In Britain, food writing by “minority groups” – and here I’m talking about Indians, because that’s my own background – almost always gives a central role to those “heirloom family recipes” handed down the generations from mother or grandmother. When I started writing about food 20 years ago, an editor even joked that I would have to “invent a grandmother”. It was already a cliche a generation ago, but now this problematic pursuit of “authenticity” through appeals to a mythic matriarch is simply done to death.
I’m not the only one fed up with the trope. I recently tweeted about my wish to see an Indian cookbook that actually reflected the growing reality of how so many people in India and across the diaspora learn to cook: not through a storied encounter between grandmother and child, but online. It struck a chord, with Indians commenting in droves. “I feel so seen,” wrote one, while random strangers wondered if I was referring to them.
This is not, of course, to say we shouldn’t write about our mothers’ and grandmothers’ recipes. There’s a great deal of value to be gleaned and deeply moving personal accounts to be enjoyed from the best of this type of writing. The restaurateur and chef Asma Khan, of London’s Darjeeling Express, has written wonderfully about her unique heritage, which combines the Mughlai cuisine of Hyderabad and Bengal with British- and Chinese-influenced street food and the cooking of Kolkata gentlemen’s clubs. She is one of many who shed light on regional or family dishes that we may otherwise not hear about.
Which leads to my next point: I’m keen to read mothers’ and grandmothers’ recipes if what they cooked was unique – such as making a curry from orange peel, or pickling an unfamiliar berry from Rajasthan. But if these canonised figures are only telling me about bhindi masala or chapati that millions of Indians eat every day, and for which recipes are already abundant, they’re not saying anything new. Moreover, if you’ve been cooking your mother’s or grandmother’s recipe long enough to write about it, surely it’s now part of your own repertoire, and therefore your own recipe?
But the crux is this: who are these mythical mothers and grandmothers anyway? They’re not all sari-clad women grinding masalas all day, magically producing aloo paratha and a steaming cup of masala chai out of thin air. The trope becomes a straitjacket, restricting our understanding of the rich and varied lives they have led. Mothers and grandmothers in India were sometimes adding rosemary and thyme to their curries in the 1920s due to the British influence; dancing in jazz clubs in the 1930s; graduating as lawyers and engineers or running bars in the 1940s; hosting supper clubs in their homes in the 1950s; whipping up cocktails and canapes in the 1960s; and may have offered you a slice of green-chilli-flecked pizza from their new electric oven in the 1970s.
More recently, you may well catch them surreptitiously adding soy sauce to their dal to amp up the umami, or using sumac as a souring agent in chhole. If you visit a grandmother in India today, she may well prefer to order a milkshake and a curry puff from the local bakery on a delivery app than spend hours making samosas.
India – and therefore its food culture – has changed significantly in the past 50 years as a result of globalisation and international influences. Indians have been tinkering with Maggi noodles in their kitchens and tucking into burgers in shopping malls for so long they’ve become part of the cuisine. A Goan Christmas cake is now likely to have been replaced by a Nigella Christmas cake. I’m not saying all traditional dishes have disappeared, just pointing to the vast gulf between the India as fantasised in diaspora cookbooks and the reality. While the disappearance of a historical cuisine makes me desperately sad, I also know that recipes are kept alive when a large number of people cook them, not when a few people record them.
Young Indians – but also their mothers and grandmothers – are looking up new dishes on blogs, YouTube, TikTok and WhatsApp. They didn’t all learn to cook at a young age: they may not have been interested; or their mothers may have been terrible cooks; or perhaps they were actively discouraged from entering the kitchen and told to focus on getting good grades instead. They may have learned later in life thanks to a newfound culinary passion or for reasons of practicality, or perhaps as a way of reconnecting to a culture that they turned their back on in their youth.
I know of men who attempt to recreate their late mothers’ dishes from memory; of single mothers juggling jobs and kids looking for budget-friendly ideas and short-cuts; of well-travelled young professionals concocting entirely new dishes by fusing the food of their heritage with British flavours and international ingredients and techniques. Cookery books should widen their lenses to capture the stories of all these people. So let’s liberate our mothers and grandmothers from the burden of “tradition”. Let’s change the narrative on Indian food.