By Bulbul Sharma
Bengali men fantasise about food the way Punjabi men dream about generously built women” is a well-worn cliché. But, it is women, who are intensely involved with food every moment of their lives. Women carry food memories across generations, making sure that the thread remains unbroken from grandmothers to granddaughters.
Most of them never wrote anything down, just narrated stories and embedded the recipes within, effortlessly. We all carry these stories in our heads, heard from our grandmothers, mothers, aunts and even friends. While there is love — “eat one more parantha… you look so thin,” says a loving mother to her overweight daughter — there is also jealousy, bitterness and anger — “her baigan ka bharta was never as good as mine”, “ you know, buaji never told me the entire recipe, she always left out an important ingredient.”
Some of the food stories are an important part of family lore, a record of unforgettable family events. “Remember how masi put salt instead of sugar in the kheer?” Sometimes, they point to an intricate family tree: “My sister-in-law, who made this gobhi shalgam pickle, is actually mamiji’s niece.”
Tasting a dish or just inhaling the aroma of a certain spice can bring forth hidden memories. “What was that dish? Who made it?” you wonder, and then the story unfolds bit by bit, enlivening many related memories.
Each family has a different story and each community has a new version of the same food story. The stories vary in richness, flavour and colour, the way the recipes vary from region to region. One woman’s kadi pakori (made in Punjab with besan and yoghurt) may be another woman’s mattha alu (made in UP with potatoes, besan and yogurt).
Not much has been written about north Indian food. That is why The Sood Family Cookbook (HarperCollins) by Aparna Jain comes as a pleasant surprise. This book began its life as a three-ring binder shared by 70 members of the author’s extended family and their close friends. The recipes have been collected from various parts of the world, where the members of the clan moved to — from the mountains of Shimla, where it all began, to Bengal, Italy, Thailand and Switzerland, to Toronto, New York and Bostond.
Jain, a former techie from Silicon Valley, describes how she learnt to cook, “by thinking on my feet”, when she landed in Geneva. Like most people of her age, she had no experience of the kitchen, but learning to cook alone in a faraway land taught her to do things her own way and perfect the art of cooking on-the-go, though after a few tense episodes. “I panicked and called my aunts and uncles for recipes, and was met with the same answer from all of them: ‘Recipe? Bete, we do not write recipes, we just know what to do. And we really can’t tell you the measures, it’s all instinct.’ So I just had to scribble down whatever they could tell me.”
The author then began collecting recipes from various members of her extended family. “Living in nuclear families in cities around the world, we all wanted to find ways of replicating the specialties that certain family members were renowned for, but did not know how to do it. It was also a way of reliving the memories associated with food,” she says.
This book, which the author calls “a gift from my family to you”, is for young adults setting up their own homes anywhere in the world. They can go on a food journey to make pahaadi dhaniya chicken, Kashmiri yakhni, Syrian mutton kebab, Nepali tomato chutney or Hyderabadi masoor dal.There is an unusual and easy-to-make recipe for chicken rasam. The Sood family seems to be experts at making up their own unique dishes, and the author has explained the route each dish has taken. There are recipes for chutneys, not just our traditional mango and lime, but a banana saunth chutney and a Nepali tomato one. It does not stay with one kind of cooking and often feels you are reading a travelogue and a family saga rolled into one as you go from one part of the world to another.
Not just members of the Sood family, but anyone who reads the book will recall their own moments with a particular recipe or ingredient, creating a food story yet again. Bong Mom’s Cookbook (HarperCollins) by Sandeepa Mukherjee Datta is another cookbook that charts family history. As we read the stories that weave in and out of the recipes, we also get involved in the author’s life and family history. As we taste the delicately flavoured bati chorchori, the rich dhokar dalna, and creamy prawn malaikari, we listen to fond tales about her grandparents, dip into her childhood and get to know amusing details of her adult life.
The description of elaborate Sunday morning breakfasts with luchi, green-peas kochuri and aloo chorchori will make you hungry, and as you settle down for a long lunch with an impressive line of fish curries, you will feel hungrier. There is a classic hilsa fish curry steamed in mustard sauce, an unusual tomato fish and my favourite doi maachh (yoghurt fish), besides the famous muri ghonto, a fish head curry, dreaded by all except a born-in-Bengal Bengali. If you do not like muri ghonto, you are sneered at and called a “traitor”, and I am one of them. I once saw a Punjabi friend leap up from the dining table in horror when she suddenly spotted a huge fish eyeball staring at her from a plate. She turned a vegetarian soon after, at least whenever she visited our house. My children, who are half Punjabi, were always suspicious of any fish curry “lest it bite”. Dutta has also described recipes of various chutneys, an important part of the Bengali cuisine.
Food memories are precious and we need to preserve them in many different ways. A cookbook with stories seems to be the best and easiest way to do it. (Bulbul Sharma is a painter and writer)