Eating the Past

Hindi Cookbooks in Colonial India

Food is much more than a mere combination of ingredients. It exists inside us, and outside. We eat to survive, but not just to survive. Never just a source of sustenance, food is a system of communication, a protocol of usages, situations and behaviours. Cookbooks, containing recipes and cooking techniques, dietary instructions, gendered advice and culinary tales are, in fact, custodians of culture.  They are historical texts that not only record food practices and availability of ingredients but allow a glimpse into the cultural norms of past societies. A close reading of the culinary advice dispensed in Hindi cookbooks in colonial India transports us to the social world and cultural norms of urban middle-class Hindu families in the early twentieth century.

The early twentieth century was a time of national, social and literary reform in India. It was a time when the freedom movement against British colonial domination entered its mass phase. Nationalist writers in India, the majority of whom were male, countered British colonial control over the ‘outer’ world with an assertion of autonomy in the ‘inner’ domain of the home. The home was thus conceptualised as the centre of tradition and culture, anxiously kept separate from the corrupting influence of colonial modernity.

Illustration by Huiyan Zhang, Illustration BA student, Camberwell College of Arts

Within the home, domestic cooking was figured as the sole responsibility of women. Print culture disseminated these ideas of idealised domesticity, through literary journals as well as through myriad cheaply printed novellas, religious literature and Hindi cookbooks.  By the 1920s, culinary and domestic advice columns – usually titled Gharelu Nuskhe (Home Remedies) or Pak Shiksha (Culinary Education) – appeared intermittently in women’s journals like Chand and Madhuri. These cookbooks and advice columns documented community traditions caught in the flux of the first flush of modern urban living. Rather than provide directions for cooking elite recipes, this cookery advice catered to the requirements of the new urban middle classes and focused more on everyday dishes that were region, and quite often religion, specific.

Domestic cookbooks in Hindi were usually low-cost publications, printed on cheap paper, with few (if any) images and pictures. Their authors came from a variety of backgrounds, but almost all belonged to Hindu upper castes, living in urban centres in the United Provinces (now called Uttar Pradesh) in north India. Most cookbook authors claimed some familiarity with Indian medical systems like Ayurveda, which relied on a “natural” and holistic approach to physical and mental health. A few publications – like Grihani Kartavya Arthat Pakshastra (1913) and Gharelu Shiksha thatha Pakshashtra (1945) – were advice books authored by women, with substantial sections on domestic cooking alongside traditional medicinal and healing advice. Further, a professional halwai (confectioner and cook) documented his craft in Pak Prakash Athwa Mithai (1929), probably the earliest confectionary cookbook in Hindi print. 

Cookbooks published in the first half of the twentieth century adhered to a standard format, covering a cuisine that purportedly drew inspiration from the ‘ancient cuisine of the Hindus.’ They followed a recognisable form: the preface or introduction would invoke the antiquity of culinary science in India and lament its present demise. The contents followed a taxonomy based either on main ingredients (grains, vegetables, fruits, spices) or on recipe-type (lentils, rice, bread, vegetable dishes, accompaniments). Ayurvedic dietetics based on ancient Indian pharmacopeial theory informed most cookbooks, and each recipe was indexed with a description of the humoral properties of its ingredients. There was indeed a considerable overlap between cookbooks and ayurvedic advice manuals. Both advocated an almost therapeutic diet, with great importance placed on the bio-moral focus of cuisine, dietary habits and daily routine. For instance, the very popular Pak Chandrika (1926) emphasized the significance of food in maintaining a healthy body, cautioning that it requires daily effort to achieve and sustain good health.

Pak Chandrika cover (1926). Hindi Collection@Sarai (CSDS). 

All cookbooks stressed that principles of dosha (bodily humor) should be kept in mind while planning a family meal. The ideal daily dietary regime was to include six major tastes – sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, and astringent – identified in ancient Ayurvedic texts as shatras bhojan. Similarly, six manners of consumption – chewing, drinking, sucking, licking, gulping and swallowing – were prescribed while eating a meal. Furthermore, it was advised to consume fruits and vegetables in accordance with the six seasons of the Hindu calendar. Tradition-aware consumption based upon Ayurvedic cooking was discursively framed in terms of cultural duty and morality – that which is good for the body will be good for society and nation.

Cookbooks are usually not the traditional sources where the formation of the nation has been studied in Indian history. However, the inner domain of the home was not isolated from the pressures of the outside world, as is evident from the iterations of the reformist and nationalist Hindi press. In the early twentieth century, the Hindi public sphere strongly advocated for the education and public participation of women, and even periodicals devoted to domesticity were not able to escape the pull of political nationalism.

