The piquancy, simplicity and seasonality of food from South India is appreciated all over the world. Shonali Mutalali talks about the role of local cookbook authors in fueling this interest.
“We didn’t even try to find a publisher,” says Mallika Badrinath. “Who needs a book on vegetarian food from South India?” In 1998, when she wrote her first book, Vegetarian Sauces, her husband offered to print it at his own expense to distribute to family and friends. “We sold 1000 books in three months,” she says. “And that’s without transferring it to stores.” Initially, the price was 12 rupees, that is, the cost price. Today, after numerous reprints, a million copies of this book have already been sold. It has spread all over the world.
A global market for local cuisine? You have to admit, it took time. For years, the book’s adventurous authors targeted an audience that wanted “restaurant-style” Indian food: dal mahani, chicken 65, and fish cakes. Or for those who like real Indian exotic: curry, biryani and kebab – especially for a not very interested Western market.
However, over the past ten years, local writers have discovered a global market that everyone ignores simply because they don’t know it exists. These are housewives, young professionals and students. Bloggers, experimental chefs and non-conservative chefs. Vegetarians and non-vegetarians. The only thing they have in common is a growing interest in savory, simple and seasonal food from South India. Some of them use cookbooks to recreate their grandmothers’ food. Some – to try unfamiliar, but attractive foreign dishes. Triumph togayal? We must admit that there is something in this.
Perhaps this snowball was started by Mallika’s clever marketing strategy. “We asked supermarkets to place the book near the checkout because we knew people who wanted to buy it didn’t go to bookstores.”
Today, she is the author of 27 English cookbooks, all of which have been translated into Tamil. In addition, 7 have been translated into Telugu, 11 into Kannada and 1 into Hindi (if you’re interested in the numbers, that’s about 3500 recipes). When she wrote about microwave cooking, manufacturers said their microwave sales had gone up. However, despite the large market, finding publishers has not become easier.
Then Chandra Padmanabhan invited the chairman of HarperCollins to dinner and impressed him so much with her food that he asked her to write a book. Dakshin: The Vegetarian Cuisine of South India was released in 1992 and sold nearly 5000 copies in three months. “In 1994, the Australian branch of HarperCollins released this book to the world market, and it was very successful,” says Chandra, adding that strong sales inspired her to write three more books, all on the same topic – cooking. “Maybe they sell so well because there are so many Tamils all over the world. Maybe because many people are interested in vegetarianism, but do not know how to cook such food. While almost any recipe can be found online, books are more authentic.”
However, it wasn’t until 2006 when Jigyasa Giri and Pratibha Jain won multiple awards for their book Cooking at Home with Pedata [Paternal Aunt/: Vegetarian Recipes from Traditional Andhran Cuisine] that people noticed the vegetarian revolution.
Determined to release their first book without compromising on content, they set up their own publishing house to record the recipes of Subhadra Rau Pariga, the eldest daughter of former Indian President VV Giri. At the Gourmand Awards, known as the Oscars of Cookbooks, in Beijing, the book won in six categories, including design, photography and local food.
Their next book, Sukham Ayu – “Ayurvedic Cooking at Home” won second place in the “Best Healthy Eating and Dieting Cookbook” award at a ceremony in Paris a few years later. It was official recognition. Upma, dosai and buttermilk have entered the world stage.
The rewards kept getting bigger. Viji Varadarajan, another talented home cook, decided to take it a step further and show how local vegetables can be used in so many different ways.
“Before, everyone grew vegetables in the backyard. They had to be creative, so they came up with 20-30 recipes for each vegetable,” she says, explaining how easy it is to eat “local, seasonal and traditional food.” Her recipes, which encourage people to use homemade vegetables such as winter wax squash, banana stems and beans, celebrate tradition. Her six cookbooks, two of which have been translated into Tamil and French, have won Gourmand Awards in seven different categories. Her latest book, Vegetarian Delicacies of South India, won Best Vegetarian Cookbook in 2014.
Being an enterprising seller, she sells her book on Kindle. “Online selling is a very big advantage for authors. Most of my readers don’t want to go to bookstores. They order books on Flipkart or download from Amazon.” However, she sold about 20000 paper copies of her first book, Samayal. “Many of my readers live in America. The market in Japan is also growing,” she says. “These are people who admire how simple and healthy our food is.”
Pure Vegetarianism by Prema Srinivasan, released in August last year, added a scientific basis to this emerging genre. This massive tome with a spartan-simple cover takes a serious look at the shaping of today’s recipes, from temple cuisine to the spice trade route. Very thorough, it targets the new market of professional and academic chefs, although home cooks can also get some ideas from the large collection of recipes and menus.
Not surprisingly, the next wave is books that specialize in certain aspects of such food. For example, Why Onions Weep: A Look at Iyengar Cuisine, which won the Gourmand Award while still in the manuscript stage in 2012! Writers Viji Krishnan and Nandini Shivakumar tried to find a publisher – as you can see, some things haven’t changed – and finally got the book published last month. Beneath its shiny hardcover are 60 recipes free of onions, radishes and garlic.
“So we came up with the name,” Vigi smiles. We usually cry when we cut onions. But we don’t use it in our fine dishes, that’s why it cries.”
The recipes are authentic and offer many variations of many dishes to showcase the ingenuity of traditional cuisine. “We give you recipes for all the ingredients you need,” says Nandini, talking about how the market has grown far beyond Chennai and India. “Just as I want to learn how to make a ‘real’ green curry, there are people all over the world who want to know how to make a ‘real’ sambar.”