The first thing I ever cooked came from my mother’s tattered old copy of the Time & Talents cookbook. It was an omelette savoyarde, and I was an enthusiastic 12-year-old, armed with saucepan and knife for the first time in my life. The cook was not a success. The omelette was so runny as to be completely inedible, and after many softly-muttered imprecations, my parents surreptitiously flung it out.
That culinary debacle scarred me for a few years, but then I returned to the kitchen with the recipe for aloo mokala. I had tried the dish at my mum’s friend’s house, a kind lady named Mrs Lentin, and could not stop eating it. The recipe seemed simple enough — fried potatoes, flavoured with turmeric, cloves and cardamoms. What could go wrong?
Plenty, it seems. The oil, angry and hissing, spat out many blistering drops on my hands. I clean forgot to season the potatoes. And my aloo was so crisp when it reached the dining table that as soon as my father tried to spear it with his fork, it bounced off his plate and escaped into my startled grandmother’s lap.
This is not to say that the Time & Talents cookbook is a reservoir of my disappointed hopes, and, therefore, I banished it from my life. Not at all. My mum frequently refers to it, as did her mum before her — I can’t remember a time when it wasn’t a part of our life. I read it incessantly. The literature student in me was especially drawn to the food-related sayings and limericks that are spattered throughout the book. Here we find Don Marquis telling us that “I love you as the New Englanders love pie.” There, Cervantes expounds on the wisdom of dining with friends — “A man must eat a peck of salt with his friend before he knows him.” And in my very early edition — “A woman who cannot make soup should not be allowed to marry.” Hmm.
The cookbook has long been a handy reference to Parsi women everywhere, especially those who are just embarking on their culinary journeys. It is suffused with recipes from around India (I can vouch for Indu Thadani’s recipe for Sindhi bhaji), and the world: before there was Naomi Duguid, there was Yasmin Motivala, telling us how to make khoreshte fesenjan (an Iranian dish of chicken brightened with a tangy pomegranate sauce). Semretab Amsalu’s Ethiopian recipes grew to become personal favourites, and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve cooked Joy Dumas’s Calypso chicken from Trinidad & Tobago.
Most of all, though, it is a repository of traditional Parsi recipes. Not the greatest hits that you might find on a restaurant menu, but the kind of cooking you would unearth in traditional Parsi kitchens. Sifting through the snows, chiffons and soufflés, you will find dishes such as dodhi no doombo (stuffed marrow or pumpkin), colmi no saas (a prawn concoction in an eggy sauce), and vaal ni dar with aloo na patra (bitter beans cooked with arum leaves), the comfort food of my childhood.
It is also more than a treasured cookbook. It acutely captures the zeitgeist of cooking during the time of the colonialism — the first edition was printed in 1935, and many others followed. I myself have three editions! The Time & Talents club was home to a flock of wealthy Parsi women, many of whom yearned to be socially responsible at a time when, perhaps, their agency was limited. A cookbook provided an imprimatur of respectability, and its proceeds were distributed to the poor.
Many ladies contributed to the books; amongst them was the venerable Parsi chef and cookery writer, Bhicoo Manekshaw, whose Parsi Food & Customs is a charming ode to Parsi recipes as well as a repository of our cultural customs, historical, religious, and geographical.
Manekshaw’s book will always occupy a treasured place in my cookbook place, as will Vividh Vani, third in my trinity of iconic Parsi community cookbooks. Published in 1903, in Gujarati, it is full of uncompromising recipes made with utensils I’ve never heard of, all explained in interminable sentences that stretch into paragraphs. Nevertheless, it is well worth the effort —it is after all, an artefact of the fast-vanishing cuisine of my foremothers and forefathers. My home would not be complete without it.