In A New Cookbook, A Celebration Of Friendship & Food Memories
Image Credit: The cover of The Indian Cookbook. Image via Aleph Book Company.

INDIAN food at its best is a culmination of years of dietary habits, gathered knowledge of self and surroundings, and cultivation of preferred flavour profiles. And given the country's diverse geographical terrain and weather conditions, the culinary styles differ from region to region. Be it the nature of ingredients used, the combination of spices, or even the vessels used for cooking -- every bit of the cuisine is and has been deliberated upon over the years and then constructed into a tradition. And yet, it keeps evolving and expanding. Perhaps, that's why Indian cuisine can be called as contemporary as anything in the world.

When Sunita Kohli, the national-award-winning interior designer and author, thought of continuing her food writing exercise, which began with her bestselling The Lucknow Cookbook in 2017, she came up with the idea of assimilating food memories and recipes shared by her friends over these years and putting together a gastronomical memoir, almost an ode to friendship and culinary kinship. 

The India Cookbook: From the Tables of My Friends, Kohli's latest book features recipes from her friends, right from her school and college days and from all walks of life, including Vinod and Chinna Dua, Nalini Singh, Sagarika Ghose, Shabana Azmi, Aruna Sairam, Shashi Tharoor, Shobhaa De, Visalakshi Ramaswamy, Meenakshi Meyyappan, Nalini and P. Chidambaram, Pheroza Godrej, Sharmila Tagore, Richard Holkar, William Dalrymple, Zarine and Sanjay Khan, Najma Currimjee, Shirin and Priya Paul, and many others. The book documents recipes of all kinds -- the relatively familiar comfort foods such as Pakora Karhi, Pongal, Butter Chicken, Dhansak, Vangi Bhaat, and, at the same time, the more unusual ones such as Sat Saag, Nimona, Santula, Mutton ki Karhi, Fesenjan, and Mohan Maas to name a few.

Slurrp reached out to Kohli for a quick chat to learn more about her book and how it was made. Edited excerpts below:

⁠⁠How did you come up with the idea of a book such as this? Did you already have these recipes, or did you start gathering the recipes (from your friends) after conceiving the basic idea of the book?

The idea for The India Cookbook presented itself as a eureka moment. When I was asked to quickly put together another cookbook, almost as a corollary to the apparent success of The Lucknow Cookbook, I immediately presented this book idea as I already had many great recipes from my friends around India. Of course, many other recipes were procured later.

                                                                       Sunita Kohli

Recipes, especially heirloom recipes, are often passed on verbally. A lot of entries in your book are familial renditions of traditional regional recipes with measurements etc. Were they always like this, or were these recipes refined/reworked later on and then noted with details on the weight, volume etc of the ingredients?

Yes, many of these recipes are family renditions of traditional regional recipes. Some of my friends had sent them with measurements, et al, whilst others had sent them as they had always had them. So some were even just screenshots taken from their worn-out recipe books! We definitely had to refine them with accurate measurements and other details such as preparation time and the number of people. Also, we formatted all the recipes so that they were easier to read and follow and were based on a consistency of presentation. The formatting was based on what one had done for The Lucknow Cookbook. 

⁠How did you segregate all these recipes? Were they classified according to their places of origin, or the location of the contributor?

I segregated all these recipes according to the structure of the book that one had conceived, that is North, South, East, West, Central and Sub-Continental India. I had segregated the recipes according to their places of origin rather than the location of the contributors. For instance, Nimona is listed under Bihar as it is equally popular in Bihar as it is in Uttar Pradesh. Also in this instance, Pawan Verma is from Bihar. Similarly, Poha is equally popular in Bhopal as it is in Mumbai. It is considered the most popular street food in Madhya Pradesh.

The introduction of this book has some beautiful anecdotes (in brief) on how stories around food of a certain region say a lot about its inherent culture, history and geography. Could you share some insights into how you chanced upon some of these recipes, or perhaps why you chose to include them in the book?

In brief and for the most part, my inclusion of these recipes was based on tasting these dishes at the tables of my friends. Each one of them says much about the inherent culture, history and geography of that particular region. The ingredients of the different cuisines of India are based upon the spices and raw food items that are plentifully available in different regions of India and during certain seasons.

Are there interesting stories behind some of these recipes? For instance, you talk about your trek to Bhutan and your introduction to Ema Datshi. Or that wonderful note on how your grandma would make malpuas.

Behind every recipe is a person, who is a friend who has contributed generously to this cookbook. And they have a story to tell. Just these stories would make another book. So briefly, starting with ‘A’, Agnese Barolo is an Italian, married to Dr. Gauhar Rizvi from Bangladesh who was posted in New Delhi as the Head of the Ford Foundation of India and in whose home we often dined and had Bangladeshi cuisine. Aman Nath is a hotelier who prides himself on the food that he serves at their different hotels many of which one has visited. One has often had a South Indian breakfast in Chennai with Aruna Sairam, during her morning practice. Those are just a few instances from ‘A’. 

And from W X Y Z, William Dalrymple who contributed Prawn Rice keeps a generous table. He sent me an entire history of his dish which was too long to be included. So, do Yousuf Salahuddin in Lahore, Zakia Zaheer from Rampur and Lucknow and Zarine Khan in Mumbai; all of them keep superb tables. Yousuf is known for the great food that he serves and the great concerts he holds in his home in Lahore, the Baroodkhana in the Old City. My late mother Chand Sur with whom I had co-authored The Lucknow Cookbook, my sister Rekha Surya the well-known semi-classical singer and I have all partaken of his generous hospitality. For this book, Yousuf immediately acquiesced to my request for a recipe from his table. But, that never came. He said he found it difficult to write down a recipe. Eventually, I had to go to Lahore to personally get it! In February 2023 I was in Lahore at the invitation of the Lahore Literary Festival for the launch of The Lucknow Cookbook and KALA – Essays on Contemporary Design Aesthetics. Yousuf had hosted a wonderful dinner for the delegates of LLF. The food was magnificent, as always. When I reminded him about the recipe for the Dhania Chicken he arranged for me to immediately meet his cook of thirty years and to take it down from her. She was a charming woman who could not write and could only speak in Punjabi. So I brought back the video recording, transcribed it and now the recipe is in the book.

-- Sunita Kohli's The India Cookbook: From the Tables of My Friends (2023, 288 pages, Rs 699) is published by Rupa Publications.