March 11, 2021
For as long as I’ve known, a shelf above the study table at home has held a handful of cookbooks on baking and desserts. When we were younger, my sister and I would marvel over the decadent desserts, running our fingers over pictures of rich chocolate cakes and stained-glass cookies. But the magic of those cookbooks has stayed firmly within the confines of our imagination, never crossing the threshold into our real lives. When my mother cooks in our kitchen, there are no books, no notes, no instruction manual to save her from everyday kitchen crises. She enters that space empty-handed and unarmed, with the cool confidence and deftness that seems almost unique to home cooks.
Over the past few months, as a pandemic raged on, pushing us all back into our homes, I’ve found myself spending more time in the kitchen in my 20s than I ever have before. As I learn to cook, I ask my mother to write down her recipes. Sometimes, she does. But for the most part, the yellowing pages of the notebook designated for her recipes remain empty. In the kitchen, when I ask her how much salt I should add to a boiling pot of pepper rasam, there is no precise answer. She fills a teaspoon vaguely between half and full and says, “Look. See. This is how much.” For her, the passing down happens, not in the writing but in the doing.
At first, this method baffled me. With time, however, I am beginning to realize my reference point exists, not in written recipes, but in the conversations we have about food every day. The phrases, childhood rhymes, and household idioms are where the kitchen secrets lie. Historical documents may provide great insight into the food cultures of dominant castes and classes of India across the ages. But the food of the common people rarely, if ever, makes its way into these canons. Rather, their stories are told.
“There is a phrase that is used in my house, and in many households across India,” oral historian and food writer Farah Yameen told me over the phone. “When you are frying masala, you are told ‘masale ko tel chhod dena chahiye’ [the spices should let out oil]...even today, if I have to teach someone how to fry masala, I will say the same thing. Because that is the idiom that has been passed down [through] generations of my family.”
India has had a long history with recipes. In pre-colonial India, several manuscripts and texts included descriptions of food and cooking techniques. Some sections of the Ain-i-Akbari, a record of Mughal emperor Akbar’s rule in India, detail the food produced in the imperial kitchens, including recipes for saag, halwa, and biryani. The Nimatnama, a manuscript produced under the rule of Sultan Ghiyas al-Din Khilji in the 15th century, contains recipes — including for vadas, kebabs, samosas, and desserts like laddoo and halva — that appealed to the Sultan’s Persian palate. But these documents were restricted to royal settings, circulated only within the Mughal kitchens so as to best serve the tastes of ruling emperors.