The cookbook that challenges culinary clones
A cookbook writer makes a case for storytelling in recipe documentation to win against assembly-line YouTube videos and slick coffee-table tomes
It's a hypocritical thing for a cookbook author to say. Worse, for someone who obsessively buys cookbooks and reads them in bed like novels. But the truth is, I seldom cook from cookbooks. Strict measures bore me. I feel like I have no control on the cooking process whatsoever. A strictly prescriptive recipe can often be intimidating to a novice cook and downright boring to a slightly accomplished one. As a novice, I am likely to think, "there seem to be very strict rules here, and I don't want to do anything wrong." On the other hand, if I am used to cooking, I'd think the recipe is dumbing things down, not allowing me to enjoy the process of creating something. I like to think of a recipe as something that grabs me by the hand and says, "Hey, let's take a walk to someplace new tonight!"; a departure from the everyday. There are exceptions, of course—baking or sugar craft, for instance, where the slightest change in temperature could result in absolute failure.
Broadly, however, I think the job of a cookbook writer is not to provide "one" recipe but instead, empower the reader-cook to make several versions of that recipe and make it their own. It's to reassure, and say, it's going to turn out great even if you are missing a few ingredients or your garnish isn't placed just so.
For starters, there are technical reasons for not following a recipe to the last word. "Cook the onions for five minutes on high flame" seems self-explanatory in a recipe for a stir-fried okra sabzi, but the amount of heat my stove emanates when on high compared to the recipe writer's could be different, as could be the thickness of the onion slices we cut. Wouldn't it help to add "until the onions begin to brown at the edges"? A novice cook or one experimenting with a new cuisine/recipe does not have the reference points that a seasoned cook takes for granted; a recipe writer must be empathetic to this.
Khandekar with her grandmother Usha Kulkarni, who she says taught her how to make the perfect bhakri. "There are no measures, proportions, or timelines (to her recipe). And yet, it creates for the recipe reader a vivid enough picture of the process and perhaps marks the point where the reader begins to transform into a cook, anticipating the next stages of cooking, inhaling the aromas and judging the doneness of the bhakri." Pics/Sneha Kharabe
Oral traditions achieved this with such ease that we didn't realise that we were learning a new skill. Recipes were passed on by word of mouth, often outside the kitchen, in a non-demo situation. I remember when my grandmother taught me how to make bhakri—she wasn't actually teaching me; she was merely talking me through the process as I sat perched on a high stool near her kitchen counter, all of 10 or so, more interested in eating the bhakri than learning how to make it. She'd say: "Before you bring out the flour, put the concave cast iron bhakri tava on the flame and fill it with water. Don't ever use the flat tava we use for poli (wholewheat chapati) or the water will run out; besides, once the bhakri is done, you can make thecha on the same tava! Now, remove the required quantity of flour in your paraat—a loose fistful per head. Make a well in the flour using your fingertips. By now, the water in the tava will have little bubbles. Turn down the heat and pour some of the water in your flour well. Push in some of the flour from the edges. Work quickly, mix the flour and water together, adding a little water at a time to make a soft dough. You may need more water, but don't bother with heating it again, just use room temperature water. Place the tava back on the stove. Knead the dough in stretching motions, pushing it with the palm of your hand and collecting it again. Knead it like this until the dough is soft, does not crack or stick to the base of your paraat or your fingers. Unlike a poli dough, this will not get stretchy but will become soft and smooth. Pinch off a ball of dough to make your bhakri and cover the remaining dough with an upturned bowl while you pat your first one..."
It is a "recipe" that left an indelible mark on my culinary makeup. I can now proudly make a pile of bhakris without breaking into a sweat. The "recipe" isn't a recipe as much as it is a technique. There are no measures, proportions, or timelines. And yet, it creates for the recipe reader a vivid enough picture of the process and perhaps marks the point where the reader begins to transform into a cook, anticipating the next stages of cooking, inhaling the aromas and judging the doneness of the bhakri.
Then, of course, is the case for the narrative. I believe that a story aids any kind of learning, and cooking is no exception. There are far greater chances of recall if the recipe is associated with a story from the writer's personal experience—that one time the recipe flopped entirely or the legend the writer heard from their kitchen house help, who taught them the recipe in the first place—these make not just for pleasant, enriched reading, but also help the cook relive the experience as if it were their own. As my reader, and someone who I'm hoping will cook from my book, I'd like you to come sit with me on that high stool as my grandmother talks about the bhakri.
Unfortunately, a disappointingly large majority of cookbooks are PR tools, ghostwritten in a hurry by those with second-hand access to the recipes or the food experiences that the book aims to showcase. These titles are often, stunningly photographed and laid out, and boast of very high production values. Truth be told, I'd love a book like that with my name on it, but if it ever really came to a choice, the narrative would always win. If I can help somebody imagine a recipe, taste something as they read a description, in their head before they enter the kitchen or experiment with an ingredient they've never bought, then, I think, the experience of cooking will stay with them far longer. Some of the older cookbooks—community cookbooks or those by writers like Julia Child can still help you create a delectable and often complex dish without the aid of a single picture.
In my books—and more recently, in the recipes I share on Instagram—I try and prioritise flavours and textures and offer as many ingredient alternatives as I can. Because isn't that how we cook at home? We run out of ingredients, we run out of time, we have cravings at unearthly hours, we want to eat something familiar yet new and more than anything else, we want to nourish the soul. Sometimes, I get asked how much chilli powder a particular recipe needs. My answer, invariably, is "to taste" but with a general guidance on the profile of the dish—is the chilli supposed to be a low hum at the back or knock-your-socks-off heavy? A thecha will still be a thecha with two chillies less, and you will likely enjoy it more than if you were to spend the meal washing it down with iced water. Therein lies the answer.
Measuring volume as opposed to providing precise measures and temperatures help a cook to approach the recipe more practically. Ratios and proportions are timeless and can be easily executed by cooks even centuries later while measures can sometimes go out of use (what is a seer in 2020?) A pound cake is a prime example of a timeless recipe—the 18th century recipe is, simply, a pound of every ingredient—eggs, flour, sugar, butter. Nobody uses pound measures anymore, but the logic of the recipe—all ingredients in equal quantities—still works.
Sandor Katz, the self-taught guru of fermentation, usually abandons the conventional recipe format because the subject expects you to understand the science, to develop an instinct for it and be more aware of the weather conditions in which you are cooking. His book, The Art of Fermentation, is full of tips and troubleshooting advice but steers clear of methods reduced to bullet points; and yet, as you read through, you can hear the fizz of home-brewed tepache or taste the tang in a loaf of sourdough even before you venture into the kitchen.
At a time when YouTube videos are making cookbooks near-obsolete, a cookbook writer needs to re-evaluate the audience and the objective. Forgive me this jargon; I have a background in instructional design—but this experience has taught me to always list the learning objectives of a module—what is the user expected to achieve at the end of the programme? Is it to produce a dish that is a clone of the picture in the cookbook or to produce several different versions of it, all delicious and yet excitingly new? For a home cook, though, or for any cook who hopes to produce food that is evocative in any setting, commercial or otherwise, this realisation is important—the transient beauty of a dish is akin to an inimitable handloom saree; there can't be another exactly like it again.
The writer is an author and culinary consultant. Follow her @skoranne, Instagram
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