As people have been turning to food memories and grandma’s recipes for comfort, personalised recipe binder initiatives like Pallavi Gurtoo’s Do Chammach are on the rise
For someone who cooked only on birthdays or Diwali, spending lockdown Sundays recreating family favourites — from daadi’s jimmikand (yam) and raw banana koftas to masi’s layered biryani — was a departure from the usual. Put it down to those weekly Zoom calls with the extended family, where menus were often the topic of discussion. Anyway, a few months ago, with my recipe counter clocking over a 100 family recipes, I began seriously contemplating creating my own heirloom family binder. Till, while sharing notes for her pillowy orange and jowar cake, my sister told me about Pallavi Gurtoo and her nostalgia project, Do Chammach.
Return to the hearth
Founded two years ago by the former financial consultant, Gurtoo’s culinary initiative involves her actively cooking with families to document recipes. “My family lived in Africa for 12 years before relocating to Noida when I was three. I am Kashmiri but my people moved to Delhi 400 years ago, so we don’t speak the language. One of the few cultural markers we have is our food,” says the Mumbai-based artist, recalling how 2014, when she moved into her first apartment and began cooking obsessively, was a turning point.
Gurtoo spent her initial months researching and taking up food-related projects: she assisted on a shoot for Zomato, was a pizza taster for a UK-based oven manufacturer, worked in an experimental kitchen for Mumbai restaurant, The Lovefools, as a sous chef for three months. Articles — on a young woman reconstructing her late grandmother’s pickles from scratch, or of chefs talking about cooking lessons from their grannies — gave her direction. “This prompted me to delve deeper into food documentation,” she says, as she learnt that a lot of culinary merit resides in our home kitchens. “There needs to be more acknowledgement of the labour it takes to feed a family, one that isn’t written off as maternal love. My mother is an incredible cook. From crepes to Kashmiri delicacies, she used to make it all. But I never questioned who taught her,” says Gurtoo, 31.
The cookbook alternative
One of the few positives of our pandemic times is the revival of the family cookbook. Many, including established chefs, are turning to these yellowing pages for comfort food and sharing their finds on social media. Thomas Zacharias shared his grandmother’s pazham peechi (banana fritters) and other memories, while Amninder Sandhu of Iktara posted how she decoded the ‘legendary chicken butter masala’ from a hotel her dad’s friend owned in Jorhat, Assam. After the friend passed away, his wife ordered the dish from Sandhu’s restaurant and the chef posted: ‘The next day she came to meet me and handed me her husband’s handwritten recipe’.
Meanwhile, Food Forward India, a not-for-profit initiative created by Michelin star chef Garima Arora in 2019, went online this lockdown as Virtual Escapes. It explores and promotes the varied culture of India’s traditional food, such as jowar (sorghum) rotis prepared by the women of Pedamadduru, Telangana.
“Nostalgia is always a great comforter,” says food writer Vikram Doctor. “People are realising how their family recipes were put together, without access to gadgets like grinders and choppers, imported and packaged ingredients, etc.” Unlike commercial cookbooks, these home collections are one of a kind — teaching you how to cook frugally, and use leftovers (like rice and rotis). “They primarily feature everyday dishes. Many teach you how to use locally-foraged keerai and other ordinary ingredients,” he says. Currently working out of Goa, Doctor recalls cooking a traditional green jackfruit curry when vegetables were scarce in the early days of lockdown. “Featuring East Indian bottle masala and coconut milk, it took me back to memories of my Malayali grandmother, who was nuts about jackfruit.”
Quickest way home
“As people get more homesick, it seems like they are using food as a way to go home,” says Aysha Tanya, editor and co-founder of Goyal Journal. The first few months of the pandemic saw many trying out recipes that required time and patience, and going by Instagram posts, this trend has picked up speed. Also, context is key.
Earlier this month, in the publication’s Blood Fry & Other Dalit Recipes from My Childhood, Vinay Kumar, a writer who teaches English at Bengaluru’s Azim Premji University, looked at how food from his community featured in the country’s culinary landscape. “Mapping food has been a priority at Goya from its inception,” says Tanya, who authored and photographed for her family’s 2019 cookbook, The Family Table (47 heirloom recipes from the Arinhal Karuvantevalappil family from Kannur, Kerala). “We’ve always set out to document recipes in the context of the communities they belong to. But over the last few months, we’ve seen how delicate our food systems and supply chains are, and these are the stories that are particularly relevant today.”
Tracking down recipes
Gurtoo recalls the month spent documenting recipes with a woman from Jaipur’s Meena community, known for rich mutton dishes like lal maas and curries cooked on woodfire. “If you asked her to make a curry or a dal, she’d say, ‘But I can make this five ways, which one do you want?’. We started out wanting to record 50-60 recipes and ended up with 150!” But the hardest to archive is your mother’s cooking, she adds. “Mothers listen to everyone but their own children. They sneak in ingredients when you leave the room or prep without measuring beforehand. While it has been a struggle, I have documented most of my mother’s Kashmiri recipes like kaburgha and kofte, though I have tweaked [and daresay improved] her recipe for Dum Raan [roast leg of lamb],” says the curator, acknowledging the influence of her mother’s South Indian, Muslim and Gujarati friends during the years her parents spent in Ghana.
Having worked on three books till date and smaller documentation projects, Gurtoo, a self-taught photographer, says she shoots “real food made by real people that is then consumed, so I have limited time to style and shoot”. It can be challenging. “It helps me view food and my photographic body of work differently — working with nostalgia [using a client’s wedding crockery, for instance] instead of beautiful props. I like to reflect on the very real aspects of cooking and eating, like half empty plates and glasses with fingerprints on them.”
Time to record is now
A personal food project like Do Chammach requires one to be constantly updated. Gurtoo reads extensively about communities and their histories to get context for conversations in the kitchen. Her biggest task is convincing people that documentation should be done sooner rather than later. “I hate to sound like a fear monger, but people often say ‘I wish I had heard of you when my grandmother/mother was still around’. Many realise they’ve lost access to their food [memories] when it is too late,” she explains, adding how younger generations are finding that these books make for a thoughtful keepsake on landmark birthdays. “The Jaipur project, for instance, happened when I was looking for freelance art designers. I was referred to a lady who designs art curricula for schools and when she learnt about Do Chammach, she wanted to make a book for her mother’s 70th birthday later that year. It was a surprise so I pretended to be someone from her daughter’s office and spent 3-4 weeks in Jaipur. The book, unveiled on her birthday, had 150 recipes.”
Among requests received during lockdown is one from a family in Kazakhstan and another from a Baniya-Parsi couple from Canada. “Since the former will have significant travel costs, they are trying to [loop in] another family for me to cover, to split expenses,” she says. The latter is a large compilation, including the extended family, and will involve working across cities.
Do Chammach projects take between one and four months to complete. ₹50,000 for 15 recipes (excluding printing and travel). Details: dochammach.com