What Recipes Leave Off the Page
What Recipes Leave Off the Page

Recipes, family legacies, and lore are passed down in the kitchen, not the written word.

Illustration from Nimmatnama-i Nasiruddin-Shahi (The Book of Recipes)

Illustration from Nimmatnama-i Nasiruddin-Shahi (The Book of Recipes)

For as long as I’ve known, a shelf above the study table at home has held a handful of cookbooks on baking and desserts. When we were younger, my sister and I would marvel over the decadent desserts, running our fingers over pictures of rich chocolate cakes and stained-glass cookies. But the magic of those cookbooks has stayed firmly within the confines of our imagination, never crossing the threshold into our real lives. When my mother cooks in our kitchen, there are no books, no notes, no instruction manual to save her from everyday kitchen crises. She enters that space empty-handed and unarmed, with the cool confidence and deftness that seems almost unique to home cooks. 

Over the past few months, as a pandemic raged on, pushing us all back into our homes, I’ve found myself spending more time in the kitchen in my 20s than I ever have before. As I learn to cook, I ask my mother to write down her recipes. Sometimes, she does. But for the most part, the yellowing pages of the notebook designated for her recipes remain empty. In the kitchen, when I ask her how much salt I should add to a boiling pot of pepper rasam, there is no precise answer. She fills a teaspoon vaguely between half and full and says, “Look. See. This is how much.” For her, the passing down happens, not in the writing but in the doing. 

At first, this method baffled me. With time, however, I am beginning to realize my reference point exists, not in written recipes, but in the conversations we have about food every day. The phrases, childhood rhymes, and household idioms are where the kit

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