Holding on to food, bonding over spices, and the taste of memory

Culinary historians Rakesh Raghunathan and Tarana Hussain Khan speak of how food becomes central when so much is in danger of being lost

Updated - January 27, 2024 10:16 pm IST

Published - January 27, 2024 05:57 pm IST

A Taste of Memory: A Celebration of Food and Family: Tarana Husain Khan and Rakesh Raghunathan in  Conversation with Deepa S. Reddy at The Hindu Lit for Life festival 2024 held at The Hindu Pavilion hall in Chennai on Saturday.

A Taste of Memory: A Celebration of Food and Family: Tarana Husain Khan and Rakesh Raghunathan in Conversation with Deepa S. Reddy at The Hindu Lit for Life festival 2024 held at The Hindu Pavilion hall in Chennai on Saturday. | Photo Credit: B. Velankanni Raj

The second day of The Hindu Lit Fest 2024 unfolded on Saturday at the Pavilion, Lady Andal School, and a fatigued audience was turned enthusiastic by the mention of food and memories in a fitting pre-lunch panel titled A Taste of Memory: A Celebration of Food and Family. Moderated by Deepa S. Reddy, the panel featured chef and culinary historian Rakesh Raghunathan, and writer and culinary historian Tarana Hussain Khan.

“I was never a foodie, maybe a foodie in denial. When I came back to Rampur, to my ancestral home, I started researching about the culture and there were so many little stories about food,” Ms. Khan said on how she stumbled upon the revival of heirloom recipes.

Her research began at the Raza Library in Rampur, a huge repository of manuscripts, where she found 12 Persian handwritten manuscripts dating from 1816 till the 1880s, and that’s where the Forgotten Foods project with the University of Sheffield began.

“This is how food became central because I realised that we have lost so much,” she said, adding that her project began at a time when Rampur was going through a rapid pace of modernisation and food became one of the very few things that people held on to.

Also read: Read our live updates of The Hindu Lit Fest 2024, Day 2

For chef and culinary historian Rakesh Raghunathan, heirloom recipes have always been a part of the kitchen ecosystem at home. “My paati (grandmother) would bring out antique vessels from the attic, polish them and cook on a large scale,” Mr. Raghunathan said, adding that he felt nostalgic thinking about his conversations with his grandmother on the kind of food she ate.

After missing the well-made home cooked meal during his time abroad, Mr. Raghunathan began replicating the recipes he grew up eating. “I bonded with a lot of people over spices and I realised that the common thread was heirloom recipes across nationalities and countries, which were not being documented and hence were fading away,” he said.

Mr. Raghunathan’s journey began in Tirunelveli, where he came across a farming community celebrating the bounty of harvest with a one pot recipe that could only be described as a melting pot of many farmers’ harvests. “Kootanchoru is a dish that is usually made when people congregate together and the beauty of the dish is that every villager brings something for it. It’s a pooling of resources irrespective of the social hierarchy of the village. We need to shift the focus on documenting these historical practices,” he said.

Ms. Khan’s contribution in the revival of historical recipes came from a very personal space of realising that a particular type of rice, called tilakchandan, had slowly gone missing from her kitchens. “Tilakchandan was a small grain, highly aromatic kind of rice that we would make khichdi with until the 1990s, after which it was slowly replaced with the hybrid kind of rice that’s available now,” she said. Under the food memories project, she sourced the tilakchandan rice seed, sent it to the U.K. during COVID-19, and managed to successfully grow and harvest the rice.

Mr. Raghunathan, on documenting ancient recipes, mentioned how temple walls are often inscribed with the recipes of the prasadams (offerings) made to the gods. “There is culinary history, oral tradition, and mythology on these walls,” he said, pointing out that these are often great sources of lost traditions and recipes.

At another end of the spectrum, Mr. Raghunathan also explored lost recipes from tribes — this style of cooking is frugal, as compared to temple cooking, which is abundant and richer. “In my conversation with the Irula tribes, I have documented beautiful songs which talk about different kinds of greens that grow in the mountains. So, if they remembered that song, they can harvest the greens easily,” he said, to point out that culinary traditions are often documented in different ways.

The session ended with the panellists answering questions from the audiences about the indigenous ingredients, the appropriate vessels to cook different dishes in, and the proper way to document and pass on heirloom recipes.

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