Illustration by Huiyan Zhang, Illustration BA student, Camberwell College of Arts

Cookbooks and advice literature, however, exhibited new anxieties relating to the growing participation of women in the national movement, especially from the 1920s onwards. As women attended picket lines and protest marches in their thousands, household duties and cooking were affected. The fear of this impending societal shift in gendered attitudes generated patriarchal anxiety and induced constant mockery of the ‘westernised’ ways of the new Hindu woman, who allegedly did not value cooking and homemaking like her foremothers. (Cookbook authors, both male and female, even justified the ridicule of the educated woman who served a ‘reading’ rather than a ‘recipe’ to a hungry husband!)

The historian Francesca Orsini notes the dilemma of a woman who was stopped from participating in the Non-Cooperation Movement (a political campaign launched on 1 September 1920 by Mahatma Gandhi to agitate for self-governance) by her husband. The woman in question even wrote to Stri Darpan, a journal that espoused social reform and political activism. In response, however, the journal advised her to stay at home and discharge her obligation to the motherland by spinning khadi (homespun cloth, promoted by Gandhi as a symbol of economic self-sufficiency). Hindi cookbooks implored women to serve the nation not through political participation but by discharging their duties at home and by cooking wholesome, appetizing food for the men and sons of the nation. Cookbooks like Pak Chandrika (1926) exhorted women to cook well and contribute to the reproduction of muscular masculinity for a strong nation.

Illustration by So Yoon Jeong, Illustration BA student, Camberwell College of Arts

Hindi cookbooks also included discussions of cleanliness and hygiene alongside traditional and reimagined culinary recipes. Advice about keeping a clean kitchen, washing a cook’s overalls and scouring kitchen utensils might be construed as innocent sanitary advice, common to domestic advice columns all over the world. As elsewhere, these modernist codes of hygiene, order and discipline were understood as civilizational investments to be incorporated into the middle-class urban Indian kitchen. Interestingly, Hindi cookbooks also localized these codes, weaving in long-held custom and caste-sanctioned prescriptions. Thus, a clean kitchen floor was made pure when layered over with a mixture of mud and cow dung. A kitchen should be equipped with metal utensils of various kinds, though clay vessels were deemed best, as they could not be reused and thus minimized ritual pollution. Traditional mud stoves were preferred over English-style kerosene stoves, and domestic helpers were frowned upon. Such advice and injunctions seamlessly married Western notions of sanitation and cleanliness with the always-present notions of caste-based purity and pollution in the discourse on the Indian kitchen.

Nothing endangered the purity of the Hindu kitchen more than meat. Though some cookbooks included meat dishes, most were primarily vegetarian; the Pak Shiksha (culinary advice) columns in journals also avoided meat recipes. The cookbooks that included meat, moreover, were constrained to justify the inclusion in the preface or the introduction. Vegetarianism was prided and viewed as ideal, even as cookbooks like Adarsh Pak Vidhi (1938) conceded that “meat-eaters were in a majority than vegetarians.” It is not difficult to look for reasons for this advocacy of vegetarianism. In the early twentieth century, the issue of vegetarianism versus non-vegetarianism had become a cultural question with much significance for nationalist thought in India. Meat eating became associated with the ‘materialist West’ and vegetarianism with the ‘spiritual and superior East’. This was buttressed by Gandhi’s very public espousal of vegetarianism. The veneration of the cow in Hinduism made the consumption of beef a particularly sensitive battleground, taking the debate beyond the culinary to the political.

Illustration by So Yoon Jeong, Illustration BA student, Camberwell College of Arts

In the discourse of home as a sacred and pure space of culture, the kitchen and cooking occupied centre stage. The cookbooks from the Hindi belt corroborate these ideas about the sanctity of the home and rest the weight of vegetarianism primarily on the home kitchen and on women managing that kitchen. While most of the ancient and medieval culinary texts, as well as the Ayurvedic medical lexicons, contained meat-based recipes, the early twentieth-century Hindi cookbooks reimagined culinary tradition and Ayurveda as meatless to align with their vision of the nation.

From the second half of the nineteenth century, the emergent Hindu elite became increasingly vocal about public cultural output. Modern retellings of religion and tradition through popular literature, performance and theatre impacted the pollical space and became important identity-carving battles. By the early twentieth century, a ‘pure’ cultural identity became the anchor for the battles between colonial modernity and emergent nationalism. In culinary terms, reformist anti-colonial nationalism intermingled with cultural anxiety to shoulder the twin tasks of documenting Hindu domestic cooking of the region and positing it as essential to nurturing tradition, community and the nation. Home and family became the primary socializing agents of the nation in a microcosm, and attention to these social codes was embedded in everyday rules of cooking. As such, cultural and social practices prescribed in Hindi cookbooks signalled the deep roots of Hindu culinary identity which became part of the pedagogic diet of nationalistic values. This was forecasted onto the project of what an ideal nation should be and should eat, a project that continues to this day.

This piece is based on a longer article: ‘Culinary Codes for an Emergent Nation: Prescriptions from Pak Chandrika, 1926,’ Global Food History.

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