The Hindostanee Coffee House that opened in 1810 was London’s first Indian restaurant. But Indian curry was already famous in Britain by then, owing in large measure to members of the East India Company, who had returned home and recreated the dish they so enjoyed during their time on the subcontinent. By the 19th century, curry was securely ensconced in the British cultural and culinary milieu. In the United States, the dish made a somewhat later appearance. It was only around 1899 that New York newspapers started celebrating the gastronomic exploits of Indian chef Ranji Smile, describing him as “America’s King of Curry from India Who Made ‘Women Go Wild Over Him’”.

Over the next decade, Indian restaurants such as Taj Mahal, India Ceylon Inn and East India Curry House opened in New York. In the 1940s, Chef Ali John at Rustom Wadia’s restaurant Rajah on New York’s W 48th Street became a sensation in a manner akin to Smile. The Pittsburg Press of February 24, 1941 said that Ali’s cooking was “spiced with rare condiments and a salaam to Mecca”.

In 1955, Dharam Jit Singh’s Classic Cooking from India, with its detailed descriptions of India and its traditional dishes, became the first cookbook of its kind to be published in the United States. It attempted to debunk several myths, especially those related to the curry. Singh’s book garnered attention for his narrative as the recipes were interspersed with a lot of historical details. Reviewing the book for the New York Times in 1956, journalist Santha Rama Rau described it as “a pioneer attempt” to persuade Americans that Indian food was “not the gummy, pasty mess known here as curry”.

More than a decade later, Rau herself would go on to author The Cooking of India. The book followed Singh’s format yet ambitiously packed in details relating to a region’s geography and customs that ineluctably influence its culinary traditions. Published by Time-Life Books in 1969, it was part of the publisher’s multi-volume Foods of the World series. Two decades since the Second World War, a new era of geopolitics now prevailed. Despite, or even due to the Cold War standoff, the United States made several overtures – cultural and educational – towards other nations. This in part motivated the editors of Time-Life books to bring out books in several series, seeking to promote new knowledge about the world and the universe.

Santha Rama Rau. Image courtesy: Sikhs in Shanghai / via Facebook.
Santha Rama Rau. Image courtesy: Sikhs in Shanghai / via Facebook.

How it started

Rau was based in New York when Time-Life approached her in the early 1950s. Born in Madras in 1923, she had lived most of her life overseas – in South Africa, Britain, Japan and the United States – thanks to her diplomat father and activist mother. This background meant she was an apt choice to author The Cooking of India – or as the historian Antoinette Burton writes in her book, The Postcolonial Careers of Santha Rama Rau, Rau was a “postcolonial cosmopolitan”.

Rau was already known for her essays in New Yorker, Harper’s and Reader’s Digest. Her books, such as Home in India – written when she was 19 – My Russian Journey, East of Home, This is India and Gifts of Passage showed up a side of the East different than conventional western accounts. An article in the New York Times described her as a “travel writer, chronicler of journeys…written with stylish simplicity”. She wrote with empathy and a certain deprecatory humour.

The Time-Life editors wanted the book to be a travel-account-cum-recipe book, but Rau’s exchanges with series editor Bill Goolrick, as recounted by Burton, showed that she had her own ideas. Rau took her position as an interpreter of cultures seriously. She believed her job was to render Indians realistically, and not to merely reinforce stereotypes. A complex and genteel process of negotiation ensued, and as Burton writes, The Cooking of India became a mix of memoir, cultural history, travelogue

and cookery book.

An image from 'The Cooking of India' photographed by Eliot Elisofon.
An image from 'The Cooking of India' photographed by Eliot Elisofon.

The co-author

The Cooking of India was a collaborative effort from the beginning. Devika Teja, the co-author, wrote the spiral-bound recipe booklet that accompanied the book. Devika Teja was the liaison between Rau – who travelled to India during the time she wrote the book – and the editors. Devika Teja was also the recipe tester for all the dishes that were cooked in Time-Life’s Manhattan kitchens under the supervision of Michael Field, the food expert for all the cookbooks in the series.

