, and neither does it mention the size of the tin you’re meant to bake it in.

However, should you guess your way to safety, you will be rewarded beyond belief. Even as we put the batter into the oven, my mother said to me, “This is either going to be the best cake we’ve made, or an absolute disaster.” After 40 minutes, we took it out of the oven, and quickly cut ourselves a slice, too impatient to let it cool. One bite and my mother sank her head into her hands with sheer delight.

Cauliflower Foogath

1/2 kg cauliflower
2 large onions, sliced
1/2 coconut juice
1 tsp pepper powder
Salt to taste

Fry the sliced onions in 2 tbsp oil, then add the florets and cook, adding the coconut juice. Lastly, add the pepper powder.