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The ‘Indian Community Cookbook Project’: An Archive of Indian Community Culinary Heritage

Khushi Gupta, Muskaan Pal, Ananya Pujary | FLAME University

Gendada Adde
Gendada Adde

Cookbooks contain more than just recipes. They serve as vehicles of nostalgia and are a reflection of a community and the author's identification with it. One of our own, Ananya Pujary, initially came across this idea of collecting and digitizing recipes from her personal experience. She is of the Tuluva people, native to the coastal Dakshina Kannada district of India’s Karnataka state, whose historical knowledge exists in the form of oral traditions. Their script has not been in use for decades, and so there is a dearth of written documentation. This lack of written material includes traditional food recipes. There are so many communities like hers that rely solely on these oral traditions. When speaking to people from these communities, Ananya realized there is a collective fear of losing these precious undocumented traditions. This is felt especially amongst diaspora populations, who tend to experience a physical as well as cultural distance from their community traditions. As a person living outside India herself, food is one of the few ways that helps Ananya connect to her roots and create, to some extent, a sense of belonging. This need for culinary connection can be explored through Gendada Adde, a well-known community dish that she grew up eating, which translates to ‘rice cake made on coals’. It is made by slow-cooking boiled rice batter mixed with jaggery, caramelized onions, and coconut on hot coals. This unique dish is a monsoon staple, which is when she used to visit her hometown during school vacations. Through cooking this dish, Ananya can feel connected to her roots. The cookbook pictured below was maintained by someone from her native place who migrated to Mumbai decades ago, in an effort to remember traditional recipes. The influence of both places, Mumbai and Mangalore, is evident in the recipes included. This cookbook is now regarded as a family heirloom that sustains her memory and recipes for future generations.

Cookbooks contain more than just recipes. They serve as vehicles of nostalgia and are a reflection of a community and the author's identification with it.

Cookbook publication in India can be traced to the colonial era around the nineteenth century. Recipes used to be largely handwritten or orally transmitted between family members to ensure that they remained within their own communities. However, with the advent of the printing press in the mid-nineteenth century, these recipes acquired the capacity to reach a bigger audience. These early Indian cookbooks contained recipes of the hybrid Anglo-Indian cuisine that appealed to European middle-class tastes. This cuisine represents a cultural interchange of British and Indian flavours, giving rise to dishes like 'mulligatawny soup' and the coinage of the word 'curry'. This was followed by a surge in the publication of cookbooks from Bengal led by the classic Pakrajeshwar (1831). Other states followed, generating household favourites like Samaithu Paar (1951) from Tamil Nadu. The post-independence era was characterized by the large-scale migration of Indians to Western countries. This movement altered the concept of cookbooks in a way that it was viewed as a nostalgic artefact. According to Arjun Appadurai’s How to Make a National Cuisine: Cookbooks in Contemporary India, contemporary cookbooks are usually written by people who live outside India and who feel nostalgic for their homeland. These cookbooks allow them to get in touch with their roots. They not only share recipes but also take into account the time and budget required to make them, making them an essential addition to the urban household.

While cookbooks make community recipes more widely available, the act of publication is a process of exclusion; which cuisines get published and which do not? A survey of Indian cookbooks revealed that the author and the target audience tended to be from the upper or middle classes. Over the past few decades, Indian cuisine has become more nationalized as observed by anthropologist, Arjun Appadurai. Certain popular cuisines are being documented more than others, misrepresenting Indian cuisine as a whole. Furthermore, our team realized that a comprehensive Indian cookbook repository, which documents the diverse set of cuisines present in India, does not exist.

The ‘Indian Community Cookbook Project’ aims at maintaining older community cookbooks which were sources of symbolic wealth, and diverse, modern cookbooks which serve the demands of the culinary market. The thought process began with solely documenting the Tuluva community cookbooks from Karnataka, but it was later expanded to include cuisines across India. It was decided that archives, timelines and maps would be suitable tools to document this. From thereon, a decision was taken to track the histories of various community cuisines in India to see whether or not, and when, their flavours and cooking styles merged, or took from each other, to form the national cuisine that is known today. The ‘Indian Community Cookbook Project’ was created as an open access archive of community cookbooks from across India - both those extant in printed form as well as handwritten. Currently, the project consists of three mapping and documentation tools: timelines of published cookbooks, archives of family recipes (oral, printed and handwritten), and a spatial map of cookbooks published post-1990s industrialization.