Devika Teja lived in New York, and had led, like Rau, a peripatetic cosmopolitan life. She had featured in articles on Indian cooking such as one that appeared in Life’s sister magazine, Look, in 1967. Born in Moira in Bardez, Goa in 1924, Devika Teja (called Hildaguarda at the time ) spent her childhood in Bangalore. Later, as her son Ranjit Teja recollects, she became a singer and recorded for All India Radio, Bombay, singing Fado and Konkani songs. Unfortunately, no recordings exist today. In 1948, Devika Teja left to study music (voice) at the University of Southern California.

Her marriage in the early 1950s to Jaskaran Singh Teja, later an Indian Foreign Service official, led her to travel widely to Kabul, Moscow, Laos, and even India for a while. Devika Teja also occasionally wrote newspaper pieces that combined personal narrative with traditional heirloom recipes.

Devika Teja was an avid and early supporter of Rau’s approach to the book. The Cooking of India wasn’t going to be just about how to cook – as Time Life’s editors assumed – for the upper and middle-class woman reader, but also for readers interested in questions of why, when and how certain cuisines developed.

Devika Teja. Photo courtesy: The Ranjit Teja collection.
Devika Teja. Photo courtesy: The Ranjit Teja collection.

Elaborately detailed

Rau begins the book by describing the spotless kitchens maintained by both her grandmothers. Her Kashmiri grandmother used brass utensils, while copper vessels were traditionally preferred in her paternal grandmother’s home in Mangalore. Both matriarchs, however, were fervent about the efficacy of cow dung that was used to wash the floor, several times a day. It set fast, left no odour, and was a natural disinfectant.

The heart of the book rests in two chapters, one devoted to spices titled The Variety of Life, while the other detailed the richness of vegetarian cooking. The spices, and the manner in which these were used, were the true measure of a cook’s worth: spices must “sting the palate, never burn the throat”.

They (masalas) are the unquestioned heart, the genius of Indian cooking. Through the choice of spices, through their proportions and blending, a good Indian cook expresses imagination, ingenuity, individuality, subtlety, adventurousness. So important are the masalas – and so vital is cooking among the talents of a Hindu girl – that in some parts of India a bride stands on a grinding stone for some of the preliminary wedding ceremonies while prayers and blessings are intoned and formal offerings of flowers and spices on silver trays are made to her. The stone under her bare feet is the symbol that from now on she will be the mistress of her own household.

Rau was equally detailed about Indian festivals. Their vibrancy and colour were aptly captured by Time-Life photographer Eliot Elisofon, who travelled extensively across India for this purpose. Rau wrote of, as Teja’s detailed recipes also show, the variety and richness of vegetarian cuisine across west and south India. Vegetarianism in India wasn’t, to bust another myth, simply a substitute for non-vegetarianism.

Later avatars

In a book already so detailed with 210 pages and accompanied by Teja’s 128-page recipe book, some cuisines and regions did get the short shrift. For instance, only a few pages were devoted to the “special dishes of the ‘minorities’” that included for example, Syrian Christians, Goan Christians and Parsis. The cuisine of Pakistan, added after some considered exchange between Rau and her editors, was written by Time correspondent Muhammed Aftab, and made up a solitary chapter at the end. The emphasis here was on meat that figured in almost every major meal, and on customs such as eating from a shared platter that added to kinship bonds and conviviality.

The Cooking of India remained influential in many ways. It spawned mimics such as the Good Cooking from India (1981) by Shahnaz Mehta and Joan Korenblit, which followed almost the same format of recipes, encompassed by personal narratives.

A recipe from Devika Teja's recipe booklet.
A recipe from Devika Teja's recipe booklet.

By the 1990s, a plethora of cookbooks by Madhur Jaffrey, Shanta Sacharoff, Julie Sahni and Bharti Kirchner had appeared, and food critics could claim that Indian cooking had come of age in the United States.

The Cooking of India remains a collector’s item for its photographs, detailed recipes and evocation of the quotidian in India. As Antoinette Burton writes – and as other writers such as John Thieme and Ira Raja have suggested – in The Cooking of India, Rau “anticipated a postcolonial hunger for food images and food metaphors among later generations of South Asian fiction writers in English”.