Category Archives: Women and Gender

Unlearning Patriarchy: Flavors of Change in the Kitchen

By Niharika Tripathi

In the heart of our family kitchen, where the flavors of tradition and conformity converged, I witnessed a peculiar blend between food and patriarchal influence. As a child, I observed how my father’s preferences dictated our kitchen. His love for pumpkin permeated every dish, while the absence of spices like amchoor reflected in our meals. The very clear patriarchal hierarchy fueled by the society shaped our family dynamics. However, amidst this influence, my mother quietly rebelled by striving to please my brother and me with foods that catered to our tastes. It was a small rebellion, but it stood out as a symbol of individuality in a household that often adhered to traditional norms. Little did I know then that this seemingly mundane aspect of our daily lives held a deeper connection to the journey of unlearning patriarchal codes and the pursuit of personal rejuvenation, reimagination, reconception, and rebirth.

An image of kaddu ki sabzi (pumpkin dish), lovingly prepared by my mother.

Thinking back on the food choices that were made, one ingredient stands out in my memory: khatai. This small, pickle-like condiment, with its tangy and savory notes, held a special place in my heart. Growing up, khatai was a rarity in our meals, as my father never allowed its inclusion. I could only indulge in its delightful taste when I visited my grandmother once a year.

The limited access to khatai made it all the more precious to me. It became a symbol of the connections I cherished, the memories I treasured, and the small rebellions that brought me joy. So, as I continue to infuse the flavors of khatai into my meals, I do so with gratitude for the memories it evokes and the personal liberation it represents. It’s a reminder that even the smallest additions to our kitchen can carry profound significance, honoring our past while shaping our future.

A collection of spices, including amchoor, representing the diverse flavors explored in our kitchen.

Thinking back on the food choices that were made, one ingredient stands out in my memory: khatai. This small, pickle-like condiment, with its tangy and savory notes, held a special place in my heart. Growing up, khatai was a rarity in our meals, as my father never allowed its inclusion. I could only indulge in its delightful taste when I visited my grandmother once a year.

The limited access to khatai made it all the more precious to me. It became a symbol of the connections I cherished, the memories I treasured, and the small rebellions that brought me joy. As I continue to infuse the flavors of khatai into my meals, I do so with gratitude for the memories it evokes and the personal liberation it represents. It’s a reminder that even the smallest additions to our kitchen can carry profound significance, honoring our past while shaping our future.

As I grew older, I couldn’t help but notice another aspect of patriarchal codes: the unequal distribution of food. Even as times changed, the practice of serving men first persisted within our extended family. Even now, as my cousins’ wives and my sister-in-law strive for change, my aunts and mother find solace in feeding everyone else before savoring the meals they have lovingly prepared. 

Amidst the flavors that defined our family’s culinary landscape, there was one dish that my mother held close to her heart: kadhi. Its tangy notes and velvety texture had always enticed her taste buds. However, a cloud of restriction hung over this beloved dish. My father, driven by his own preferences, made it very clear that he did not care for kadhi. The mere mention of it seemed to trigger an unspoken restriction. Although my mother had a strong fondness for kadhi, she still adhered to the restriction. It was a silent sacrifice, a relinquishing of her own desires to appease the patriarchal codes that subtly dictated our family’s culinary choices.

Kadhi Recipe

Ingredients:

1 cup yogurt

3 tablespoons gram flour (besan)

2 cups water

1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder

1 teaspoon red chili powder

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1/2 teaspoon mustard seeds

A pinch of asafoetida (hing)

1 tablespoon ghee (clarified butter)

Curry leaves 

Salt to taste

Fresh coriander leaves for garnish

My mother would whisk curd with gram flour to form a smooth mixture. In a pan, she would heat ghee and add cumin seeds, mustard seeds, and a pinch of asafoetida, sautéing them briefly. Then, she would add the yogurt-gram flour mixture and stir in water, turmeric powder, red chili powder, and salt. The kadhi would simmer on low heat until it thickened and the raw taste of gram flour disappeared. Finally, she would garnish it with fresh coriander leaves. While this process resulted in a delicious dish, its significance has always been beyond its flavour for me. 

