“Which cuisine did you grow up eating?” B Ramakrishnan asks me. The man who developed and popularised the One Pot, One Shot cooking technique for quick meals using a pressure cooker, is well known among South Indian food circles. Still, this is the first time that we are speaking, and the first thing he wants to know is this.
Ramakrishnan has just been declared the winner (long format) of the Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing contest, for his book The Story Of India Through Food: OPOS Cookbook. Published in November 2019, this book was nearly 15 years in making. It details how 60 different Indian and ethnic cuisines evolved over time, with recipes.
“This book is about telling people why we eat the things we do today, and what shaped these foods. Why do some communities eat fish, some eat mutton but not chicken… a lot of these questions are answered by the evolution of each cuisine,” he says.
The book started as a blog in 2009, and was born out of disputes and debates in various food groups. How is a South Indian korma different than a North Indian one? Why did the Hyderabadi Nizami cuisine, considered royal, remain in the middle of Andhra, and fail to spread across the Telugu states? These were questions for which he wanted answers.
Explaining that Indian food history is more oral than written, Ramkrishnan says he travelled to different states to understand the traditional ingredients used and the methods of cooking in each place. “I picked up stories from elderly people in each household…”
The richest source of history for him were temple cuisines, that acted like time capsules in their rigidity and stickling to rituals. “For example, none of the temples I found served tomato rice as prasad. They serve tamarind rice, coconut rice, lemon rice but they don’t use tomatoes in any form because tomatoes only came into India 500 years ago and are still viewed as ‘foreign’ food,” he says.
Given there are so many different oral histories floating around for each cuisine, a part of Ramakrishnan’s challenge was digging into what could be the most plausible theory of origin. He takes the example of biryani, ubiquitous across Indian communities, and its ‘authenticity’, a cause for much debate.
“Biryani came to India in the North through the Mughals from Persia. Originally, it did not even have rice, just meat and flatbread. But a 1000 years before that, the primitive version of biryani was brought by traders in the South, through Kerala, the same time that Islam arose in the country,” he says, describing the erachi choru, which is basically meat and rice cooked together.
“The refinement of biryani, the technique of cooking on low heat, sandwiching meat between two layers of rice, so as to keep the flavours sealed and infused… that happened in the North,” he adds.
In every house that he went, he would sit with the families and cook their recipes using the OPOS method, until his dishes earned their validation. He particularly enjoyed visiting families in Nagaland, Meghalaya, Manipur and Tripura. “It’s the only place in India that has not subscribed to the masala craze! Just fresh vegetables and meat, with minimal oil.”
Ramakrishnan hopes that this book would turn out to be a blueprint for de-skilling and automating cuisines. “I think it’s racist to say that only a North Indian can cook the best paneer butter masala, or nobody can make sambar like a South Indian. With the right tools, anyone can.”
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