Is it the recipe that is important or the writer ?
A backlane in New Delhi’s tony Uday Park is where you’ll find the famous Ahad Waza of Kashmir. The cavernous commercial kitchen is the scene of unusual activity, for alongside a team of assistants who work with the precision of an army, chopping onions and grinding red chillies, there’s the ebullient Rocky Mohan of Mohan Meakin. Ingredients are being painstakingly measured by teaspoons and weight before being tossed into a row of vast cooking pots. The head waza‘s working at the speed of light and Mohan is struggling to keep pace making detailed notes in his ledger. Another corner of the room has been taken over by a stills photographer, his assistant and a stylist, all fussing over studio lights and gleaming copper serving bowls. All this labour is for Roli Books’ next recipe book on the wazwan tradition of Kashmir.
Welcome to the world of the cook-book, a vital ingredient in any publisher’s or retailer’s list. With cookery authors, photographers, food stylists, distributors, publishers and booksellers all hunting for the perfect recipe for success, it’s a virtual khichree out there. Household names versus unknowns, lavishly illustrated glossies juxtaposed against modest paperbacks, hideously complicated procedures against grossly oversimplified shortcuts — take your pick, there’s something for everyone.
Says Pramod Kapoor of Roli, ‘The best part of a cookbook is its long shelf life.” Kapoor has been reprinting The Indian Menu Planner, a bestselling cookbook, every year since it first published in 1995. A masterpiece of good taste, it has everything a reader looks for: sponsored by ITC Hotels, all the recipes are culled from the repertoires of the hotel’s chefs, the format is an unusual one which, being spiral bound, opens flat on a kitchen work surface, and the pictures are stylish. “There are many yardsticks a buyer uses to evaluate a recipe book,” says Kapoor, “but for it to go into reprint, the recipes have to work with the minimum of fuss ”
Is there any surefire formula to success? As long as there are different types of readers, there will be several ways to reach them. Each publishing company has its own type of cookery book. Penguin, for instance, has evolved the paperback sans illustrations which gives the reader a whopping 250 recipes for Rs 200 — good value for money.
The quintessential Penguin reader is an experienced cook who can decipher recipe-speak of the ‘fry onions and cook meat till done’ sort without much angst. The beginner in the kitchen will need each step set out more clearly. That kind of buyer would probably plump for Dorling Kindersley’s lavishly illustrated glossies.
The rise and rise in the popularity of recipe books has, of late, been due to the flurry of would-be cooks entering the kitchen for the first time. The new bride has, as often as not, spent more time in the office than in mom’s kitchen, vigilantly stirring the cooking pot. She needs a cookbook as much as her US-based brother who entertains friends with vethalkozhambu and poriyal on weekends. Then there’s the bachelor from Beawar who needs something more substantial than chhole bhature to sustain him through three years in Delhi.
There’s another market as well outside India, and exclusively for non-Indians. Because of the popularity of Indian food, Madhur Jaffrey and Shahzad Husain are queens of the kitchen in the UK. In the US, there’s Naina Devi’s tome on satvik cuisine that makes up in user-friendliness what it lacks in authenticity. Every recipe has been related to one familiar to an American audience. Thus, samosas have been likened to turnovers, the difference explained and a substitute offered: baked samosas instead of the usual fried ones.
Talk to any publisher of cookbooks and they’ll assure you that the important aspect is the publishing house. That, alas, is only half the truth. While Penguin, Roli, DK et al have popular titles, the biggest success stories have been Tarla Dalal and Sanjeev Kapoor. The former has been published by Vakil and the latter by Popular Prakashan – hardly the most visible of publishers. These two authors are bought exclusively by Indians. While Sanjeev Kapoor’s book owes its popularity to his TV programme, Tarla Dalal’s TV show is watched because of her cult status as a writer of cookbooks.
“A majority of our cookbooks are bought by Westerners visiting India.” says Anil Arora of Bookworm. “By far the most popular cookbook for Indians is the one by Sanjeev Kapoor.” Arora ‘s tongue-in-cheek boast that he could toss off a recipe book in half-an-hour is hotly contested by Penguin and Roli. Says VK Karthika of Penguin, “Just scouting around for a cookbook writer takes us years. “Penguin’s regional cooking series requires the author to research customs as well as half-forgotten recipes “as a social document”.
When Roopa Gulati arrived in India as a new bride, she knew about Continental cooking but not, alas, about everyday Indian food. “In those days, my bible was Madhur Jaffrey’s excellent book.” Gulati, who now has her own show on TV and often showcases Indian cuisine, tells of how she would follow jaffrey’s instructions, down to the last detail. “If she said to take a half-inch piece of ginger, I’d measure it out with a ruler before dicing it.” If this illustrates the travails of Alice in blunderland, it also defines what a superb recipe book about.