Earlier this week I enjoyed reading Bettina Makalintal’s piece for Munchies on American food media’s tendency to flatten and collapse heterogeneous culinary traditions into national ones. Late in the piece the owner of a culinary bookstore, Ken Concepcion, is quoted as follows: “I’m sure there are amazing regional books about Chinese food, about China, or regional Pakistani books, but they’re not written in English”. On Twitter I noted that in the case of Indian cuisines, at least, a number of excellent regional cookbooks exist, many written in English, others translated into it. The problem, I noted, is that American food media has no interest—for the most part—in these books. Then I thought that I should put my money where my mouth is and actually list some of these books for interested parties. Global ecommerce means we aren’t limited to what American publishers choose to put out: most of the books that follow are easily available online for less than you would pay for some overpriced restaurant or cooking show host’s cookbook that you will never actually cook anything from. You’re welcome.
I should say first of all that this is not meant to be any kind of comprehensive list. (In the academic racket we refer to this kind of statement as “limiting the terms of discussion” aka “covering your ass”.) It’s an entirely idiosyncratic list based on my own relatively small collection of cookbooks and those of my friends Anjali, Aparna and Prachi with whom I spend an hour or two over the day, every day across timezones on Whatsapp. Our usual topics of conversation are food, academic gossip, Indian and American politics and the evergreen topic of where we should escape to (Finland and Uruguay are the current front-runners). All the virtues in the list that follows are due to my rigour; all errors and instances of chauvinist bias, poor taste and confusion have been introduced by them—particularly by Anjali who contributed such nuggets as “Btw, I have this cookbook in Marathi that belonged to my m-i-l, haven’t really tried anything from it. do any of you know about this book?” Somehow I have soldiered on.
But, as I say, this is not a comprehensive list. I invite you to write in to the comments to excoriate me for leaving out an obvious entry or, as we say in the academic racket, to supplement it. The list is also inconsistently annotated: if you have questions about any of the entries, ask in the comments. I begin with a couple of books that fall in the “not national but not hyper-regional” category and then drill down by state/community. Please keep in mind that even state cuisines are a bit of a generalization. If you are someone whose family intermarried between communities or regions in the same state you know how different the food is depending on which side of the family you are visiting (in my own family the East/West Bengal divide is clear and there’s a great deal of granularity within East/West as well). In order to not put relevant parties on guard I have not mentioned too many hard to find books of yesteryear that I plan to steal whenever I have the opportunity. If you own one of them and invite me into your house you are just asking me to take them. This is legal, by the way—I asked Rudy Giuliani.
[I should note as well that when purchase links go to Amazon they are affiliate links (meaning I will make a few cents if you actually purchase the book). Alas, while I love to support indie bookstores, the titles not published by American imprints are hard to find except on Amazon.]
General South Indian
Dakshin, Chandra Padmanabhan. First published in the early-mid 1990s this was one of the first major books in the decade that saw a revitalization of the Indian cookbook market in English and the rise of awareness of South Indian cooking beyond the idli-dosa-sambar cliches. Despite the name (which means South) the emphasis is really on Tamil-Brahmin cooking, which means it’s entirely vegetarian. Not representative as such of either Tamil Nadu writ large to say nothing of the larger South, which is overwhelmingly non-vegetarian, but still an essential book.
Tiffin, Rukmini Srinivas. Part-cookbook, part-memoir, this is a more recent book and, like Dakshin, is also a Tam-Brahm book that ostensibly presents itself as covering more ground than it does. Well worth a look anyway, says Aparna, even though Srinivas does not put dried cranberries in her pongal. Aparna also insists I tell you that Rukmini Srinivas was married to M.N Srinivas, the eminent sociologist and anthropologist.
Flavours of the Spice Coast, Mrs. K.M. Mathew. People who know me are sick of hearing me go on about this book. It’s low on contextual information but very high on absolutely excellent recipes. The only discordant note is the absence of beef recipes in a cookbook from a state where Hindus see beef-eating as part of their identity. But we can probably ascribe that to political considerations (there are recipes where you are told you can use mutton (goat) or “any other meat”). Make the meatball recipe and buy the book.
The Essential Kerala Cookbook, Vijayan Kannampilly. I have sung the praises of this book before (and also posted a recipe from it). This is the first entry on this list from Penguin India’s excellent regional cookbook series that kicked off in the late 1990s. My copy has a lot of stained pages. Unlike Mrs. Mathew’s book—and like all the books in the Penguin series—it presents a lot of contextual information and breaks recipes down by community of origin (whether Muslim, Syrian Christian or Hindu).
