The Marathi cookbook Panchali Thali’s index runs into multiple pages. It features 47 types of lonchis (pickles), 66 mutton dishes—from kalemeeriche lasanwala mutton to paya masala, 82 fish preparations—bombilaache umrole (bombay duck sheera) to kaalvan (gol fish), 102 vegetarian dishes, 129 sweets and the list goes on. Zahra Azad’s cookbook, Indo-Pakistani Cuisine, chronicles dishes enjoyed by families before Partition divided identities, including khichda, baigun (eggplant) ka achar and gulgulays (sweetened flour balls). SM Joshua’s handwritten recipes passed down through generations include recipes for a secret Manglorean masala and dahi machli.
A treasure trove of recipes
Before these exhaustive, generation-old gems are lost, three students are on a quest to archive community recipes from across India. The brainchild of Ananya Pujary, Khushi Gupta and Muskaan Pal, The Indian Community Cookbook Project not just digitises handwritten recipes by different authors, but also oral notes from different regions in the country, including food from South Canara (now Dakshina Kannada), Odisha, Sindh, Kerala, Nagaland, as well as different communities within these states such as Khoja Muslims from Gujarat, Tuluva from Karnataka, and the Konkani community.
The website is divided into three sections—Archives (oral and written recipes), Timelines (a feature that traces the history and evolution of cookbooks) and The Modern Cookbook Story (an interactive map embedded with the growing collection and names of cookbooks since 1990).
The project started off in 2019 as a college thesis for their ‘Introduction to Digital Humanities’ class at Flame University in Pune, but “it became so much more than that”. “We realised that the community I belong to, which is Tuluva from Karnataka, relied heavily on oral tradition that wasn’t documented. So, we started off with recipes from the region, but realised that numerous other recipes by other Indian communities are not documented anywhere,” says Pujary. The students wanted to preserve these recipes for future generations, as the recipes we document today will determine how they see Indian food tomorrow. “In the day and age of globalisation, mass migration and homogenization of Indian cuisine, we wanted to formally document these recipes so that they are not forgotten. We decided to create an online repository that would be accessible and free,” says Pal.
When the trio started out, they got by with recipes from friends and family and secondary resources. But slowly, as the project gained momentum over the next three years, people began to write to them with their family recipes handed down to them. The students also went the extra mile to ensure that they represented as many regions as they could. “While researching we found that cookbooks from the North-East were few and homogenized. You often find books that speak to all of the Northeast rather than a specific state or community. For instance, The Seven Sisters: Kitchen Tales from the North East by Purabi Shridhar and The Essential North-East Cookbook by Hoihnu Hauzel,” says Pal.
To get their hands on recipes from specific states, Pal wrote to the cast of Axone, a film that follows the life of Northeast migrants in Delhi. This is how a recipe of dried axone pork from Nagaland was added to the archives. Axone, pronounced as akhuni, is a fermented soya bean known for its heady flavour and smell. It is used to prepare pickles and chutneys, and in fish, pork, chicken and beef curry.
‘Recipes are alternate history’
The project is so much more than just archiving recipes, though. These cookbooks have been used as means for people to connect to their roots. “By preserving their food, people are preserving the historical knowledge of where they belong. It provides an alternative history of India,” says Pujary. It also provides a sense of place and belonging. “Tried and Tasted by Nargis Mithani is a culmination of recipes from the Khoja community. The cookbook is an extension of her food memories and how certain recipes have been influenced by the cities she has lived in, from Mumbai to Bengaluru,” says Pal. Although the recipes are in different languages, including Marathi and Kannada, they are retained in their original form, cataloguing the author’s original handwriting or voice, with the translation on the side.
The students have traced the evolution of Indian Anglo-Indian, Goan, Bengali and Tamil cookbooks through a timeline on their website. “The writing down of recipes began to flourish during the British Raj. English housewives compiled cookbooks for their staff. It was only in the late 1800s that regional cookbooks were released. And when Partition happened, a lot more were produced so people could refer to recipes once they peregrinated far and wide. These recipes became a nostalgic artefact,” says Gupta.
Many of the early cookbooks were written so the British could instruct Indian cooks on how to make certain British delicacies, Pal points out. “However, we notice a stark difference in our oral archive. For instance, our collection holds a recipe of Mutton Curry from the Bohri Ahlavi community. The lady talks about the dish in a very personal manner, without any specific measurements for certain ingredients, almost humanising the recipe.”
In the near future, the students wish to turn the project into a self-sufficient repository of not just recipes but also food memories for oral histories, where people can add to the collection and contribute to the website. Pujary says, “It’s a never-ending project. We just want to add as many recipes from as many communities as we can.”
You can contribute to the archives by filling out this form.