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Why A Recipe Is More than Just a Recipe

Goya1 Comment
Why A Recipe Is More than Just a Recipe

Goya had the privilege of addressing the Tasting India symposium yesterday, and many of you wrote in asking for a video of our talk. We don't have a video, but here's an edited version of the speech. 

Good afternoon, everyone. It’s an honour to be speaking here today. We’re going to be talking about food media, and the increasingly important role it plays.

Food is a barometer for understanding everything that happens in the world right now. One of the first things to reflect the tectonic shifts in society is food — take economic change for example: we know that the price of grain and flour is important for the stability of a society. Riots, even wars, reach tipping point when food prices escalate. Feminism and gender, one of the most important conversations happening in the public sphere right now, also fought its first battle in the kitchen, before anywhere else.

When we started The Goya Journal, we wanted the website to reflect a sense of the complicated fabric of Indian society — the diversity, the nuances and even the contradictions. One really important aspect of capturing this fabric is documenting traditional recipes. Our most popular series on Goya is #1000Kitchens where we visit people in their homes, as they cook an heirloom recipe for us. To be honest, when we started, we did not set out with this sense of responsibility to document. We simply went looking for a good story. But very quickly we realised that each house had recipes that had been passed on for generations, and there was a strong chance that we would lose many of the more complicated and labour-intensive recipes over time.

Why do we share recipes? Is it simply to feed ourselves, to nourish the body? One of our favourite writers told us how she was given the recipe to a Coorg pandi curry, many years after she earned the trust of a dear aunt, with a stern sidebar: Write this down, but don't tell anyone. A deep bond had to be forged before these secrets were shared. The sharing of a recipe there then, was an act of friendship, of trust, the handing over of a cultural baton for safekeeping. So perhaps the sharing of a recipe is more than just about nourishing the body. Instead perhaps we are feeding something deeper.

There is a dilemma we face as writers. We see in our mothers’ and grandmothers’ generations a reluctance to share secrets from the kitchen. Clan-bound, we guard our secrets. But when we look around us, and see the magnitude of loss — in Syria, for example, or in soviet-era Russia, where war or economic crises result in the loss of huge canons of culinary culture, we realise the importance of recording traditional recipes.

A recipe then, is a piece of our heritage. As significant as a country’s monuments and artefacts, it deserves to be preserved with the same sense of urgency. In refugee camps and in speaking with immigrant families, it has been found that the things missed most fondly are the flavours of home. Cooking in another country will never taste the same, because produce is the confluence of the region's land, soil, its air and water. Food is rooted to a place, and it is food that roots us, that gives us a sense of belonging.

Nobody here needs reminding that the world is shrinking. But as global cuisine comes into our homes us through television and the Internet, through restaurants and pop-ups, there is a curious paradox of sameness. The more it is that everyone's eating the same sourdough, kale and quinoa. Which is heartbreaking really, because in a country like India, 50 kilometres in any direction will reveal a new cuisine, new ingredients. So how can it be that globalisation is killing our diversity?

However, we’re slowly seeing a revival of regional food — we’re seeing it in the restaurant space, with restaurants like the Bengaluru Oota Company, which specialises in Mangalorean-Gowda food; we’re seeing it with cookbooks like Archana Pidathala’s Five Morsels of Love — an Andhra cookbook that specialises in the cuisine of Rayalseema; and we’re seeing it in pop-ups like Meraki, run by two North-Eastern women in Mumbai.  

Interestingly, if you google ‘make your own cookbook’, you’ll fall down a rabbit hole of sites that help you compile your recipes and print them out into a cookbook, pictures and all.  This is evidence that people are now serious about preserving their family’s traditions and culinary heritage.  

Cookbooks and recipe books are a tiny time capsule of a community's culinary culture. One effort that is especially close to our hearts is the Goya Cookbook Club. Here, we celebrate two things very dear to us — cookbooks and community. Every month, we pick a cookbook from a different community or theme, and we plan a potluck around it. It brings the food community together, we learn about different cuisines through their recipe books, and get to experience these culinary traditions first-hand.

In the 18 months that we have been running the Goya Journal, Aysha & I have met some incredible people and discovered incredible stories. One of our favourites was meeting a Parsi Professor at the Mumbai University. He has a secret passion for culinary anthropology and through his second business as a caterer, he discovered a forgotten recipe from a client visiting from abroad: the Malai par Eeda. Of course, it would make sense that Malai par Eeda is a Parsi recipe, because they like to put an egg on everything. But as our professor discovered, the Indian diaspora is a great source of forgotten recipes. They tend to hold on just a little bit tighter to heirloom recipes and traditional cooking, being so far away from the motherland.

We feel very fortunate to be here, and listen to some of the amazing stories and work that is being accomplished in your respective fields. Our job in food media is to amplify stories of people in the food industry, sharing it with a larger audience, finding as much diversity as we can, without adding to the echo chamber. This is Anisha Oommen, I am Aysha Tanya, this is our email address. Reach out to us, tell us your stories and let’s make food media stronger than ever.