In 1973, the publishers of the adventures of the American girl detective released The Nancy Drew Cookbook: Clues to Good Cooking and in a section of in-ternational recipes the delicate steamed yoghurt dessert from Bengal is listed, along with reci-pes like Hong Kong Fortune Cookies, French quiche and Greek baklava.
Sadly, bhapa doi doesn’t seem to have caught the American culinary attention, but the cookbook did well and old copies are now avidly sought after by adults who were Nancy Drew fans when young (and, yes, some boys read the stories too) and who had gained some of their first exposure to cooking through the book.
The Nancy Drew Cook-book was an early exam-ple of what is now a well-established trend — a cook-book for children that’s a tie-in with book, film or TV series. There are now cookbooks to give deliciously tangible forms to make-be-lieve worlds ranging from Harry Potter to Game of Thrones to Anne of Green Gables to the Redwall Abbey series (one of the rare, mostly vegetarian ones).
has two cookbooks. Jolly Good Food finds inspiration from lavish food descriptions across her many series, like the midnight feasts at Mallory Towers, the fantasy treats of the Faraway Tree and the snacks served up to. Five Go Feasting, written by Josh Sutton, a food writer who specialises in camping, looks at the meals that the four children (and dog) of Blyton’s most famous series enjoy in their outdoor adventures.
Sutton notes that both the abundance of food, and the essential simplicity of what was on offer reflect the immediate postWorld War II period, when memories of food rationing were still painfully fresh and variety was limited. He also points to the basic healthiness of the meals: the children might eat lots of sweets and cakes, but also plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, and most food is homemade: “This was an age before processed food really took off, well before today’s factory-farming methods and the might of the supermarkets.” The Famous Five’s food, combined with the outdoor exercise in the stories, is still a good model for children.
This combination of education about food and cooking along with recipes framed for fans has helped make such cookbooks for children popular abroad. There are other variants too — for example, books where well-known chefs present recipes for their children (’ Fanny at Chez Panisse, Jacques Pepin’s A Grandfather’s Lessons) and junior versions of wellknown mainstream cookbooks (The Silver Spoon for Children).
Children have been learning cooking for ages, from boys and girls recruited as servants in large kitchens to families where they — generally, the girls — were expected to help with the cooking from an early age. But specific cookbooks designed for children go back to the 19th century, with books like Six Little Cooks, published in the US in 1877.
In her thesis on children’s cookbooks in Norway, Rachel Annette Ketelaars notes that books like that aimed to train children to become adults. Later on, the emphasis shifted more to making food fun, in an educational way. In the 1970s, books like Angela Burdick’s Look! I Can Cook! used attractive picture formats to teach recipes like moussaka and pot roast that didn’t condescend to children’s abilities.
Today, Ketelaars writes, there is a tendency towards trying “to engage the child in the act of participating where the whole purpose is for the growth of the child”. In such books the food itself is secondary — which might explain the rather fanciful recipes of some of the fantasy books — but some books are also emphasising currently important issues like sustainability.
All these books are benefitting from the greater visibility of food as entertainment and education, as shown by the popularity of TV series like MasterChef Junior. This applies in urban India too, where kids have MasterChef-themed birthday parties and producevideos of them making dishes — which they have usually learned from watching other YouTube videos.
What’s missing in India is much interest in children’s cookbooks. A few food writers like Vikas Khanna and Sabita Radhakrishnan have produced good books for children. Ranjini Rao and Ruchira Ramanujam have come out with a charming book Bookworms and Jellybellies that gives recipes inspired from children’s books and films like Peter Rabbit (sesame carrot fries), Alice in Wonderland (psychedelic pesto pinwheels) and the Geronimo Stilton series (double cheese pie).
But food writer Rushina Munshaw-Ghildiyal notes that there is in general a rather condescending attitude towards teaching children cooking: “I don’t know why people insist on cupcake- and brownie-making sessions instead of teaching kids real cooking. It gives kids the wrong messages — that cooking is only fun when you make sugary, unhealthy treats.” By contrast, she says, at the cooking classes she runs, “our dal- and rice-making session is the most popular with kids”.