Through these experiences of our kitchen, I developed a sense of self awareness of the pervasive influence of patriarchal codes and their impact on individuals and relationships around me. I started questioning the norms and expectations that permeated our family dynamics. Witnessing my mother’s quiet rebellion and the compromises she made to accommodate the preferences of others opened my eyes to the hidden sacrifices and silencing of personal desires that often accompany traditional gender roles. It became clear to my brother and I that unlearning patriarchal codes required a conscious dismantling of ingrained patterns and a reimagining of relationships rooted in equality and individual autonomy.

A bowl of tangy and velvety kadhi, representing a dish restricted by patriarchal preferences.

The change in our kitchen may have seemed subtle at first, but in hindsight, it was a much-needed and transformative shift. As I began questioning the patriarchal nature of our surroundings, a seed of change was planted within our family dynamic. The conversations initiated sparked a collective awakening, encouraging each family member to reevaluate their own beliefs and behaviors in the kitchen. We recognized the need to break free from the limitations imposed by tradition and embrace a more inclusive and authentic way of living. Gradually, our kitchen became a space where everyone’s voices were heard, preferences were respected, and contributions were celebrated. It was through this subtle revolution that we cultivated an environment of harmony, equality, and individual empowerment. The change in our kitchen rippled into other aspects of our lives, inspiring us to challenge societal norms, pursue personal growth, and forge deeper connections with one another. In hindsight, I now realize that this seemingly small shift held the power to transform not only our family’s relationship with food but also our overall sense of well-being and fulfillment.

The dining table displays a variety of dishes. In the center, a vibrant pumpkin dish stands out, accompanied by a creamy kadhi bowl.

Niharika Tripathi is a feminist researcher and writer specializing in research and advocacy. With a background in law, she brings a unique perspective to her work, focusing on gender-based violence and social change. Through qualitative research and community engagement, Niharika challenges patriarchal norms, striving for a more inclusive world.

Rejuvenated Memories: Rebirth and Reliving through Nani Maa ke Nuskhe

By Sonakshi Srivastava

वासांसि जीर्णानि यथा विहाय नवानि गृह्णाति नरोऽपराणि

तथा शरीराणि विहाय जीर्णान्यन्यानि संयाति नवानि देही

–Baghavad Gita

“Just as a human casts off their old clothes to wear new ones, similarly does the soul or aatman cast off the old, worn-out physical body to assume a new one.”

The above quote from the Bhagavad Gita operates on the premise of “Rebirth” as the law of existence. Here, death is but a rite of passage for the soul to reincarnate in various forms over the many cycles of re-births so as to attain the final salvation or moksha

The analogy, relating the body to a worn out piece of clothing, reminds us that the process of aging is not unlike the wear and tear we see in the household objects and materials we use everyday.  No wonder, then, that we very often try to keep both our bodies and the objects around us “alive” through recipes that purport to rejuvenate our skin or hair or prevent beloved objects from falling into disrepair. In India, these recipes for rejuvenating objects are often collected and shared  under the rubric of nani maa ke nuskhe or dadi maa ke nuskhe. These terms roughly translate to “the formula/recipe of maternal grandmother” or “the formula/recipe of paternal grandmother.” The terms nani maa and dadi maa ke nuskhe  capture  the love, innate wisdom and warmth that is generally associated with grandmothers.

It is a truth universally acknowledged (at least in my household) that the wisdom in the form of nuskhe passed down by my set of maternal and paternal grandmothers, and the generation of grandmothers before them, are indispensable, not only to my mother but also to my father and grand-father. And yet, the nuskhe that mean so much to us are not particular to my family. For the most part, it is impossible to trace the genealogy of these recipes or formulas. Nuskhe cannot be dated, and neither can one claim them to be their own. These are universal remedies, pervading every Indian household. They are an intricate thread that stitches together the cultural fabric of the country, regardless of caste, class and religious differences. 

Belonging to the corpus of oral tradition, these nuskhe also assume a particular gendered nomenclature. The nuskhe function on the assumption of women as “kushal grahinis” (astute housewives), the astuteness a sign of their ability to keep things and objects as clean and as new as possible, preventing goods from being damaged as well as the ability to breathe a new lease of life into household paraphernalia. But besides rejuvenating and reviving objects, nuskhe also revive the generational vocabulary of memory, keeping wisdom alive through generations. They follow a matrilineal legacy, renewing themselves every generation. 

A few of the my grandmother’s nuskhe that I place trust in include:

A photo of a book with neem leaves to keep silverfish away.

A time-tested remedy, my nani used to keep neem leaves between the pages of books and among books to prevent silverfish from eating away at the pages. This nuskha promises to rescue books from the clutches of age.

