Culinary Chronicler’s Conclave: A Delicious Way to Discover India and its Past

At Vikhroli Cucina, experts pieced together India’s diverse food history through art, literature, media and photography

LF Team

Indian food weaves a tapestry of stories that play a lead role in shaping our diverse culture. Our culinary tradition has been preserved by our communities, determined by our geographies and local culture and imbued in our memories. But dig deeper and you’re surprised by the lack of documentation of this rich history. The mention of food is so sporadic in our written history, that today, it is like fitting pieces of a jigsaw puzzle together—all collated from infrequent mentions and secondary sources. Veteran journalist and food writer Vir Sanghvi succinctly puts it, “We have no real sense of culinary history in India. We have no record of foods common through the ages. For instance, the Mauryas ate all kinds of animals, from head to tail. This lack of knowledge and ignorance breeds cultism.”

Sanghvi was speaking at the first Culinary Chronicler’s Conclave by Vikhroli Cucina—a Godrej initiative-- in collaboration with Rushina  Munshaw Ghildiyal, Culinary Expert, Writer and Consultant to create an ecosystem where chefs, food writers, enthusiasts and others can collaborate—at Godrej One in Mumbai. The day-long event brought together some of the finest chroniclers of food today—writers and critics, food historians and television content producers, authors, chefs and academicians documenting our disappearing culinary oral history.

The Written Word

The oldest record of food goes back to Indian mythology. Mumbai-based food historian Dr. Mohsina Mukadam, talks of three such characters from the Epics known for their culinary expertise: Lakshamana, Rama’s brother and ace marksman; Nala, the king of the Nishadha kingdom, who was granted the extraordinary boon of cooking without fire and wrote Nal Pakdarpan, and Bhima the second Pandava brother, known for his voracious appetite. “Bhima is the progenitor of the earliest known food book Ballabhasamhita, which, sadly, is a lost document,” adds Mukadam, head of department of history at Ramnarain Ruia College, Mumbai.

“The most interesting sources of food history are the most unconventional ones as well. Take regional cook books of the past, or even Ayurveda texts, which are known to offer food as cure—this forms the basis of many medicine,” adds Mukadam, who studies old Marathi texts and has a valuable collection of old recipe books. “Besides the recipes, ingredients and techniques mentioned in old cookery books, what is most valuable is the little notes that the lady using the book has scribbled for herself or her children,” she says with the passion of a collector. The quality of ingredients, health, hygiene and the science of cooking was part of medieval cook books, she says. The oldest cookbook in Marathi that Mukadam has found is the Supa Shastra. Published in 1875, it does not name the author and chronicles the Maharashtrian Brahmin family meal. “The ingredients and techniques reveal insights into popular foods and later influence on the cuisine. For instance, there are only two potato dishes in Supa Shastra. The measurements indicate family size. In fact, each time I go back to it, I find something new,” says Mukadam, adding, “Grihini Mitra, published in early 20th century by a member of the Pathare Prabhu community lists the recipe for Chinese fried rice!”

Culinary Chronicler’s Conclave: A Delicious Way to Discover India and its Past

Old restaurant menus are another window into the kitchens of yore. They offer an insight into the culinary traditions of that time as restaurants and lodges with boarding served as meeting points for members of particular communities migrating to the cities.

One of the reasons we have such few published cookbooks could be because even in the past, chroniclers had to self-publish their manuscripts, particularly those that dealt with regional cuisines, observes food writer and film maker Jyotsna Shahane. “This is shortsighted since there is a huge Indian diaspora all over the world, keen to connect with their roots,” adds Shahane. In such a situation, self-publishing allows the stories and recipes to be preserved and passed on to the future generations. 

The Oral Tradition

For generations, the passing of recipes and technique was from the mother to her daughter, very similar to the ‘guru shishya parampara’. Recipes were shared and preserved when women from the neighbourhood or from similar communities got together to make preserves, pickles and papads in large scale. They wove the interplay of ingredients into poems and songs that were recited on these occasions. 

Delving into the oral traditions that date back further to the written word, cookbook author Saee Koranne-Khandekar whose book Crumbs!, chronicles baking Indian breads, explains, “Whether it is songs, children’s rhymes or harvest songs, they have all been handed down the generations.  The stories woven into them are not meant for children alone,” says Koranne-Khandekar. The nuances of cooking and a lot of kitchen troubleshooting is passed down orally with the elders sharing stories and anecdotes in a family. Old techniques have merged with new hacks to offer innovation and creativity, and this forms a big part of the oral tradition, as food is at the centre of a person’s most important life events. “Food is a carrier of key societal functions and norms. It cannot be seen in just isolation of recipes,” adds Koranne-Khandekar.

Another wealth of oral history lies in harvest songs that are sung by different communities during the harvest festivals. A classic example of women’s lives in the kitchen is chronicled by ealy 20th century poets like Bahinabai. Anjali Purohit’s book Ragi-Ragini: Chronicles from Aji's Kitchen, compiles Bahinabai's Ovisquadruples, known as ‘grinding stone songs’—a humourous and insightful commentary on the everyday struggles and hardships of women who spent entire lives engaged in chores.  

A Visual Spectacle

Deemed the most impactful form of documentation, the visual medium is also easy to mishandle, debated the experts. How else would you explain an absolutely delicious dish turning into an unappetising one with just a badly shot image or a video? While it’s universally true that we feast with our eyes first before our palate, are we setting unrealistic benchmarks in our pursuit of the perfect food shot? That was the premise of the talk by food stylist and photographer Saba Gaziyani, who spoke of the need to make food appear more real, “just like home food”, which is not prepped up, but it is enticing. 

Also present was documentary filmmaker Ruchi Srivastava who spoke about the coming of age of the visual medium. If advertising of the 1980s of products such as Amul milk, offered a fresh perspective on food and food products, in the recent past, shows such as MasterChef Australia (and India) catapulted food and cooking shows to another level. The popularity of such shows even impacted the eating habits and cooking culture of tier II cities of India. “These shows brought about a paradigm shift in the perception of cooking as an art. Today a chef is a hero,” said Shrivastava. With the growing popularity of global cuisine, the challenge today is to maintain the quality of such programmes and make it intelligent to the evolving tastes of the consumer, she said. 

As the evening came to an end, food show host and Chef Ranveer Brar hit the right notes with his brief but passionate plea on the romance of food. “While we’re on track about recording and chronicling food and food history, we should not forget the romance and emotions that food evokes in each one of us and the strong connect that we make with our food.” Cheers to that!


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