The appreciation for the lightly spiced, simple and seasonal vegetarian food of South India has been growing the world over. Shonali Muthalaly details the role of local cookbook writers in fuelling this interest
“We didn’t even try to find a publisher,” shrugs Mallika Badrinath. “Who wanted a book from South India on vegetarian food?” So, in 1988, when she wrote her first book Vegetarian Gravies, her husband suggested they print it themselves to distribute to friends and family. “Within three months we had sold 1,000 books,” she says. “And this is without stocking it in any shop.” It was initially priced at Rs. 12, the cost price. Today, after numerous re-prints, that book alone has sold one million copies. It’s also found its way all over the world.
A global market for local cooking? Admittedly, it took a while. For years, savvy cookbook writers targeted an audience that wanted a pan-Indian ‘restaurant-style’ melange of recipes: dal makhani, chicken 65 and fish pies. Or they aimed at full-blown Indian exotica — curries, biriyanis and kebabs — tailored for a curious semi-interested Western market. However, over the last decade, local writers have been discovering a large dormant global market that’s been ignored simply because no one knew it existed. They are housewives, young professionals and students. Bloggers, experimental cooks and open-minded chefs. Vegetarians and non-vegetarians. The only thing they all have in common is a growing appreciation for the lightly spiced, simple and seasonal vegetarian food of South India. Some of them use the books to recreate the food of their grandmothers. Some use them to navigate an unfamiliar, but unexpectedly captivating new cuisine. The triumph of the thogayals? You have to admit it has a nice ring to it.
Perhaps it was Mallika’s clever marketing strategy that set the ball rolling. “We asked supermarkets to stock the book near their cash counter because we knew the people who will buy are people who don’t go to book stores.” Today, she has 27 cook books in English, all of which have been translated into Tamil. Additionally, seven have been translated into Telugu, 11 into Kannada and one into Hindi (that’s a total of 3,500 recipes by the way, if you like number-crunching). When she wrote on microwave cooking, manufacturers told her sales for microwaves went up. However, despite this responsive market, it didn’t get any easier for writers to find publishers.
Then Chandra Padmanabhan hosted the chairman of HarperCollins for dinner, impressing him so much with her cooking that he asked her to write a book. Dakshin: Vegetarian Cuisine From South India came out in 1992, and sold almost 5,000 copies in three months. “In 1994, Australian HarperCollins published it for the world market, and it did very well,” says Chandra, adding that the sales encouraged her to write three more books over the years, all on the same genre of cuisine. “Maybe they sell because there’s a huge Tamil population all over the world. Maybe it’s because despite the interest in going vegetarian, many people have no idea how to cook this food. While you can get almost any recipe on the Internet, I feel cook books are more authentic.”
However, it was only in 2006, when Jigyasa Giri and Pratibha Jain won a slew of awards for their glossy hardback Cooking At Home With Pedatha: Vegetarian Recipes From A Traditional Andhra Kitchen, that people sat up and noticed this quiet veggie revolution. Determined to produce their first book without compromising on content, the duo launched Pritya, a self-publishing house, to record the recipes of Subhadra Rau Parigi, the eldest daughter of India’s former President V.V. Giri. At the Gourmand Awards, popularly called the Oscars for cookbooks, in Beijing, the book won in six categories, including design, photography and ‘local food’. Their next book Sukham Ayu — Cooking At Home With Ayurvedic Insights came second in the ‘Best Health and Nutrition Cookbook’ at the Gourmand ceremony in Paris a few years later. It was official. Upma, dosais and butter milk were finally on a world stage. The awards started rolling in. Viji Varadarajan, another talented home cook who decided to self-publish her recipes, took the movement one step further by demonstrating how local vegetables can be used in myriad ways. “Earlier, everyone grew vegetables in their own backyards. They had to be creative, so they would find 20 to 30 different ways to present a single vegetable,” she says, explaining how it’s easy to eat “local, seasonal and traditional”. Her recipes, which shun supermarket stars to embrace backyard produce such as ash gourd, banana stems and long beans, exult in tradition. Her six cookbooks, two of which have been translated into Tamil and French, have won Gourmand Awards in seven different categories. Her latest book Vegetarian Delicacies Of South India has won ‘The Best Vegetarian Cookbook’ for 2014.
A savvy marketer, she’s also selling on Kindle. “Online publishing is such an advantage for authors. Most of my readers don’t visit bookshops. They order off Flipkart or download from Amazon.” She has, however, sold about 20,000 physical copies of her first book Samayal. “A lot of my readers are in America. Japan’s an expanding market too,” she says. “These are people fascinated with how simple and healthy our cooking is.”
Pure Vegetarian by Prema Srinivasan, which was released last August, added a scholarly backbone to this still-evolving genre. The hefty book, with a Spartan cover, earnestly investigates what moulded the recipes of today — from temple kitchens to spice routes. Meticulously researched, it targets a whole new market of professional chefs and academically inclined cooks, although home cooks can also pick up ideas from the informative collection of recipes and menus.
Not surprisingly, the next wave is cookbooks that specialise in specific facets of this genre of food. Such as Why Onions Cry: Peek Into An Iyengar Kitchen, which won a Gourmand award when it was still in manuscript stage in 2012! Writers Vijee Krishnan and Nandini Sivakumar struggled to find a publisher — clearly some things haven’t changed — and finally managed to bring out the book last month. A glossy hardback, it contains 60 recipes that use no onions, drumsticks, radish or garlic. “That’s how we came up with the name,” smiles Vijee. “We usually cry when we cut onions. But in this case, they cry because we don’t use them in our wonderful cuisine.”
The recipes are authentic, offering variations of many dishes to demonstrate the inventiveness of the traditional kitchen. “We have given you recipes for every item you need on a full banana leaf,” says Nandini, discussing how the market has expanded far beyond Chennai, and in fact, India. “Just as I want to know how to make a ‘proper’ green curry, there are people all over the world who want to learn how to make a ‘proper’ sambar today.”