I am not sure if people still keep handwritten recipe books. I was born in 1978: that means I lived a good portion of my formative years in the presence of crimped hair, no hijab fashion, shoulder pads and recipe books. My fascination with recipe books started in my teenage years, when I would spend hours paging through my mother’s handwritten recipe notebook. She started the recipe book when she got married and each recipe had the date and also the name of the person who gave her the recipe. She would also neatly clip out recipes she found in the newspaper and carefully paste them in her notebook. Over the years, the pages have become discoloured and have oil and water splotches on them, yet it has not lost its charm. It is like my mom recorded a little bit of history in those pages.
Besides her handwritten recipe book, my mother has a collection of cookbooks that includes the Australian Women’s Weekly series and some Indian cookbooks. I can recall days when I needed to find the perfect chocolate cake recipe and I had to flick through ten cookbooks till I found just the right one. There were times when I wanted a light airy sponge chocolate cake and there were times when only a rich, dark, moist chocolate cake with a hint of coffee would do. These days, I can simply Google it and come up immediately with the right recipe via the Internet. But you know what? I still love cookbooks. I still find myself buying new cookbooks. I often console myself with the fact that while most women collect shoes, I collect recipes and cookbooks. I tell myself that you can never have enough cookbooks, and yes I really do need the latest Nigel Slater cookbook. It might just contain a new recipe for potato salad that I don’t yet have.
My collection includes books by various chefs and food writers, clippings from newspapers, binders full of printed recipes from the Internet, food magazines and even food-related novels. A few years ago we decided to renovate the kitchen and my husband insisted that we allocate some space to bookshelves to house my many cookbooks. I think he was tired of finding them all over the house. Little does he know that as my collection grows, the shelves have proven too few and presently some of my cookbooks occupy the shelves in his study as well.
Consequently, my regular morning ritual consists of nursing a lukewarm cup of coffee while paging through my various cookbooks hoping that a recipe will inspire me so I can answer the age-old adage, “What do I cook for dinner tonight?” While I have many books, I seem to always gravitate towards the same ones over and over. One in particular is Indian Delights by Zuleikha Mayet, first published in 1961. The book stands proudly alongside my Jamie Oliver, Yotam Ottolenghi and Heston Blumenthal cookbooks. The book – a wedding present from my dad – has great sentimental value. Additionally, the book also contains a wide array of traditional South African Indian dishes. Through most of my adult life, this book has been my go-to for traditional and authentic menu ideas from India. It’s an artistically produced book, with historical photos and information about food. However, my absolute favourite part of the book is the little anecdotes the author has scattered between the various pages. Often when I am making roti (unleavened bread) I think of this story about a couple that lived during the Moghul Empire. The story is titled How a Lady serves her Prince Charming. Theirs was a tranquil home with little stress and no upheavals. Each day, after the couple performed their evening prayers, the prince would proceed to take a leisurely stroll in their gardens. In the meantime, his lady prepared to lay out his dinner on a brass platter. Leisurely strolling over, he would arrive to enjoy his two hot curries, jug of iced water, pickles and a solitary piping hot roti on the side plate. On the other half of the table, the lady is busy rolling out another roti, meanwhile checking and turning the one that is half done on the grilling plate. This way she replenished his roti plate with as many hot rotis as his massive appetite required.
This story brings all sort of vivid images in my head. I imagine the setting and the ambience and I wonder what two curries this Prince Charming was served every evening. While times have changed and our lives have become rushed and noisy, it still all culminates in a comfortable silence at suppertime when families reconnect, just like the lady and her Prince Charming.
To me a recipe is not just a recipe. It tells a story, sometimes of a time long ago. The preparation of food, like culture and tradition, is passed down from one generation to the next – not just recipes, there’s always a story behind it too.
Indian Delights Roti Recipe
The secret to soft flaky roti is boiling water. My children love roti and while I fry them off to accompany a curry they slowly take them hot off the plate, smear them with butter and jam and gobble them up.
• 400 g all purpose flour
• ½ tsp salt
• 2 tbsp vegetable or olive oil
• 1 cup boiled water
• 3 tbsp ghee or melted butter
• ½ cup flour for dusting the work surface
1. Add 350g flour into a mixing bowl. Add the oil and the hot water. Mix with a tablespoon avoiding using your hands since the dough will be quite hot with the boiling water.
2. Take some of the remaining flour and dust the worktop. Remove the dough from your dish and place on the worktop.
3. If it is sticky, add a little flour until it is soft and manageable. Knead the dough until a soft, smooth, pliable dough is formed. This could take up to 5 minutes. Like most bread, the key to soft bread is a dough that is well kneaded!
4. Roll the dough into a large circle. Take the melted butter or ghee then spread over the dough.
5. Then roll the dough like a Swiss roll. Roll inward toward you. Once you have formed a snake-like shape, cut into even pieces.
6. Take one of the cut pieces, stand upright then press down with your hand – this will create a circle when flattened. Dust your hands with flour and work this small circle into a slightly larger circle, then place onto work top and roll into a flat round disc.
7. To cook your soft roti simply place on the preheated pan (the pan should be very hot). The cooking process for each roti should be 1 minute. Allow the roti to cook for 5-10 seconds before turning it over. On the second side, allow to cook for a little longer, pressing the sides with your finger or spatula to ensure that it cooks. Once the roti rises or you see bubbles form, turn the roti using a spatula. Do this twice over on both sides.
8. Once you can see golden brown spots, the roti is cooked. Remove from the stove, then repeat this process for all the remaining roti. Once all are cooked, cover with a paper towel or dishcloth; this will keep the moisture in, keeping the roti soft until you are ready to serve them.
Fatima Bheekoo-Shah is a wife, mother food blogger, foodie and breast-feeding activist. Finally answering her calling to be a writer.