The book of Indian food: KT Achaya to now

Aditi Sengupta | Updated on October 04, 2019

Twenty-five years since the launch of KT Achaya’s seminal work on India’s food history, the genre of food writing in the country has taken several twists and turns. From lists of recipes, the Indian cookbook has transformed into stories of communities, personalities and cultures

Zalabiya or zalibiya. The first is Arabic; the other, Persian. And they both refer to the same syrupy and crunchy confection that is, in most parts of India, synonymous with comfort food. The jalebi — also spelled jilabi in some of the literary references to the sweet — is said to have arrived in the Indian subcontinent in the early 15th century, with the first wave of settlers from West Asia. A Jain scripture from around 1450 is one of the first to mention it as an item served in a feast. A Kannada poem from 1600 lists it as an offering to the gods. And a well-known 17th-century work describes the recipe of the “flat spiral of fermented batter, about eight centimetres wide” in detail.

About 150 years later, in the eastern province of Bengal, around 20,000 Portuguese settlers were exerting another kind of sweet influence on the local cuisine. Their love for cottage cheese, chhana in Bengali, inspired the moira (sweetmeat maker) to set aside an age-old taboo on curdling of milk with the help of acidic agents. The familiar sandesh emerged in “numerous moulds to resemble flowers, fruit, and shell... sweetened with palm jaggery... and flavoured with orange peel, jackfruit or rose essence”.

It’s not easy to hold on to a whiff in the midst of a thousand others — especially when each of those has been curated through years of research. The rose essence of the moira faces stiff combat from the fragrant banana roots of Assam. And the saundalika, distillers of wine in what is present-day Odisha, has an equal competitor in the Kannadiga poets who sang paeans to the region’s vegetables in scriptures from the medieval ages.

All these nuggets — and countless others — came together exactly 25 years ago, in KT Achaya’s book Indian Food: A Historical Companion. Sometime in the late ’80s, Achaya (1923-2002), who had an illustrious career in science, ventured into food research.

KT Achaya, a man of science, ventured into food research after retirement   -  THE HINDU ARACHIVES



The former Council of Scientific and Industrial Research veteran veered away from compositions and formulae. Instead, he pored over journals and books that tapped into the history of food in India. The trove of information that he compiled over the years formed the base of what is treated as one of the first compendiums of its kind.

Not a food writer or even a foodie, Achaya’s interest in the cuisines and food ethos of India was purely scientific. In over 300 pages of A Historical Companion, first published in 1994, he summed up the journey of food in India, starting at the very beginning of time when prehistoric human beings created the first tools of hunting. The compass then travels in the direction of the Harappan civilisation, followed by chapters on Vedic and Aryan times. Among the various other sections in the book are chapters on foods influenced by different religions — Islam, Buddhism, Sikhism, Zionism, Christianity and Jainism. And a large section is devoted to foods — from oilseeds to aphrodisiacs (such as crocodile eggs) — that travelled to India from other parts of the world.

Even without detailed recipes or step-by-step instructions, Achaya’s first book on Indian food became a go-to for writers old and new. Even today, a cursory internet search on popular food items from the subcontinent throws up many references to the book.

Achaya’s seminal work marked a new phase in food writing in English in India. Though books on food in regional languages (such as S Meenakshi Ammal’s Samaithu Paar in Tamil and Prajnasundari Debi’s Amish O Nramish Ahar in Bengali) were widely read and acclaimed, in English the genre had largely been restricted to books with recipes and tips for those seeking to go beyond the standard fare at homes and restaurants. A Historical Companion bridged the gap between food history and a country’s traditions with relative ease, thus placing Achaya in a league of his own.

Just one year later, the trio of writers Minakshie Das Gupta, Bunny Gupta and Jaya Chaliha launched The Calcutta Cookbook: A Treasury of Recipes from Pavement to Palace. They began with a list of acknowledgements — Achaya’s name being the first on it. And then, in an engaging manner that befits a subject as flavourful as food, they embarked on a culinary trail that connects the many phases in the history of Kolkata. The journey begins in the middle-class Bengali kitchen — where the thrifty housewife is loath to discard peels, shoots and even scales of the fish — and ends in the clubs and restaurants of a modern city trying to balance desi flavours and a cosmopolitan legacy. This book is replete with recipes, giving the reader a chance to recreate a slice of the city’s history in the comfort of one’s kitchen.

In the years that followed and until now, hundreds of cookbooks and books centred on cuisines have taken over the shelves. Priti Narain’s The Essential Delhi Cookbook, Pratibha Karan’s Biryani and Cooking Delights Of The Maharajas by Digvijaya Singh, the Maharaja of Sailana, are collections of recipes that acquaint the reader with a certain kind of food.