Uncooked rice with dried red chilies and a knot of turmeric to keep weevils out.

Another nuskha that continues to find a nurturing ground at home is the use of dried red chillies and turmeric knots in rice jars. The use of chillies and turmeric allows the rice to stay fresh, away from the onslaught of weevils.

Nuskhe not only restore gaiety to books and food items. Some also promise to extend their restoring properties to the body and hair. Here is one such nuskha that finds a ready resonance in most Indian households, albeit with a few modifications.

Nani Maa ka Nuskha for Rejuvenating Hair

A clip from a 1991 issue of the Hindi magazine Manorama that carried a column on nuskhe with a particular focus on rejuvenating skin and hair health.

4 tablespoons amla (Indian gooseberry) powder

1 tablespoon hibiscus powder

1 teaspoon grounded fenugreek 

3 tablespoon coconut oil

1 egg/2 tablespoons curd (optional)

Mix all the ingredients, ensuring that there are no bubbles or lumps. Part hair and apply the paste on the scalp. Leave for 10-15 minutes. Wash away with a mild shampoo. The hair mask recipe lends luminosity and volume to hair, giving new life to it.

The popularity of these nuskhe is such that popular Indian magazines, particularly with a good base of women readers have a specific column titled nani maa ke nuskhe or dadi maa ke nuskhe, thereby allowing these to be in perpetual circulation.

The ancestral wisdom, in the form of these nuskhe attest only to the power of renewal and rebirth but are also a lesson in sustainability, a vision foreseen to be economic with resources!


Sonakshi Srivastava is a writing tutor at Ashoka University. She is a translation fellow at South Asia Speaks where she is translating a provincial novel by Jaishankar Prasad into English under the mentorship of Arunava Sinha. Her areas of interest include food studies, posthumanism, and ecocriticism. She actively retweets @SonakshiS11.

Beating Dough for Sponge Biscuits: a Gendered Skill?

By Marta Manzanares Mileo

In 1611’s Arte de cozina, pastelería, bizcochería y conservería (The Art of Cooking, Pastry Making, Bakery and Preserving), Francisco Martínez Montiño, Philip III’s and Philip IV’s personal cook, provides a series of recipes for bizcochos or long sponge biscuits made of flour, sugar, and eggs, which were one of the favourites desserts in early modern Spain. In one of these recipes, Montiño instructs the reader how to whip the biscuit dough, warning “that you must not whip any biscuits with two hands, as the nuns do, but with one hand as when you beat eggs to make egg omelette.”[i]

 

A painted image shows a basket overflowing with breads and cakes.
Figure 1. Detail of bizcochos and other small cakes in Juan Van der Hamen y León, Still Life with Basket of Sweets. s. XVII. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

 

Montiño was not the only commentator to criticize nuns’ culinary techniques. In Los quatro libros del arte de la confitería (Four Volumes on the Art of Confectionery), published in 1592, the confectioner Miguel de Baeza asserted that “sponge biscuits were of good quality in Toledo and produced in large quantities in monasteries; although these biscuits were not as good as those made in the confectionery shops”[ii] (I’ve briefly discussed Baeza’s book in an earlier post, in which I examined the circulation of manuscript confectionery books among guild confectioners, some of them based on Baeza’s print work).

As scholars of early modern culinary literature have noted, professional author-cooks added personal comments and recipe corrections to demonstrate their professional expertise via their cookbooks. Baeza and Montiño used their privileged position to claim their culinary authority, in this instance by comparing and diminishing nuns’ baking skills. Their remarks clearly reflect the gendered division of culinary labour in early modern Europe between “male-professional-skilled” and “female-domestic-unskilled.” What is striking about their criticism is that nuns were (and still are) well-known for their prowess in the preparation of sweets.

As part of a larger research project on the gendering of sweet foods in early modern Spain, I examine how cultural associations between women and sugar might have translated into gendered modes of cooking and eating sweet food.[iii] I have shown that women of various social backgrounds, including nuns, played a crucial role in shaping a growing taste for sugary food in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Spain.  Indeed, cultural images of industrious nuns making delicious sweet treats in convent kitchens prevailed across the early modern Catholic world. To honour ecclesiastical officials and families, nuns prepared a wealth of fruit preserves, small cakes, and biscuits, including bizcochos.