Malabar Muslim Cookery, Ummi Abdulla. First published in the early 1980s and focused on the cuisine of the Mappila Muslims of northern Kerala, this is an essential book. And, oh shit, there’s more to seek out.
Grains, Greens and Grated Coconuts, Ammini Ramachandran. I have sung the praises of Ammini’s book on many occasions. Focused on vegetarian Hindu cooking, Ammini’s book is both a cultural history and a recipe book. If you’ve ignored my previous recommendations please buy it now.
Samaithu Paar, Meenakshi Ammal. This is the Tam-Brahm food bible, published in the middle of the 20th century and an essential part of the training manuals with which young women were sent off to begin married life. These patriarchal origins notwithstanding, this is a classic of the genre—and I love the name which means, “Cook and See”. The original Tamil books run into 3 volumes.
The English translation is a single volume that is presented as “The Best of Samaithu Paar” All three volumes are available in English translation as is a single-volume “Best of” edition (which is what I have. (Thanks to Maith Iyengar for the correction.)
The Bangala Table, Meenakshi Meyappan, Sumeet Nair et al. At the opposite end of the Brahmin vegetarian cuisine detailed in Samaithu Paar is the food of Chettinad, heavy with meat and fish. This is the one restaurant, or rather hotel cookbook on this list, being a presentation of the cuisine of The Bangala, a heritage hotel in Chettinad. The recipes are good and the the historical/contextual materials are very good too.
The Essential Kodava Cookbook, C.B Muthamma, P. Gangamma Bopanna. This is a book—featuring the cuisine of Kodagu/Coorg—that I have been after forever. I failed to purchase it when Penguin published it and have been chasing it ever since. If you are a very wealthy person you can pay the king’s ransom being asked for it on Amazon. Prachi has a copy and taunts me with images while saying she has never cooked from it. I will have my vengeance, in this world or the next.
The Udupi Kitchen, Malati Srinivasan, Geetha Rao. This book presents the vegetarian cuisine of the town of Udupi which usually is the food most North Indians think of when they think of South Indian food. However, the recipes in the book are far from those for the Udupi all-stars. Indeed, Aparna notes that most of these are dishes she hadn’t even encountered until she met her partner whose family is from the region.
The Essential Andhra Cookbook, Bilkees Latif. Like Vijayan’s book this covers the food of multiple communities, in this case of the erstwhile state of Andhra Pradesh (now split into Andhra Pradesh and Telangana). The baghare baingan recipe alone is worth the price of entry.
The Essential Goa Cookbook, Maria Teresa Menezes. Goan food is barely known outside of Goa and the one dish that is well-known—the vindaloo—is much mutilated in the West and misunderstood even in other parts of India. Read this book, another in Penguin’s series, and find out how much you don’t know.
The Essential Marathi Cookbook, Kaumudi Marathé. Yet another in Penguin’s series, this presents a good overview of broader Marathi foodways.
Pangat, Saee Koranne-Khandekar. Marathé’s book is doomed to be replaced entirely, however, by this contemporary classic that I have not yet cooked from but which no one whose opinions I trust can stop raving about. Koranne-Khandekar’s book, published last year, had its origins in a Facebook group and ranges across the foodways of the entire state of Maharashtra and the Marathi diaspora. Buy it, if only to be with it.
Ruchira, Kamalabai Ogale. Far more granular is Ogale’s classic Ruchira, a vegetarian/Brahmin cookbook of the old school. Like Samaithu Paar, the original ran into multiple volumes but the English translation comprises a single “Best Of” collection. What are you going to do? Learn Marathi? (Read more about it and the food it covers here.)
Rasachandrika, Saraswat Mahila Samaj. Similarly old-school is this community cookbook that details the foodways of the Saraswat Brahmins—who like Bengali Brahmins are not pure vegetarians. This is a cookbook as daily manual not as coffee table browser. You know you want it.
The Indecisive Chicken: Stories and Recipes from Eight Dharavi Cooks, Prajna Desai. This book, published in 2015, is different from all the others listed here as it’s not a regional or community cookbook in the way region and community work in the rest of the list. A project emerging from the cooking workshop organized by the Dharavi Biennale, it instead presents recipes and stories from eight cooks who live in the Bombay neighbourhood of Dharavi—usually referred to and dismissed as a slum. The women whose stories and recipes are presented here come from different communities (in the usual Indian sense) and the book represents the heterogeneous nature of metropolitan Indian cities. It is also unusual in being printed bilingually, in both English and Hindi. Alas, it is now out of print but I list it here and urge you to get it if you find it.