The timelines allow for a chronological list of community and region-specific cookbooks of India. The main motive was to make a single repository of all the cookbooks belonging to a specific community and region. Currently, there are four timelines on the website: Anglo-Indian, Bengali, Goan, and Tamilian cuisines. These interactive timelines are created using Knight Lab’s Timeline software. The methodology used for compiling cookbooks was mainly using secondary data sources such as blogs, cookbook shopping sites, and social media platforms. The corroborated cookbooks are in both regional languages and English, though those in English outnumber the rest. An example of the utility of a chronological capture of community cookbooks is the Bengali cookbook timeline which demonstrates a clear change in cooking methods, materials and ingredients used and influences from other cuisines as well. Moreover, the Tamil cookbook timeline shows how most cookbooks are increasingly using the English language, and those written in regional languages are slowly fading out.

For the creation of a comprehensive culinary history archive, cookbooks alone are insufficient for accessing community memories of food. As already established, culinary memory heavily relies on oral tradition, and though underrepresented in printed forms, communities do share these culinary histories. Therefore, a digital repository of both archival forms is imperative. The ‘Archives’ section consists of food memories and traditional recipes from communities of India. Currently, the archives include recipes from the Naga, Bohri-Alvi, Mangalorean, Sindhi, Keralite, and Konkani communities. There are also family recipes like Zahra Azad’s Recipe Book, consisting of recipes from India and Pakistan and S.M. Joshua’s Recipe Book consisting of Mangalorean recipes. Primary data sources, such as reaching out to people through social media platforms and interviews, were used for the current collection of archives.

Extending from the theme of cookbook exclusion and inclusion, we sought to map out contemporary cookbooks across India to create a spatial awareness of which communities are represented and to what extent. In other words, do cookbooks represent homogenized macro-communities (e.g. states), or do they represent smaller communities (e.g. in districts, towns and cities) and by how much? Likewise, is there a spatial trend to which communities are more likely to be represented and which are not? If so, why, what are the social, economic, cultural and political determinants of these trends? In order to engage with these questions, we used ArcGIS’s online mapping software to map out Indian contemporary cookbooks from a variety of online sources following a snowball sampling method from keyword searches (e.g. Indian, contemporary, modern, cookbooks). Although some communities (e.g. Parsi communities) cannot be spatially located, this map allows us to actively seek out communities that are under-represented.

Since its inception, the Indian Community Cookbook Project has lacked a domain of its own which has limited its reach to audiences that can contribute to the existing repository as well as its utility as a resource. Moreover, there is a scarcity of cookbooks printed in regional languages as opposed to English-printed Indian cookbooks. Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic, online reach has been the sole method of collection. Whilst this is useful in reaching out to online communities on various platforms, this method reinforces a majorly English collection of cookbooks and family recipes due to limitations of online communication and unequal representation of communities online.

Nagaland Cuisine - Rosup (Source: Sangke Konyak)
Nagaland Cuisine - Rosup (Source: Sangke Konyak)

Be it our grandmothers’ recipes made with love that remind us of our childhood, the street vendor’s daily treats that are guilty pleasures, or the sense of belonging that shared food cultures bring within a community, all constitute a living tradition. To grapple with its impermanence, the project seeks to digitize, consolidate and critically engage with collections of Indian community cookbooks, handwritten, oral and printed recipes and food memories. Consequently, there is also an attempt at digitizing discrete community identities. As a pioneering effort in documenting Indian culinary heritage, this project, above all seeks to be an open-access resource for learning and further research into food studies and the role of food in community identity formation.


Further Reading

Ananya Pujary (Left) is an undergraduate student pursuing a Psychology major and Literary & Cultural Studies minor at FLAME University. She has a keen interest in the intersections of culture, community, and mental health.

Khushi Gupta (Right) is an undergraduate student at FLAME University, pursuing a Marketing Major and an open minor focus in Advertising & Design. Expressions of creativity in the areas of Advertising & Design excite her and she loves to explore different food cuisines.

Muskaan Pal (centre) is an undergraduate student at FLAME University, pursuing a degree in Psychology with a minor focus in Economics and Sociology. Her interests lie in the behavioral sciences and digital humanities in a cross-cultural capacity.

Twitter: @CookbooksIndian

Instagram: @indiancommunitycookbooks


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