On a wintry night in February 2019, I found myself in front of a toasty fire reading Thoreau’s Walden at my friend Swati’s home in a quaint Himalayan village. Snow fell gently outside as the starlit night grew colder. It was the last stop on an 11,500-kilometre tour across India to meet and cook with friends, old and new — women who have deeply influenced the way I cook, think and eat. This book is a chronicle of life stories and recipes I captured over the course of that journey. But before I proceed, I would like to tell you the story of how and why I came to cook.
By dint of circumstance and choice, I became a cook in my late twenties. In 2007, my grandmother, Nirmala, died of pancreatic cancer. Just nine weeks after ammama’s diagnosis, I became the unlikely custodian of her recipes. Although I grew up in a home where food and meals were the centre of our everyday life, I hadn’t cooked until then. I spent the next nine years cooking my way through hundreds of recipes ammama had painstakingly documented. From her Telugu cookbook published in 1974 to the backs of medical prescriptions, wedding invitations, and frayed notebooks, the recipes were everywhere. My first cookbook, Five Morsels of Love, a tribute to my grandmother’s incredible culinary art, was thus born.
Although I started cooking to honour ammama’s memory, over the years, cooking has become my tether to the world — teaching me to live with meaning and connection, and with a deeper sense of presence. Cooking is how I express gratitude to the earth and the hands that nurture her. Cooking is how I understand and show love, unwind after a hard day’s work, and practice kindness towards myself. It is a daily routine, a ritual, a prayer. I am convinced that cooking can help me overcome any life situation, no matter how difficult and painful, and comfort me like little else.
Cooking and writing about food have helped me understand what makes my body and bones and some of the most urgent issues of our times — from hunger and inequity to ecology and sustainability. The kitchen, a space I avoided for fear of being “trapped,” morphed into a centre of learning and self-discovery. That one act of love, to fulfil ammama’s last wish of publishing an English version of her cookbook, kindled a passion that continues to define the course of my life.
After I published Five Morsels in 2016, my friend and book designer, Eszter Laki, vowed to visit India every year. Somewhere between sipping on ice-cold coconut water in Jaipur and trekking up the hills of Darjeeling with Eszter, the idea for Why Cook took shape. It draws inspiration from Eszter’s own books, Menü and Menü 2, which feature biographical sketches of her friends, their culinary memories and favourite recipes.
When I look back, there is a meal at the heart of almost all my friendships. It’s like I gravitate towards cooks. This book brings together friends who are artists, creators, entrepreneurs, musicians, writers and farmers. It explores why they cook and how cooking and food anchor them in their life journeys.
There are stories of hope and generosity, of courage and resilience, woven with lessons for cooking and eating.
Shree aunty brings her zeal for life and views on identity and domesticity to the table. Aru cooks to remember her late husband, Shankar, and reiterates how food is a vehicle to build community and a path to social inclusivity and dignity. Neha, Aashna and Swati share what it takes to leave behind big cities and fat salaries in search of belonging in the mountains. Chinmayie cooks like an artist and dreams of covering the world with food forests. Shalini lives on an urban working farm and transforms humble dishes into culinary creations of beauty. For Bindhu and Aditi aunty, cooking is a way of life, meditative and spiritually nourishing, just like their soulful music.
Rekha and Shivangini describe how their food philosophies guide everything they create — from homeware to clothes. Vishala works to uplift small and marginal farmers, supports an all-women bakery and considers cooking her superpower. Anita recreates the flavours of Kashmir to hold on to a home she never imagined losing. Sana is on a mission to change the world, one spice at a time. Molly strives to save ancient seeds, handloom traditions, and endangered species often overlooked by mainstream efforts (think the Indian grey wolf). For Azra aunty, recipes are heirloom jewels and pathways to respect and tolerance. Ma, whose menus read like poetry, believes that nothing brings people together as food does.
There are many more stories of women who have inspired, influenced and sustained me that I want to share with you. But I am limited by the practical considerations of time and space and how much a book can hold. I hope this collection inspires you, in turn, to celebrate the women, cooks and sustenance-givers in your own life.
All the dishes in Why Cook are guaranteed to bring cheer and warmth to your table. These recipes are shaped by tradition and by combining flavours in ways that have been done repeatedly for generations such as the 200-year-old recipe for kund (basmati rice and milk pudding) or the family heirloom theegura (mountain spinach chutney). There are recipes which celebrate the genius of home cooks, who coax delicious flavours out of what might have been tossed away — chayote peels, cauliflower stem, jackfruit seeds and scrappy pieces of meat. And recipes with dozens of varieties of lentils and greens, that not only enable a nutrient-rich diet but are also kinder on the environment. Over half of the recipes in the book are vegan, and more than eighty percent are vegetarian — which, although not planned at the time of conceiving Why Cook, I believe, is a serendipitous step towards a more sustainable way to eat.
I jotted down some of these recipes as I observed them being cooked, some arrived as WhatsApp voice messages, a few popped up in my inbox with very detailed instructions, and many of them were shared the good old-fashioned way — verbally. I have tested each recipe several times to ensure exact quantities and accurate cooking times and provide clear directions. I have taken a few creative liberties to slightly adapt them for consistency and ease while remaining true to the original. I encourage you to use the recipes as springboards; make them your own.
I wrote this book, largely in quarantine, with a busted foot, between the spring of 2020 and fall of 2021 — a period during which a deadly pandemic ravaged the world. Like most people, I struggled to find meaning and purpose in the face of so much loss and grief. When I began writing this book, I didn't foresee how it would become a lifesaver, a ray of light and a reason to get out of bed every morning. What started as a fun project, soon became purpose. To hear the voices of my friends as I transcribed interview recordings, to relive standing at their stoves, talking and sharing delicious food, made me feel less alone. As I cooked through the recipes, my home smelled of something akin to hope.
My hope, dear reader, is that the women you encounter in Why Cook inspire you and, through their stories, you rediscover the power of cooking. I hope that you will press flowers between the book’s pages, make copious notes in the margins as you cook the recipes, and return to them, again and again, for the joy and comfort they offer. I hope the book reminds you that some of the best moments in our lives are those spent with loved ones in cosy kitchens, around dining tables and by crackling fires, over cups of hot tea and hours of conversation.
Writing this book made me smile, wonder and travel; reassuring me that the world is still full of magic. Above all, it reminded me that food is where everything begins.