Family first: Lathika George’s début title The Suriani Kitchen traces the journey of Kerala’s Syrian Christians and their food culture   -  S GOPAKUMAR


Others, such as Anoothi Vishal’s Mrs LC’s Table: Stories about Kayasth Food and Culture, Lathika George’s The Suriani Kitchen, Sabita Radhakrishna’s Annapurni: Heritage Cuisine From Tamil Nadu, Sadia Dehlvi’s Jasmine & Jinns: Memories and Recipes of My Delhi, Doreen Hassan’s Saffron and Pearls: A Memoir of Family, Friendship & Heirloom Hyderabadi Recipes and Sandeepa Datta Mukherjee’s Bong Mom’s Cookbook, draw the reader into the kitchens and homes of a community or a person, with generous helpings of recipes, trivia and customs. Yet another group of titles targets specific meals (for instance, Rukmini Srinivas’s Tiffin and Sonal Ved’s Tiffin: 500 Authentic Recipes Celebrating India’s Regional Cuisine) or food preferences (Nandita Iyer’s Everyday Healthy Vegetarian is an example).


Mrs LC, grandmother of writer Anoothi Vishal


Me and mine: Mrs LC, grandmother of writer Anoothi Vishal (right), was the inspiration behind her book on Kayasth food and culture k pichuman   -  K PICHUMANI

Last but not the least, translations of historic manuscripts allow us to partake of food from another era. Salma Yusuf Husain’s The Mughal Feast — a translation and reworking of Nushka-e-Shahjahani — is one such recent title. There are books for every kind of host: The busy executive, the newly married, the lavish host, the vegan and the bachelor, to name just a few.

According to Poulomi Chatterjee, editor-in-chief and publisher of Hachette Book Publishing India, before the internet came along and made everything easily available to those interested in food and new recipes, the market for essential reference books on food (such as Achaya’s) or low-priced recipe books was larger. Fully illustrated, full-colour cookbooks had a limited but dedicated audience — people who collected cookbooks for aesthetic appeal and occasionally also use them for cooking. “Now the interest in food and awareness of different varieties has expanded hugely, but the internet is the go-to for most people looking for particular recipes. However, books that are narratives that straddle the intersection of food and culture and history are here to stay. They are lasting documents of communities, customs and culture and continue to bring freshness to kitchen experiences,” Chatterjee says.

Apart from the stories that come with the recipes, it is the design that makes these newer cookbooks or food books stand out from the no-frills Tarla Dalal and Nita Mehta variety of the years gone by. Often peppered with cross-hatched illustrations and vintage photographs, some of the recent titles look like an old scrapbook or a family album.

While acknowledging the effort and time that Achaya invested in his rich volume, food historian Pushpesh Pant, author of India: The Cookbook, Gourmet Journeys in India and Food Path: Cuisine Along the Grand Trunk Road, from Kabul to Kolkata, is of the view that the study of Indian food and the art of writing on it goes back to the literature in India’s vernacular languages.

“Take a short story by [Rabindranath] Tagore or a novel by Saratchandra [Chattopadhyay]. There are descriptions of food and also knowledge of seasonal produce. And such writings, in my opinion, set the path for weaving food and food traditions into storytelling,” says Pant, who is currently working on a book on temple foods and another on Indian salads.


Food writers — and recipe lovers — point out that India has had a rich history of food writing, and refer to the different styles of cooking and ingredients found in Tamil literature from the Sangam era, which is more than 2,000 years old. But they stress that writings on regional food, not seen in large numbers earlier, now dominate the market. There are food books on every kind of cuisine — from Kashmiri and Odia, to Bengali, Bihari, Maharashtrian, Parsi, Chettinad, Mangalorean and Bohri.

“Food is what we are. It speaks for us. It stays with us. When we have lost everything else, the memories of food keep us going,” says the writer Lathika George.

Her first brush with “cookbooks” as a reader was mostly limited to handwritten diaries with recipes from friends and family members, while her introduction to published titles on food and cookery was through her daughter who worked with a publishing house in the US. “That was about 10 years ago, when I went to New York to spend some time with my daughter,” she says. That’s also when she came across novelist Austin Clarke’s culinary memoir of Barbados, Love and Sweet Food. “It opened my eyes to a whole new style of writing. The book was so rich in descriptions — not just about the food but also the people... It was the most delightful way of discovering a new culture,” she says.

George’s début title, The Suriani Kitchen traces the journey of Kerala’s Syrian Catholics and their food culture. “My publisher showed great interest in the history of the community and I kept wondering who would want to read about this small group of people in India. But the stories came in easily — I had grown up with them — and it took me just nine months to put the book together,” she says.

