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The charm of granny's grease-flecked cookbook
The cover of Vedavalli Venkatachary's How to Cook? (Samaippathu Yeppidi?, Lifco Books, Rs 35) has a lady in a fine-red sari with a beatific look on her homely face, calmly stirring a pan, looking not the least hot and bothered like most of us do in kitchens. She could, of course, be a bride tackling the kitchen with a beady-eyed mother-in-law looking on. But she is not likely to be caught short because she has Venkatachary's fail-proof tips on how to deal with everything from sambar to sweets to the Diwali digestive, lehyam, without bursting into tears.
It was the cheapest of my wedding gifts and I harrumphed a bit at the cloying role-playing implied by the cover, but there was no getting around it - Venkatachary was a dream teacher for a noncook. Today the book is so overused I've lost the cover, a couple of overused pages literally hang by a thread and the sambar recipe is beginning to blur.
Long before pocket recipe book queen Nita Mehta and Tarla Dalal became bestsellers, it was women like Venkatachary who cornered the how-to market. Her predecessor was the venerable Meenakshi Ammal who, widowed young and against many odds, wrote the landmark Samaithu Paar (Cook and See), Volumes I to III, which has gone into several editions.
Old cookbooks are now a niche rage and the more retro they are, the better. The nostalgia is fed largely by the NRI population, and food discussion forums are full of debates over the relative merits of Meenakshi Ammal's elaborate strategies and oldworld charm over Venkatachary's clarity.
Of course, a lot of it just makes for fun reading and no more. How many women - or men - can be bothered with painstakingly constructing rice fryums from scratch? And who will roast, cool, wash and pound rice only to knead it again with water to create dough for murukku? Much easier to invest in rice flour, better still buy a packet of murukku. But there is no denying the charm of the kitchen of our childhoods.
Not only are old cookbooks selling, but also recipe collections of a passing generation. "There is inside each one of us something that wants to connect with the past, with food and nurturing. And when that is presented within a contemporary context, it is even better, " say the writer twosome of Jigyasa Giri and Pratibha Jain who put together Cooking with Pedatha. The book is a collection of great recipes of traditional Andhra cooking taken down from from the late Subhadra Parigi, the eldest daughter of former president, V V Giri. (' Pedatha' in Telugu means 'aunt' ). The book which has gone into its fifth edition clicked with its grandmotherly warmth and friendly tips - how best to grind mustard seeds so they don't taste too bitter, how to cook rice to the exact texture you want and so on.
"We simply quoted her, added all the words of wisdom she had uttered. Is it any surprise that a lot of readers tell us that they find their own grandmothers /aunts in the book?" the writers say.
Where antiquated cookbooks score is in the wealth of information they provide. Rasachandrika, published in 1943 by the Saraswat Mahila Samaj of Mumbai, is yet another much-loved vintage cookbook that is a food anthropologist's delight. The Samaj had collated traditional recipes in a limited edition which sold out soon. The book with its section on home remedies makes for charming reading, whether you try out the delicacies or not.
Further down the west coast, there is the bible of Konkani cooking, Amgele Kaana Jevan by Jaya V Shenoy (also published as Oota Upahara in Kannada ). Arguments over the best way to make dalitoy or kuleeth dosa would be settled by referring to Shenoy's recipe once and for all.
Across India, there are many such trusted handbooks of regional cooking. Mrs K M Mathew's The Family Book of Cooking is often seen as the definitive book on Kerala cooking. The late wife of the former Malayala Manorama editor-baron, her writing is lucid and often worked around heavy recipes to make them more healthy and easy to use. In Bengal, the tradition of recipe writing goes back to the late 19th century. Pragya, one of Tagore's nieces, is credited with compiling what could be the first official cookbook in the language, Aamish O Niramish Aahar (non-vegetarian and vegetarian food). And as for Parsi food, there is the Time and Talents cookbook put together by the members of a club (by the same name) founded in 1934.
CHERRY ON CHETTINAD
An English teacher in Pondicherry has become the lone chronicler of a dying culinary tradition. Lourdes Tirouvanziam Louis, who has just released a second edition of her runaway bestseller Cuisine traditionelle de Pondicherry, says the desire to safeguard Pondicherrian cuisine prompted her to bring out the book which contains recipes like the famous Cake de Pondicherry and coq curry (aubergines in coconut milk). "Pondicherry is a true culinary melting pot. It's cuisine is a blend of French and Chettinad flavoured with ingredients from other French colonies like Vietnam and Ivory Coast where early 20th century Pondicherrians were posted as civil servants, " says Louis, who had trouble persuading families to part with their favourite recipes. "Some showed me the door. " However, many did share their kitchen secrets and these are faithfully reproduced in the book published by Auroville Press.
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