Have you noticed how almost every food writer leaves behind a bit of herself in a cookbook? That is what makes some recipe books more special than others, writes Pankaja Srinivasan

I devoutly hope I never have to cook for one thousand people. But if I do, I have a ready reckoner in Samaithu Par, a cookbook written in the 50s by S. Meenakshi Ammal that helpfully lists special-occasion food along with their recipes. It has recipes that demand 150 kg of rice, 48 cups of narthia leaves, four lts of lemon juice...and so on. Just the thought of so much food being cooked at home is fascinating, isn’t it? Imagine the kitchen. The babble of voices, the clang of the karandi hitting the side of the vessel, kids running in and out, eating half-cooked goodies.

Romanticising food

For me, a good recipe book is about the stories, always the stories, sometimes told, but most other times left to your imagination. And I am happy to report that many cookbook writers feel the same way.

There is a terribly corny cookbook called Sangria, A Recipe For Love. It is about Rose who has lost her sense of smell and taste and, along with that, her zest for life. Until she meets a mysterious gypsy in a vegetable market! The gypsy introduces her to magic spices and it all starts happening. Rose finds true love over a dish of eggplant and cheese, a dessert of Torrijas gives her back her sense of smell and taste, and her world rights itself! If you are like Rose, you could find comfort in Sensuous Spanish Stuffed Eggs, Uplifting Russian Salad, Divine Paella and so on...

I especially love how cookbooks allow you a glimpse into the writer’s world. Padma Lakshmi’s Tangy Tart Hot and Sweet is one such. Her younger days in South India, her move to the U.S. where her single mother whipped up magic meals, her own travels across the world as a model...they all dovetail into her recipes.

It is as if she is walking along with you in a market in Italy, buying fresh fruit in Thailand, introducing you to her Cervantes-quoting friend, or telling you about a butternut squash dish from Serengati.

Sanjeev Kapoor captures that somewhat in his book that lists his 100 favourite recipes. He speaks of food that harks back to the souks of Marrakesh and to a vegetable patch in his aunt’s garden in Amritsar, with equal love. And Ritu Dalmia does the same, as she revisits her childhood, time and again.

Breakfast with Bachchu

In Diva Green, Ritu speaks of Bachchu the maharaj (cook) at home who would dish out calorific but delicious breakfasts. She mentions Pak Pranali, a series of cookbooks for Marwari vegetarian cooks, compiled in the 60s.

Those of us from the 60s who cooked will remember making baked dishes with nothing more than Amul cheese. What do you know? Even Ritu grew up with macaroni and Amul cheese and she loved it, she says!

Little details of her regular customers add character to her recipes — Mr. Ranjit Mehta for whom her restaurant is still trying to cook the perfect Vichyssoise or Mrs. Ritu Kidwai who taught her how to make a delicious mustard aloo. As do details of her own favourite cookbooks and her cooking preoccupations that are astonishingly similar to ours.

Even kings ate khichchdi

Two books I never tire of (just to look at, mind you, not really for the recipes) are from an ITC Welcome Group series. One of them is called In the Footsteps of Grand Cuisine. Did you know that emperor Jehangir enjoyed his khichchdi, Aurangzeb loved a rice dish called qubooli and Bahadur Shah Zafar thought there was nothing tastier than peacock and pheasant wings! And Wajid Ali Shah dressed in yellow on certain days of summer to honour the mango season. Oh yes, speaking of royalty, Sachin Tendulkar’s favourite dish ever is prawn curry.

Sometimes, even in prosaic recipe books, a story or two slips in. As the writer describes a particular dish, an unusual pairing or a special ingredient, a narrative emerges. The author’s background, where she lives now or where she comes from all becomes apparent… I find that in Anjum Anand’s cookbook, Indian Food Made Easy. Anjum may live in England; she might use gem lettuce, cheddar cheese and Greek yoghurt in her samosa recipe, but it is still a samosa. She also serves Indian lamb curry with a baguette, but that’s fine. It inspires others to deviate from the straight and narrow.

So, the next time you turn the pages of a cookbook, read closely. There are stories there as scrumptious as the recipes they describe.

I leave you to it with two wonderful quotes: “Forget love, I’d rather fall in chocolate” (Sandra J Dykes) and “There is God in ingredients” (Anon).