Josna Rege

92. Cookbooks, Immigrants, and Improvisation

In 1970s, 1980s, Books, Family, Food, Immigration, India, Inter/Transnational, Stories, United States on January 21, 2011 at 5:05 pm

When we were new immigrants back in the 1970s, every time someone commented on my besan (chickpea flour) laddus, my father got a kick out of saying, with a mischievous grin, “the recipe is from the Hare Krsna Cookbook!” He knew that he was disappointing their expectation that it was a time-honored family recipe passed down through the generations,  suggesting instead that we Indians in America could actually learn something about Indian cookery from those bald-headed, saffron-robed, anemic, and thoroughly inauthentic-looking youths who danced ecstatically in Harvard Square. But after all, anyone can learn a national cuisine, just as anyone can lay claim to a religious tradition: it’s not restricted to people who inherited it genetically. Rather than regarding the devotees with bewilderment and derision as many Indians did at the time, Dad would look at them with indulgence and even delight.

It would seem that the Hare-Krsna-ites made up for their self-denial in other areas of life with sugar: all their recipes contained what seemed to us excessive quantities of it. I regularly halved both the amount of sugar and of butter they called for, and the final product didn’t seem to suffer in the least.

There wasn’t the plethora of  Indian grocery stores, restaurants, and cookbooks that abounds today. I remember my delight when, at a book fair, I found Dharamjit Singh’s Indian Cookery, in the Penguin booth and bore it home like a trophy. It immediately became a family standby (Dad dubbing it “the Sardar-ji cookbook”), and I will forever be grateful to Mr. Singh for his chickpea curry (chhole) recipe, which has become my signature dish, and which I make in large quantities for every party, along with a huge pot of pullao rice.

In the early Seventies Andrew became a vegetarian and, inspired by his example, I did too. At first he simply got thinner and thinner, not having grown up in a vegetarian household and not yet knowing how to cook balanced vegetarian meals. I was no help because I hadn’t yet learned to cook at all, and when, as a college student, I started turning my back on non-veg (as they call it in India), the only options left to me in the dorm cafeteria were salad and cottage cheese. It was then that Anna Thomas came out with The Vegetarian Epicure. My parents presented it to Andrew for Christmas in 1974, and we seized upon it with zeal. The Veg-Ep, as we soon began calling it, was the first of that new era of cookbooks which were far more than just bare-bones recipes—they were also warm, engaging stories, vehicles for culture and family lore. We in turn made her recipes our own and over the years they have been woven into our family stories.

Or at least, versions of them have been. The Veg-Ep came out in the days before concerns about cholesterol and  heart disease, and its recipes are loaded with butter and eggs, which we have cut down drastically. I see that Thomas has now come out with The New Vegetarian Epicure, and I expect that she has brought it up to date in that department. But we are deeply attached to the old one, and treasure every one of its tattered, butter-soaked pages, many of which have fallen out and some of which lean permanently against the wall on our kitchen counter.

In 1981 the multi-talented Madhur Jaffrey produced World of the East Vegetarian Cooking, a narrative-style cookbook modeled on the Veg-Ep down to its square format, and one that met our twin needs for both Indian and vegetarian recipes. Better still, it did not even try to be authentic, but rather celebrated hybridity long before fusion was a culinary buzzword. I have nothing to support the claim, but it may have been the first Pan-Asian cookbook. It soon became another family favorite, and I can honestly say that not a single recipe I have tried from it has been a dud. Following the recipe to the letter, I was finally successful in making dosas, the only takeout food that we ever ate back in India.

Although we were comfortably middle-class and certainly never went hungry, food was rationed in India in the 1960s and many ingredients were simply unavailable; our mother always had to improvise. Wherever we moved she carried with her as her guides an old Penguin handbook, English Cookery, along with a British rationing cookbook published during the War that offered valuable advice on how to use substitutes in times of scarcity. With these books, the Siemens electric oven we had managed to carry back with us from Greece, our meagre ration of maida (white flour), and a lot of ingenuity, Mum produced billowing Yorkshire puddings, fluffy sponges, and currant-filled fairy cakes along with the daily staples of rice, dal, and mutton curry.

Having lived either abroad or on the other side of India for most of his adult life, Dad had never had the chance to learn his home cooking, until he returned to Maharashtra in 1976 for the first time since he had left India in the late Sixties.  While there, he made it a point to pick up a Marathi cookbook, and when he came home he made a systematic study of it, ordering everybody out of the kitchen while he worked (and, Mum complained, using up every pot and utensil in it as well), and producing all the characteristic tastes of home. Not to be outdone, I found an English Delights from Maharashtra (Aroona Reejsinghani, Jaico Books) at India Tea and Spices in Cushing Square, Belmont (one of the first Indian grocery stores in the Boston area), and set about making poha, pithale, and other regional specialties. I managed to whip up a fair approximation of the real thing, though Dad’s chapattis were always perfectly round while mine were invariably misshapen.

