Each meal is a magic trick. It may not always turn out perfectly and you never know how it went till the audience claps, or well, laps up the dish with relish; but with a recipe book you always have the illusion, the hope of trying out the perfect dish.
The promise of the best meals you can conjure up, in your humble kitchen. It is a book of promises, more than anything else. If you want to slay hunger you can read on how to grow crops, but if you want to really live, and eat well, and nurture your soul, it is a recipe book to the rescue. Even if you have never actually tried any of the recipes.
While you have Instagram videos with an immediate ingredient list and process ‘stories’ or a hasty youtube video, to show you how to cook, a recipe book talks to you, even if it is a simple list of ingredients and instructions. The book is more immersive, since if you genuinely want to learn, you got to go through an index, thumb through the pages and imagine.
See how the recipes are laid out, appreciate the texture, the emphasis on certain methods of cooking, the explanation for using certain utensils and also a dash of history, can be found in the words of a good cookbook.
The pleasure of reading a good recipe is indescribable. Each recipe has a story. You even learn a lot from the tense of a recipe - ‘Use a sprig of coriander’ ‘Make sure you freshly crush peppercorns’ ‘Saute till translucent’ , it is in the present.
You are actually mentally cooking the dish, peeling the garlic, chopping up the spring onions even before you have stepped out of your reading chair. There is a sense of accomplishment, as you go through the story line of the recipe. It takes you through stirring gently, let it simmer, you can already concoct the smell of the gravy that will envelop your kitchen.
You are reading but you feel and hear the plop of vegetables in a simmering gravy. The climax of when a dish is done, makes you sense the excitement, with a simple last line - Ready to serve or Serve hot or Serve with white rice. The finale, the dish is garnished and ready, for your loved ones to tuck in. A dream that you wish to fulfil, you only just read the recipe.
While all this sounds romantic, you mostly will never cook or toss up that ideal salad or cheesecake or whatever exotic feast you drooled over in a recipe book. Most of reading a recipe is like taking a drug, a short trance that we find ourselves in, a fantasy land. A story we enjoy with all our senses.
But cookbooks are necessary, there is something comforting in their presence. A well-lived house always has a shelf of these books. You have the ‘instant 5 minute’ recipes like your fast paced thrillers, the tomes -‘The adventures of French cooking’ or Indian cooking etc. that sit on the shelf like the Shakespearean classics. Then you have the favoured, the popular fiction, the useful ones with notes scribbled by your mother, or your older sibling.
These hand-me-down books are the best, cause each recipe will be tweaked a bit, a local ingredient will be mentioned, a worthy substitute to its French or Italian counterpart. The oven baking, is sometimes replaced with ’10 minutes on a hot
tawa’, the different easily accessible oils we can use, instead of the specified foreign varieties.
The exquisite, heavy coffee-table cook books, where the pictures of exotic meals speak louder than the words. There is plenty to choose from, just like the recipes they offer, these books have their own universe.
The comfort found in a recipe book is like none other, even when you are troubled with bad news. The recipe for the perfect scrambled egg, or easy chicken
tikka, can make you smile, remind you of a calmer time. You can read a recipe on homemade besan laddoos, and remember the toasty aroma of besan being roasted in ghee filling up the kitchen.
The festive spirit of Diwali or the baked goodness that enveloped the house during Christmas, can be revisited every time you read it. It is no surprise that cookbooks also make for perfect gifts, they hold out the promise of good meals you would like to share with people. The pages stained with turmeric, the dog-eared recipes, the half-torn cookbooks have seen a lot of good times in a family. The sorcery of a good cookbook lasts a a life time.
Sharon Fernandes is a journalist based in Delhi.