The renaissance of India’s regional cuisines via community cookbooks

A group of three archivists are preserving age-old recipes from multiple communities to help you stay close to your roots.

ByPrutha Chakraborty

Published Jan 22, 2023 | 11:00 AM Updated Jan 25, 2023 | 11:01 AM

Former classmates and friends Ananya Pujary, Khushi Gupta and Muskaan Pal founded the Indian Community Cookbooks Project. (Supplied)

Ananya Pujary’s mother is a kitchen conjurer. Their roots are from the Billava community — the Tulu-speaking people who primarily engaged in agricultural occupations such as toddy drawing and who led the animistic worship of ancestors like the “bhootas”.

Members of this ethnic group — which is a sub-group of the Tuluva community — can be traced in Karnataka’s Dakshina Kannada district.

“My mother is passionate about our community food and food in general, and I’d like to think that I inherited that passion,” shares the 22-year-old, who is originally from Mangaluru.

Origin of the ICCP

Pujary, who is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Data Analytics and Computational Social Science in the US, is still close to her Tulu roots — thanks to the stories she grew up hearing about her community’s history from her family, who largely rely on oral retellings of recipes, traditions, and rituals.

“Food forms a very important part of our ancestral rituals such as the ‘Bhoota Kola’,” she adds. “Our mother tongue is Tulu, but the Tigalari script has been lost over time due to lack of usage.”

The team behind ICCP. (Supplied)

The team behind ICCP. (Supplied)

This, she feels, could have influenced the lack of written documentation of her community’s rich culture and history. But Pujary is on the path to change that.

Along with her friends and former classmates — Khushi Gupta and Muskaan Pal — Pujary runs the Indian Community Cookbooks Project (ICCP).

The ICCP features a list of curated timelines of region-wise cuisines and their histories via cookbooks written from time immemorial.

Mapping India’s food history

It all started in 2019 when the trio, studying at Pune’s FLAME University, formed ICCP as part of the digital humanities course.

“I came to realise that not a lot of people know about the Tulu community I was from, let alone our traditions,” Pujary tells South First.

Initially, the project was just about preserving a single community’s recipes and food traditions. However, after thorough research, the women discovered that there was no digital archive of recipes and food traditions for a number of communities across India.

“We recognised this as a major gap because of how Indian food has been homogenised in the global eye. This homogenisation does not accurately represent the diverse and vibrant nature of Indian cuisines or how it has evolved over time with ingredient availability, migration, and cooking techniques,” she adds.

Ragi manni — a Tuluva dish — is a traditional, healthy dessert made with finger millets, jaggery, and coconut milk. (Supplied)

Ragi manni — a Tuluva dish — is a traditional, healthy dessert made with finger millets, jaggery, and coconut milk. (Supplied)

For instance (and not many know this), the Tuluva community’s food has been highly influenced by the local availability of ingredients: seafood (pomfret, prawns, squid), coconuts, locally-grown vegetables (amaranth, colocasia, moringa, Mangalore cucumber) millets, rice, kokum (Garcinia indica) as a souring agent, jarige puli (Garcinia morella) used in seafood dishes, jaggery or palm sugar (vole bella) as sweetening agents, bananas, and jackfruit.

“Our community’s dishes tend to be steamed or cooked in coal, and use special earthenware utensils. Nowadays, steel vessels are more common. During ‘aati’ or the monsoon season, local fishermen don’t go fishing and vegetables are scarce. Thus, ingredients like jackfruit and Mangalore cucumber are preserved in salted water (thalli) and turned into pickles,” says Pujary.

Cooking techniques practiced by Pujary’s community are thus eco-conscious.

“Our community also has a tradition of preparing home medicines, like ‘oma adthina’ and ‘kashaya’ from local herbs, especially for postpartum conditions and small body ailments,” she says.

Another side of history

Khushi Gupta, 23 years old — originally from Jaipur but raised in Tiruchy — says that such age-old traditional recipes tell us a story about our ancestors and our vibrant past.