Food, glorious food: Traditional Kerala breakfast fare


It is often the publisher who gets in touch with a food writer, but Rachna Kalra, a consultant to leading publishing houses, points out that people from the food industry — chef or food critics — also pitch ideas for a book. “Commissioning editors, too, look out for authors who they think can tell a story through food. These days, editors also browse social media for ideas. An author or columnist with a big following on, say, Instagram, is a potential candidate,” she says.

For Anoothi Vishal, the negotiations with publishers were thorny to begin with. “When I was talking to publishers around 2012 [four years before the book was launched], they all expected me to write a straightforward recipe book. I spoke to two or three publishers before I signed with Hachette,” she says.

But Vishal knew what her book on the food and culture of the Kayasth community was going to be about. Her interactions with her grandmother — the eponymous Mrs LC — defined the character of the book, which is also an exploration of the multiple influences that shaped the community’s syncretic “Ganga-Jamuni” culture.

“It is a memoir as well as a study of how, say, a dish from Central Asia entered the Kayasth home; how something like the Greek dolma influenced the Kayasth women to concoct dishes such as bharwan karele (stuffed bitter gourd),” Vishal says. The book also celebrates the idea of food being a multicultural, layered entity. “Nothing is strictly original, especially food.”


Platter of choice: Eating out on a regular basis is no longer a luxury for the Indian reader   -  R RAGU


The idea of presenting chunks of history through the prism of a maternal figure clicked with many readers. “I still hear from readers who tell me that my grandmother reminds them of their grandmothers,” she adds.

Vishal’s latest book Business On A Platter: What Makes Restaurants Sizzle or Fizzle Out studies the history of restaurants and cafés in India, while looking at the food business post liberalisation. It is among a slew of new books on the anvil, or just launched. Among them are The Indian Pantry: The Very Best of Rude Food by Vir Sanghvi (Penguin), Baking a Dream, the story of the patisserie Theobroma, as it turns 15; Anahita Dhondy’s The Parsi Kitchen, a food memoir, Sandeepa Mukherjee Datta’s Those Delicious Letters; Rachel Goenka’s Adventures with Mithai (all HarperCollins), Pangat, a Feast: Food and Lore from Marathi Kitchens by Saee Koranne-Khandekar, and Sadaf Hussain’s Daastan-e-Dastarkhan on recipes from Muslim kitchens from across the country (both Hachette).

“Recipes are available online, so the purpose of buying a book for cooking doesn’t exist any more. This is where the stories, memories, anecdotes and heirloom recipes come in. The reader is likely to buy a book that combines some, if not all, these factors,” Kalra says.

What’s also true is that there is a growing demand for such books because most Indian readers are now more aware of cuisines across the country and the world, than, say, their parents and grandparents. Foreign travel is no longer an unaffordable luxury, neither is the choice of dining out on a regular basis. Regional restaurants are mushrooming, and the average diner knows the difference between maachher paturi and patra ni machhi.

“Not only are we completely integrated into the global economy but there is also very little food that we read about these days that seems strange to us. This was driven home to me a couple of years ago when I hosted four events featuring Gary Mehigan... a judge on MasterChef Australia,” journalist and food writer Vir Sanghvi says in the introduction to his new book The Indian Pantry: The Very Best of Rude Food. Sanghvi goes on to narrate that the [Indian] audiences were “knowledgeable, and blasé even, about the food he talked about... Gary raved about a dish he had eaten in San Francisco that made imaginative use of sea urchin. As the anchor, I prepared to explain... what a sea urchin was. But there was no need. They knew exactly what he was talking about.”


For publisher Diya Kar of HarperCollins India, the rising popularity of global cuisine — and of Indian food writing — comes as no surprise: “Given our obsession with food — we sit down for a meal and talk about the next one — I’d imagine food writing to have evolved far more than it has, that there’d be many more books of different kinds.”

When commissioning a book centred on food, Kar looks for a story that gives the reader something to discover or mull over. “A cookbook is about clarity. If it’s illustrated, it should be beautiful, delicious,” she says. One of her favourite cookbooks, Bangla Ranna: The Bengal Cookbook by Minakshie Das Gupta, though, is more about the recipes than pictures. “I think a cookbook stands the test of time if you can swear by the recipes; photographs help but they’re not essential,” Kar says.

Achaya would have agreed with the observation. His Historical Companion — for all its worth as an encyclopaedic work — is bereft of recipes, evocative drawings or lively photographs. The design, too, is nothing to write home about. But it has completed 25 glorious years and helped many know about the world of food. For a man who was not a foodie, that sure is a winning stroke.

Published on October 04, 2019

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