Book Review: Why the Iyengars make onions cry

A cookbook of Iyengar recipes provides a peek into the cuisine of this Tamilian Brahmin community, with an eye on the international audience.

Why Onions Cry: Peek into an Iyengar KitchenWhy Onions Cry: Peek into an Iyengar Kitchen is part of the healthy rediscovery of community-based cookbooks that have developed over the last two decades. These cookbooks are very different from the previous generation of community cookbooks which were largely privately published and circulated having been written for young brides entering new families. Traditionally, young unmarried women learnt to cook in the family kitchen. However, as families migrated from rural to urban areas the joint family, or community, started to dissolve and the oral tradition was disrupted.

To ensure that the culinary practices were not lost organisations like Saraswat Mahila Samaj in Mumbai came out with Rasachandrika as did the Tamilian Brahmin author Meenakshi Ammal with Samaithu Par. It’s interesting that one of the reasons this book was written was that co-author Vijee Krishnan, although a Tamilian Brahmin, grew up in North India and had little knowledge of her cuisine.

‘Marriage’, she writes in the Author’s Note, ‘was an eye-opener… here I was suddenly facing the prospect of having to prepare an Iyengar spread each day’. She learnt, ‘the subtleties of Iyengar cuisine’ watching her mother-in-law, mother, older aunts and through discussions with her husband’s ‘toothless grandma’.

One of the big differences between the two generations of cookbooks is that since the older ones were for a closed audience they were initially written in the vernacular and only subsequently translated into English. The modern books written for a national and international audience are published in English.

The cultivation of a pan-Indian readership is possible because the nature of social interaction has changed between communities or at least the more affluent, educated and urban ones. Earlier these interactions were within watertight compartments with little scope for commensality. Arjun Appadurai in his essay How to Make a National Cuisine: Cookbooks in Contemporary India points to a few changes that were fostered in independent India which encouraged this process of culinary exchange particularly amongst women.

The first was that as women entered the workplace they ate together at a fixed time, began sharing their food and developed an interest in the new flavours and tastes they encountered. For the housewife this intermingling occurred as a result of living in an apartment building and through interactions with neighbours. Additionally, children were eating together in schools and homes and husbands were entertaining colleagues at home says Appadurai.

Why Onions Cry has been written and designed keeping an eye on an international audience. Considering the book won the third place for Best Vegetarian Book in the world at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards, oddly, even before being published, it was a pragmatic strategy.

The recipes are quite delightful even though many of them offer ambiguous measurements: the karuveppilai kuzhambu (a curry-leaf sauce) asks for a handful of curry leaves, the boiled potato salad, urulai kizhangu podimas, requires 3 potatoes to be boiled and roughly mashed. This can be quite annoying since we have come to expect cookbooks to provide very specific quantities. While some old aunties might take issue with the end result, for someone unfamiliar with the cuisine the results are quite, quite satisfying. Most of the recipes are vaguely familiar but some like orange tholi thogayal, an orange peel chutney and orange tholi and narthangai pachadi, two kinds of marmalade-murabbas are quite unusual.

The book has some interesting touches: at the end of some recipes the authors have included tips on how to adapt the dishes to a global palate. Mixing in grated mozzarella to the kosmari is one suggestion, adapting the vegetable-lentil crumble, paruppu araitha kalaral for a sandwich or bread roll filling is another.

And why do the Iyengars make onions cry? Like many strict vegetarians in India, the cuisine of this Tamilian Brahmin community excludes the most ubiquitous vegetable on the planet. While other cuisines rely heavily on the onion as a base of their gravies and sauces, the Iyengars will have nothing to do with them. Makes you wonder if, when the rest of the country is screaming bloody murder at the rising price of onions, the Iyengars are laughing all the way to the bank.

Published Hindustan Times Books page 14 June 2014

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