Both my parents, especially Mum, had grown up with scarcity and habits of thrift, and they maintained those habits when they came to America. Coming to hang out at our house after school my friends, accustomed to raiding the kitchen for snack foods, were astonished to find the refrigerator and the cupboards bare (as they saw them)—no bags of potato chips, no packages of Hostess cupcakes, no jars of chocolate-chip cookies. At the time, we were apologetic, but from my parents’ perspective, we were well stocked, with the refrigerator full of fresh vegetables and half-gallon cartons of unadulterated milk and orange juice and the kitchen shelves loaded with five-pound bags of no-longer-rationed flour and sugar, glass jars filled with rice, lentils, and chick-pea flour from India Tea and Spices. It’s just that they had not yet learned the American habit of eating processed foods: they made everything from scratch. And though I may have been embarrassed at the time, I learned from them and, in our turn, Andrew and I grew our own food, joined food cooperatives to buy organic foods in bulk, and abhorred waste.

My parents may have been thrifty, but they certainly weren’t stingy. From them, I learned to throw parties where, in very unAmerican fashion, the tables groaned with generous quantities of home-cooked food that could have fed an army. No raw broccoli and sour-cream dip at my parents’ Christmas parties, but tray after steaming tray of Dad’s delectable samosas, crisp, spicy pakoras, huge pots of chicken curry served with fluffy white Basmati rice, coconut barfi (courtesy of The Hare Krsna Cookbook), and topped off with Mum’s annual pièce de résistance—two massive English trifles in deep glass dishes, layered with whipped cream, jam, custard, raspberries, and the lightest of light sponge cake, all steeped in sherry and the juices from the berries.

A typically immigrant anxiety about not having enough to go round always made both Mum and Dad take off two days from work before these parties and make twice the amount needed, so that Mum was inevitably exhausted before the party began and our guests counted on going home with large quantities of their favorite leftovers. For his part, Dad played the perfect host the whole time, pressing more food and drink on everyone without eating a crumb himself. When the last guest had left he would finally relax, make himself a large plate of food, and say, “Well, that went off well, didn’t it?” Forty years later, I would venture to say the same of our family’s move to the United States, with the help of a handful of cookbooks, a circle of friends, and a lot of improvisation.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

  1. Hi Jojo,

    I’m feeling all nostalgic for the old days of great food, great conversations, great people, and a great big post party stomach.
    Thanks for the memories!

    • Hello Vincent,
      Of course, you and Jean were always there, as long as I can remember. So good to be friends still, after all these years. (And your comment has made me revise the story to include the crucial ingredient in our survival in the new country—friends.) xo J

  2. Lovely story, Jojo! You cheered me greatly with this one!
    Keep it up.

  3. Oh, delightful! So much to savor here. One of my favorite details: “But we are deeply attached to the old one [Vegetarian Epicure] , and treasure every one of its tattered, butter-soaked pages, many of which have fallen out and some of which lean permanently against the wall on our kitchen counter.”

    (I read this in the middle of the night on my iPod while up with the baby. Logged back on now to comment officially. So much to catch up on here at TMA… Looking forward to it!)

    • Thank you, Mary, lovely to hear from you after a long time. As always, your acute eye is unerring, here spotting the best sentence in a long, rambling, not very well crafted story. So much more to say about cooking and cookbooks, perhaps I should take Nikhil’s advice for stories like this and write them in several parts. Happy New Year and hope to get together soon.

  4. On the contrary, Josna. I loved the story just as is. The sentence I quoted had an image that really struck me, but I relished all the rest of the story, too. Such rich, evocative material. I find myself feeling such fondness for your family and for your parents… as well as an urge to find the cookbooks you mentioned! xo

    • Thanks for your sweet reply, Mary. I’d like you to meet my parents sometime soon, and I’d love to show you the cookbooks anytime you had a spare hour or so to get together for tea. x J

  5. Wonderful! Reading this makes me want to run to an Indian restaurant immediately! And again, you have used an illustration from my own life, the fabulous Vegetarian Epicure. You’re inspiring me to do more real cooking this winter, so perhaps I’ll dip into Veg Ep (great name!) again.

    I’m not vegetarian, but don’t eat an awful lot of meat. This was hard to do in Hungary, where chicken and ham aren’t considered meat at all and the response to vegetarianism is to say, “Oh, but this is only a little bit of meat!” They don’t eat a heck of a lot of vegetables, either, at least not in forms we’re accustomed to. Salads as “westerners” know them were barely beginning to appear in restaurants when I was there in 1996-98. Mostly, if you ordered a salad at a restaurant you’d get what looked like succotash (beans, corn, chopped carrots) drowning in mayonnaise. I found it inedible. Cooked vegetables were heavily cooked and sauced, usually in the ubiquitous sour cream. My trip to Turkey was an enormous relief just for the cuisine!

    It’s funny you should choose this topic today, as I heard Madhur Jaffrey on the radio this weekend talking about her new book. She’s so enjoyable to listen to — but you’re even more enjoyable to read.