Parsi Food and Customs, Bhicoo Manekshaw. Manekshaw oversaw the Penguin regional series and her own book on Parsi cuisine is very much worth a look. Parsi cuisine encompasses a number of regions as the Parsis themselves are distributed across Bombay, Gujarat and other parts of central India. There’s not much awareness of Parsi cuisine outside India (or within it for that matter) and if you’re interested you should take a look.
My Bombay Kitchen: Traditional and Modern Parsi Home Cooking, Niloufer Ichaporia King. Or you could get US-based Niloufer Ichaporia King’s book, which is apparently going to be reprinted soon. Many years ago a website I co-ran was among the first to feature the book when it was first published and I’m very glad to see it coming back in print again.
On the Threshold of Kitchen, Ruxmani Danthi, Bindu Danthi. This set of four books, which comes highly recommended by Anjali, is almost impossible to find (I will be stealing it from her once the pandemic ends) but I am listing it so that you can join the hunt. This review—which I only just realized is written by my friend Rushina—will tell you why you should bother looking for it.
Flavours of Delhi, Charmane O’Brien. Yet another from Penguin India, Charmane O’Brien’s book can be a bit maddening if you want to use it as a recipe book. This because it is not organized by ingredients/recipes but by Delhi history. Well worth a look though for more than just the recipes.
The Essential Delhi Cookbook, Priti Narain. Also excellent is this entry in the Penguin regional cookbooks series proper which also presents the food of Delhi as represented by the many communities that call it home.
Kashmiri Cooking, Krishna Prasad Dar. Kashmiri food is also little known or understood outside Kashmir. There are a few restaurants of uneven quality in Delhi—I’m not sure what the situation is elsewhere. Krishna Prasad Dar’s book—yes, it’s also from Penguin India—presents both Kashmiri Pandit food and Muslim food (Kashmiri Pandits—like Saraswat and Bengali brahmins—are not pure vegetarian). It doesn’t however contain much by way of contextual cultural information.
The Essential Sindhi Cookbook, Aroona Reejhsinghani. The Sindhis are another scattered people (across India, Pakistan and the diaspora) and chances are that if you’re not close to a Sindhi family you’ve never eaten Sindhi food. The good news is that Reejsinghani’s book—you’ll never guess who the publisher is—can help you make it for yourself.
The Calcutta Cookbook, Minakshie Das Gupta et al. Das Gupta’s earlier book, Bangla Ranna (or Bengali Cooking) is a classic but it is very hard to find. This book, first published in 1995, the year after she passed away, is a worthy monument to her zeal to preserve the knowledge of the various cuisines of the city as presented through its history. A necessary purchase in my view.
Bengali Cooking: Seasons and Festivals, Chitrita Banerji. Banerji’s book, which defies genre—part memorir, part cultural history, part cookbook—is another essential purchase for the anglophone reader interested in Bengali food. It too might frustrate the reader looking for a straight-ahead cookbook—it’s organized by season and the recipes emerge from narratives—but it’s well worth it.
The Essential North-East Cookbook, Hoihnu Hauzel. Finally, here is another cookbook from Penguin’s regional series. This one covers the related but not identical cuisines of India’s Northeastern states: cuisines that are barely known outside the region—Delhi again is probably the only exception, with some major pockets of Northeastern communities opening restaurants in the last decade or so. Read it and have your conceptions of “Indian” food completely rocked.
Phew, this got a lot longer than I was planning for it to be. If you don’t already own them all I do hope you’ll purchase some of these books. They will really widen your view on the heterogeneity of Indian foodways. You may also develop a sense of the extent to which mod’ish Indian restaurants and cookbook writers in the West sometimes just dress up traditional recipes and present them as very original advances. And as you can tell just by looking at a map of India many, many parts of the country are not represented here—nor are books on the foods of Dalit or tribal communities. If you know of books available in English that go into those foodways or those of Bihar, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttarkhand etc. or which you think are worthy additions to those from the areas/communities covered above, please do write in. And, as always, I welcome corrections, criticisms and disagreements. But be careful that you don’t disagree with Anjali—she is a very dangerous person.