“The ingredients used in the past, the measurements, vessels, and cooking equipment tell us about a region’s vegetation and consumption pattern. For example, in desert states like Rajasthan, pantry-based recipes like mangodi and daal bati were cooked because of lack of vegetation in the state. Similarly, in southern states like Kerala, most dishes have a coconut base because of the abundance of coconut in the state,” Gupta informs.

She insists that these recipes are relevant even today, especially since the present generation lacks understanding of the country’s rich food culture.

Also Read: Coconut oil adulteration in Kerala

“Preserving these traditional recipes helps us stay closer to our roots and also helps us maintain a healthy lifestyle. It is very much akin to preserving the identities of communities too,” she adds.

This got the ball rolling for ICCP.

Revival of classic cuisines

The ICCP website has a section called “Timelines” where the trio features published cookbooks chronologically, based on the region and community.

The “Archives” section features family cookbooks, recipes, and food memories stored in the form of handwritten, printed, and audio-visual media.

“Lastly, we found that certain Indian cuisines got more representation in printed cookbooks compared to others, so we wanted to spatially plot this unequal distribution using ArcGIS (‘Modern Cookbook Story’ on our website). With these elements, we constructed our website to serve as a comprehensive digital archive of Indian community cookbooks,” Pujary shares.

But are these recipes generation-friendly?

“It is all about perspective,” quips 21-year-old Muskaan Pal, a Mehrauli resident. The third brain behind ICCP, Pal is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Behavioural Science at the London School of Economics.

“ICCP as an effort definitely recognises that a lot of the older recipes can be harder to replicate or incorporate in current-day food practices just because of technological change, globalisation, and even changing gender roles and lifestyles. This is why the focus is more on food being relevant because it is a lens through which one can see history,” Pal adds.

Pachaprakaranam was written by TN Kurien pre-independence. (Supplied)

Pachakaprakaranam was written by TN Kurien pre-independence. (Supplied)

All the Indian cuisines, she says, are linked to their sociopolitical histories. Foreign influences, migration, and geographical conditions played a major role in shaping foods.

“For instance, the oldest of cookbooks in Bengali food reflect Farsi and Mughal influences,” Pal explains.

She adds, “Whereas one of the oldest cookbooks in Kerala food reflects Syrian Christian influences. As Kerala is on the coast, its cuisine reflects coastal flavours like coconut and seafood, whereas Rajasthan being a landlocked state, has predominantly grain and dairy-based foods.”

So what is the most fascinating story that the trio has come across, while curating the list of cookbooks for ICCP?

“It has to be of Mrs TN Kurien and her book Pachakaprakaranam – which is the first-ever recipe book published in Malayalam,” Gupta answers.

She adds, “Kurien was a pioneer in Syrian Christian cuisine recipe books. Pachakaprakaranam was first published in 1938, the second version came out in 1958, and it was reprinted in 2019. To have a book published pre-Independence by a woman — and for it to still be relevant — is undoubtedly a great inspiration.”

Also Read: Theatre artist talks of Dalit food, serves memories of oppression

It’s not always ‘typical’

Malabar Muslim Cookery was published in 1981. (Supplied)

Malabar Muslim Cookery was published in 1981. (Supplied)

This writer’s personal favourite in the Kerala cookbooks collection is Malabar Muslim Cookery, published in 1981.

Pal says that this book is an ode to the Muslim communities that come under the Mappila belt in Northern Kerala (Moplah cuisine).

It breaks the myth that traditional food from the region bursts only with coconut, rice, and fish curry.

“In fact, ghee instead of coconut oil is extensively used in Moplah cuisine and so are techniques like stuffing meat with meat,” Pal adds.

The trio plans to make ICCP a self-sufficient platform in the future. “Our most immediate plans are to focus on building the repository, connecting with people, and refining the blueprints we started with, in terms of how best we can preserve the stories we collect,” Pal concludes.