Taste of life: Cookbooks, the recipes for cultural revolution – Hindustan Times

A nine-year-old girl was married off to a 20-year-old man in Madurai. A day after the girl set foot in her new home, her father-in-law asked her to take care of the lunch. The poor girl did not know how to cook. Do you know, why? She was busy attending school. The father-in-law beat the girl. So, if you dont want your daughter to get beaten, make sure she reads and learns how to cook with the help of this book. Kasiviswanath Mudliar wrote this in the preface of his Tamil cookbook Pakasastram in 1867.

Most Indian cookery writers in the late 19th and early 20th century expressed similar sentiments while introducing their cookbooks.

Women started stepping out to go to school and college. They were working as teachers or clerks. And that made them forget how to cook, according to the authors.

The men were unhappy and hungry, and to salvage their marriages and help their country prosper, they had to cook with the help of cookbooks, they wrote.

Cookbooks are more than a combination of recipes; they are cultural and socio-political documents in which authors imprint their identity and ideology.

They reflect how their authors understood society and culture as well as individual identity. They transmit knowledge, and a recipe functions as part of a permanent record rather than as oral tradition passed from chef to apprentice.

A cookbook can be viewed as autobiographical, that is, the recipes can be examined for insights into food preference. It can be seen as prescriptive of their ideals and aspirations.

The historical value of a cookbook lies also in the prefaces, acknowledgements, other notices and notes that accompany recipes.

These supplementary notations offer more than glimpses of meal planning and recipes. They inform us of processes in which dishes were hybridised and emerged as part and parcel of the cuisine.

Indian, British and Anglo-Indian authors used their cookbooks to depict India in a way they might understand it, often encoding nationalist and revivalist agenda in the process.

They mostly based their cookbooks around Domesticity, a Victorian construct, where the wife was supposed to cook and look after the house, while the husband earned a living. The gruhini (ideal housewife) was responsible for creating a pure and pristine (and nationalist) household, both for display and to help the men serve the nation. Cookbooks and household manuals provided instructions on how to manage the household, how to maintain cleanliness in the home, and above all, how to feed a family, and visiting guests.

Mrs. Parvatibai, the author of the first Marathi non-vegetarian cookbook Mamsapakanishpatti athava maams matsyadik prakar tayar karane (How to cook non vegetarian dishes) published in September 1883, too recommended her book to educated women, because she felt they did not know how to cook. But, her approach was more progressive than other cookbook writers. She was enthusiastic about women going to schools and learning how to read, write and knit.

Parvatibai was the first Maharashtrian woman to write a cookbook. That she penned non-vegetarian recipes is fascinating, given the taboo around eating meat in nineteenth century Pune. She lived in Pune. The book does not mention her surname or address.

Shripatrao Kondajirao Yelwande published the book. He was a commission agent with his office near Belbaug chowk. In his short introduction, he stressed the need for more cookbooks written by women and blamed their laziness for not investing time in intellectual endeavors. He assured readers that Parvatibai belonged to a noble, Hindu family.

The cookbook was printed on a lithographic press and was priced at six annas. It had 42 recipes and was divided into three parts. The first part described recipes using mutton, poultry and eggs; the second part had fish, while the last part had recipes with mutton and fish in Musalmani paddhati.

The recipes were simple and rustic. At the beginning of each recipe, Parvatibai listed spices and condiments used. She did not use coconut, peanuts and sesame, but instead, used gram flour to thicken the gravy.

The dishes mentioned in the book were served in upper-class, non-Brahmin households of 19th century Pune. They included mutton curry, meat rice, fried liver, prawns curry, fried crabs, egg saguti, seeg kebab, bakarkhani, shami kebab, kheema and egg curry. Some dishes like bombay duck curry and meat gravy (Parvatibai terms it as ras) had two alternate recipes. There were three recipes of Pulao one without using mutton stock. Eating chicken was frowned upon in many Hindu households till the middle of 20th century. So, its not surprising that there were only two recipes which used chicken.

The book ended with a list of almost 200 donors from all over Maharashtra (and Indore and Baroda) who pre-booked their copies and thus funded the publication.

Some of them were students studying in a missionary school and some, sex-workers.

Parvatibais instructions were precise. She did not tell her readers to rely on their own judgement while adding salt and coriander, and gave exact measurements (1 tola salt in most of the recipes). Her use of words like chakolya, guldhava (pink), nazar indicate she might have had some connection with the erstwhile Marathwadas.

Parvatibai was humble. The recipes I have included in my book are simple and not uncommon. I have not written this book to flaunt my writing ability. Nor do I want to earn money. I simply want to help women who do not know how to cook, she wrote.

Publishing a non-vegetarian cookbook in 19th century orthodox Pune was no mean feat. But, Parvatibais greater contribution is her short introduction where she applauded women who were learning something new. She did not look down upon women who could read and write. And this is a far greater achievement!

Chinmay Damle is a research scientist and food enthusiast. He writes here on Punes food culture. He can be contacted at chinmay.damle@gmail.com

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Taste of life: Cookbooks, the recipes for cultural revolution - Hindustan Times

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