Food writer Saee Koranne-Khandekar says she dislikes the assumption that kids’ cookbooks have to be super colourful and overdone: “I think we need to draw a line when dinner begins to look like a cartoon character! It disengages children from what I think of as real food.”
As she has seen with her own children, most kids are naturally interested in and drawn to food, so cookbooks don’t need to go overboard to attract, but should focus on developing this natural interest in a meaningful way. In fact, most food writers will say they developed their interest by reading cookbooks ostensibly meant for adults — the pictures and illustrations naturally make them easy for kids to follow.
One problem in India is the assumption that kids from the middle class and above will always have someone to cook for them, so learning about food is not a priority. People only learned how to cook when they went abroad and had to fend for themselves — so many Indians have learned how to cook after frantically demanding their mothers send letters, and then emails, with recipes.
One odd situation where children did learn how to cook was in traditional households where women had to seclude themselves during menstruation. A friend recalls seeing a male cousin in the kitchen rather haplessly trying to follow instructions shouted at him from his mother in the living room. This certainly led to intensive learning of a few recipes, but was hardly designed to create a real interest in food.
“We never taught our boys to cook so generations of men have grown up unable to make a cup of tea and now because of gender equality we are keeping our girls out of the kitchen too by telling them to forget cooking and focus on studies,” says Munshaw-Ghildiyal. But real gender equality should see both boys and girls taught about food as a critical part of their lives.
Another problem with potential publishers could be the assumption that with YouTube cooking videos so dominant there’s little chance that today’s children would be interested in a cookbook. But Aparna Sharma, managing director, Dorling Kindersley India (DKI), disagrees: “While there’s no denying YouTube is a convenient option and video makes it easy to follow recipes, a book gifted to a child is often the first introduction to the concept of cooking and also inspires children about what dish they can cook. Th
ey may search for more options on YouTube, but the book has its own place.”
DKI worked with Vikas Khanna to produce the Young Chefs cookbook which, Sharma says, has done really well. Khanna brought his expertise and celebrity appeal while DKI brought their considerable expertise in creating visually-led instructional books. They also worked with children and young teens to find out what recipes would appeal, aiming for a balance between Indian and international: “Children these days are very familiar with western dishes and love trying out new and exciting trends, so a balance was key.”
The recipes combined dishes that mostly required assembling and combining, with those needing heat and cutting, which were clearly flagged as requiring adult supervision. Then the team worked with a child in the same age group as the target audience to finalise the recipes. “She successfully tried out the recipes and gave us valuable feedback. We took about a month to do this. The photo shoots were done only after the testing. The whole book took us about three to four months to put together,” says Sharma.
DKI’s Young Chefs, which has been republished in an updated paperback edition, shows the potential of cookbooks for children. But the titles abroad show how much more could be done, particularly as a way to teach children about nutrition, science through food and the role of food in Indian history and culture. One outstanding example is The Little House Cookbook, based on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s stories, which uses recipes and descriptions of food production to create a really insightful picture of American frontier life.
One book that might be worth considering for such a treatment is Nayanjot Lahiri’s recently published Time Pieces: a Whistle-Stop Tour of Ancient India, where the chapter on food explains how advances in archaeology are revealing new details about the evolution of Indian food: “an archaeologist has recovered and identified starch granules from pots, grinding stones, and teeth, showing the processing, cooking and consumption of brinjals eaten with turmeric and ginger, as also the consumption of mangoes, bananas, and even garlic.”
The archaeological periods that Lahiri describes are also the source of our myths and legends, which makes one wonder about the potential for a cookbook that uses the medium through which most Indian children still learn about these stories. Imagine the potential of an Amar Chitra Katha-style cookbook which— using that comic book format and ranging as widely across communities and cultures as ACK has — could do justice to the culinary legacy that Indian children will inherit.