    • Sarah, your description of the idea of vegetarian fare in Hungary reminds me of what it was like to be a vegetarian in the U.S. in the Seventies. Not that everything was drowning in sour cream (!), but that if one asked for the vegetarian option one was often simply served a plate of raw or boiled vegetables. There was no idea of providing a balanced meal or of including protein, let alone complementary proteins. What was Turkish food like, I wonder?
      I so admire Madhur Jaffrey. She has had such an interesting and varied career, and she seems to be everywhere. Just a few weeks ago she played the role of the mother in a terrific little film called Today’s Special, which I highly recommend. The main character (Aasif Mandvi, of The Daily Show) plays an aspiring young Indian American chef and it’s set mostly in an Indian restaurant in Jackson Heights, NY.
      I love the Veg Ep! If you dip into it again, do let me know what you find yourself cooking from it.
      (And thanks for the vote of confidence on my writing!) x J

  6. P.S. I agree with Mary about the quality of the writing. It’s perfect as it is, truly.

  7. Jojotai, this was a story I identify with so well!
    I was quite unaware of the ‘shortcuts’ you could take to make food in America.. Right from frozen items to pre-cut fruits. However, I find myself drawn to the old-school charm again and again. There is a certain satisfaction and joy in making (at least) the simple meals from scratch. Having said that, I do eat frozen make chapattis- the alternative is quite unpleasant. 😀
    Lovely post.. Thanks for sharing all of memories..I feel I may have been happier living in the world of 30 years ago 😀

    • So nice to read your comments again, Mayuri. Hope you had a good time in India and came back fortified and ready to brave this almost unprecedentedly snowy winter. Worcester seems to be getting the brunt of the storms this year. My best shortcut is using ricotta cheese when making ras malai. It takes a fraction of the time and everybody is in awe because they think you’ve spent hours standing over the stove stirring and boiling down the milk! (Of course I tell them the secret.)
      Things were so different 30-40 years ago when there were so few Indians here. The great thing is that now we have more relatives nearby–like you! It could be lonely in those early days.

  8. Hi Jojo, I have a couple of questions to throw out there! Why does Mayuri call you Jojotai? What is the recipe for ras malai with the ricotta? Does anyone else have the same problem with the cookbooks by Madhur Jaffrey getting all brown and crumbly pages from not using acid free paper?

    • Hi Vincent! Mayuri is Dad’s cousin’s grand-daughter, so she is in Nikhil’s generation. Tai just means big sister. She could also call me Jojo-atya, which means paternal aunt, but Jojo-tai feels better to us both. (Mayuri, feel free to weigh in–Vincent is one of our oldest family friends in the US.) I will find my ras malai recipe and send it to you; it’s very simple, using only have ricotta, sugar, light cream, and cardamom. Our World of the East cookbook is in pretty good shape, I think, but I don’t have any others by her. Which one(s) do you have?
      PS Of course, you were both at our outdoor party last June, so you probably met. x J

  9. Hi Jojo, I am pretty sure that we met Mayuri at your cookout last year. She was very interesting to talk with! My book is called “World of the east: Vegetarian Cooking by Knopf 1973.

  10. I enjoyed this too Jojo – thank you again. Growing up in India I didn’t learn to cook Indian food – or to cook at all because our darling ayah, Yanki, did it all. Started cooking only in my 20s but at least when I went to Bangladesh I had the sense to go to my Bangladeshi women friends and start learning basic Bangla rannah. I discovered one of Madur Jaffrey’s books in the Oxford book shop on Park st in Calcutta and have been using it ever since. Our three daughters have all turned into amazing cooks with a great repertoire of Indian/Bengali vegetarian dishes but our son has always been a meat lover. Until this year – he spent 6 months in South India, 2 months in Bangladesh and is currently wandering around Rajasthan. To our amusement he first discovered that vegetarian food was cheaper and you got more of it, then discovered that it was far more tasty. His emails have been almost lyrical on the subject of palak paneer in Varanasi and chapattis and vegetable curry in a village in Rajasthan.
    I love reading your memories Jojo, thank you so much for sharing them.

    • Lovely to receive your response, Adrienne, thank you. I love the way books and recipes make their way into our lives and into our families and become part of us, as that Madhur Jaffrey cookbook has become part of yours. I also love the way our children come into their own as confident and creative cooks, making their own culinary magic in the kitchen and their own unique combinations of foods, herbs, and spices that become an expression of who they are, and that they continue to share and pass on through their families and ever-expanding circles of friends. Delightful too, to hear of your son’s discoveries of the marvels of vegetarian dishes on his walkabout. Warm wishes to you and to your family, and hope we get to meet again one of these days.

  11. Re-reading all these lovely comments is making my mouth water for some good Indian cooking. I think I shall make some Kheema which Barbie taught me from her vast knowledge of South Indian cuisine. She is actually re-educating the cooks in the Ambassador’s mansion in Belize so they are becoming quite good at South Indian cooking!
    She makes me proud.

    But I do wish you would just pick up and come to this side of the country and do a little cooking here!

    • Mmm, Marianne, I love kheema, either over rice with yoghurt or over pasta with a little parmesan cheese. It was one of my mother’s staple dishes when we were children. I tend to make it with ground turkey rather than with beef; in India, Mum used mutton. And yes, I long to just hang out with you and cook together—not to mention eating, of course! xx J

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