Food and Friendships
Surabhika Maheshwari
THE INDIA COOKBOOK: FROM THE TABLES OF MY FRIENDS by Selected & edited by Sunita Kohli Selected & edited by Sunita Kohli, 2023, 288 pp., INR 699.00
June 2024, volume 48, No 6

Food occupies a central place in the sphere of human engagement. A large amount of time and effort is spent in sourcing, preparing, consuming and securing food. Sunita Kohli brings alive the many shared meals at friends’ homes, cooked and put together with much love and finesse; ‘it is wonderful when friends gather together at a table to share a delicious meal and exchange views and recipes…when I look back many of my friendships are integrally linked to the memory of meals that one has had at the various tables of my epicurean friends.’

Kohli, a well-known architect and designer, puts together a collection of artfully curated recipes, The India Cookbook. Elucidating similarities between good designers and good cooks she writes, ‘Good designers and architects have the gift of an inner eye which helps them visualize projects to the last detail. Similarly, good cooks also have a visual sense of food in their head and can almost intuit the possibility of culinary creativity.’ The book illuminates the author’s affinity to Indian food and also are a fine illustration of food as our undeniable intangible cultural experience. Kohli writes, ‘Cuisine is a cultural manifestation. It is an important cultural artifact which is an expression of place and personality.’ The experience of putting together the ingredients, the specific use of spices, the cooking methods, the serving of the food, the combination of food items that are cooked together as well as eating a meal together are all variables that impact the taste, pleasure and memory of a meal.

The India Cookbook offers one hundred and ninety-three recipes from across the country and beyond. It is divided into six sections according to the cardinal directions of North, South, East, West, and centre. Subcontinental India features recipes from the homes of friends across the border—including the Shakarkandi Chaat from the Manto household, spicy pineapple curry by Mohun Tissanayangam from Sri Lanka; Razi Ahmed shares his mother’s recipes of Chicken Karahi and Lamb Bihari Kebabs from Pakistan and Doli Roti by Nilofer Afridi from Baluchistan. Indian cuisine, writes the author, contains all five basic tastes—sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami. The India Cookbook is not a panoramic overview of food in the Indian subcontinent; rather, it is about the pluralism of Indian food and the variety of home-style cooking. It is an account of the diverse ingredients, breads, cooking mediums, masalas, souring agents— tamarind/ kokum/ kochumpuli/ curds/ and the many baghaars and tadkas. Local ingredients used across the country make for the extensive variety and so do overlaps in cooking practices and comfort foods. ‘This collection has thrown up the many similarities and differences in the cuisines of different regions of India. Every region has its own cooking methods. And their own particular designed utensils, the shapes of which have evolved over generations.’ The book is sprinkled with interesting pictures of some traditional utensils and kitchen equipment from the various regions of the country.

A no-fuss collection of diverse cuisines and palettes—the book contains vegetarian and non-vegetarian recipes that can be tried for casual meals as well as also for well curated formal occasions. The diversity is praise worthy—the getting into friends’ kitchens is palpable—the sheer number and variety including starters, mains, rice, breads, one-pot meals, accompaniments and desserts—the book has it all. Additionally, an attempt has been made to incorporate some popular recipes from foreign lands that we in India eat, cook and relish. ‘Today friends around India are cooking regional and international cuisines in their homes—be it Japanese, Mexican, Thai, Chinese, Sri Lankan, Italian and Middle Eastern Mezzes, Spanish Paellas, Burmese Khow Suey, Moroccan Akuri and Turkish Shakshuka. There is experimenting with many different spices such as harissa and the delicious Turkish sumac.’
Good food books are much more than recipe cards strung together—they are a collection of our intangible heritage, a peek into what someone has experienced as delicious; a historical document holding culinary data and an account of the shared fulfilment. Nutrition and survival are perhaps just alibis for consumption and cooking of sumptuous food. The book is also a reminder of the dwindling hosting of friends at home over home-cooked meals—the ever-mushrooming eating places and the ease of ordering in from master chefs and home caterers are fast replacing the meticulous planning, elaborate preparations, and family involvement in deciding, cooking and serving home-made delicacies. I have often enjoyed the simple perfection and distinct flavours of a home in their everyday daal and seasonal vegetable preparations. The India Cookbook, to me, is also an invitation to cook more home meals, to experiment more with food preparations and to experience the joy that sharing meals brings. Eating together—with family, friends, colleagues or even strangers—is a powerful ‘social glue’. This book does justice to sharing native recipes of everyday food along with recipes that are heirloom gems of genius culinary processes. The India Cookbook is also a celebration of abundance—of travels, tastes and transformations—that happen to food and people and relationships as we cook and eat together.

The last section on Notes on the Contributors is a glimpse into the social and personal people-scape of the author—from family members to neighbours, friends and colleagues, also extending to public figures, diplomats and academics—food serving as a central unifier. The book brings alive the tastes of home kitchens—Idlis by Shashi Tharoor, Pongal by Latha Reddy, Tiger Prawns by William Dalrymple, Amritsari Aloo Paratha by Sunil and Mukta Munjal, Hare Chane ki Sabji by OP Jain, Shiel Dikshit’s Aarhar dal shared by Latika Dixit, Bitchoobuti soup by Aman Nath, Sat Saag by Vinod and Chinna Dua, Malpua by Chand Sur and fresh figs poached in red wine by Manjari and Lalit Nirula are a mere glimpse into the inspirations. It would be an even more satiating experience if Kohli shared some good food stories and memories binding the selection. Food satiates the soul; its variety pleases the palette and till there are these artfully curated collection of recipes it is difficult to view food as a banal survival engagement.

Surabhika Maheshwari is Associate Professor, Department of Psychology, Indraprastha College for Women, University of Delhi, Delhi.[/ihc-hide-content]