A written manuscript describes an early modern Spanish recipe.
Figure 2. Recipes for bizcochos by Sister Clara María Suay. Arxiu del Regne de València, Clero, caja 788, nº54. Appearing with permission of Arxiu del Regne de València.

 

Did Spanish nuns have their own technique for making bizcochos? In an attempt to answer this question, I faced a series of methodological problems, partly as a result of the scarcity of surviving manuscript recipes written by women in this period. One exception is a manuscript collection of short recipes scattered through the personal papers of Sister Clara María Suay, a professed nun in the Royal Monastery of La Puridad in Valencia. Although Clara María Suay annotated two different recipes for sponge biscuits, she included only brief notes about ingredients and instructions.

It is unclear whether nuns possessed their own unique techniques to prepare their well-known sponge biscuits. Can we consider it a culinary “secret” kept behind convent walls? In any case, Montiño and Baeza’s recipes offer a compelling example of the gendered dimensions of cooking, which were often distorted and biased, and some of the methodological issues that historians face when seeking to uncover women’s culinary practices in the context of early modern Spain.

 

Acknowledgements

This research has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement Nº 891543.

[i] Francisco Martínez Montiño, Arte de cozina, pastelería, bizcochería y conservería (Madrid: 1611), p.  274.

[ii] Miguel de Baeza, Los quatro libros del arte de la confitería (Alcalá de Henares: 1592), p. 76.

[iii] For a more extensive account on this research, see my forthcoming article “Sweet Femininities: Women and the Confectionery Trade in Eighteenth-Century Barcelona” in Gender & History.

Cooking up the Romans: Mrs Beeton’s Antiquity

By Laurence Totelin

Paragraph 285 of the 1861 edition of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management is a recipe for baked red mullet with a sauce of anchovies, sherry and cayenne. As is usual in the Book of Household Management, this recipe starts with a list of ingredients (with quantities), followed by the mode of preparation, the time needed for the preparation, the average cost, an indication as to when the dish is seasonable (at all times), some notes on other modes of cooking, and an illustration. Paragraph 285 does not end there, however. It concludes with the following notes, in smaller characters, on the history of the red mullet:

THE STRIPED RED MULLET. — This fish was very highly esteemed by the ancients, especially by the Romans, who gave the most extravagant prices for it. Those of 2 lbs. weight were valued at about £15 each; those of 4 lbs. at £60, and, in the reign of Tiberius, three of them were sold for £209. To witness the changing loveliness of their colour during their dying agonies was one of the principal reasons that such a high price was paid for one of these fishes. It frequents our Cornish and Sussex coasts, and is in high request, the flesh being firm, white, and well flavoured.

Photo of a facsimile of Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management, showing pages 142 and 143. This includes paragraph 283 on the pickled mackerel; paragraph 284 on the grey mullet, with a drawing of a grey mullet, a type of fish; paragraph 285 on the red mullet, with a drawing of a red mullet, a type of fish; paragraph 286 on fried oysters, with a drawing of the edible oysters; and the beginning of paragraph 287 on scalloped oysters. The text on the red mullet reads as follows: RED MULLET. 285. INGREDIENTS -- Oiled paper, thickening of butter and flour, 1/2 teaspoonful of anchovy sauce, 1 glass of sherry; cayenne and salt to taste. Mode. -- Clean the fish, take out the gills, but leave the inside, fold in oiled paper, and bake them gently. When done, take the liquor that flows from the fish, add a thickening of butter kneaded with flour; put in the other ingredients, and let it boil for 2 minutes. Serve the sauce in a tureen, and the fish, either with or without the paper cases. Time. – About 25 minutes. Average cost, 1s each. Seasonable at any time, but more plentiful in summer. Note. – Red mullet may be broiled, and should be folded in oiled paper, same as in the preceding recipe, and seasoned with pepper and salt. They may be served without sauce; but if any is required, use melted butter, Italian or anchovy sauce. They should never be plain boiled. THE STRIPED RED MULLET. -- This fish was very highly esteemed by the ancients, especially by the Romans, who gave the most extravagant prices for it. Those of 2 lbs. weight were valued at about £15 each; those of 4 lbs. at £60, and, in the reign of Tiberius, three of them were sold for £209. To witness the changing loveliness of their colour during their dying agonies was one of the principal reasons that such a high price was paid for one of these fishes. It frequents our Cornish and Sussex coasts, and is in high request, the flesh being firm, white, and well flavoured.
Pages 142 and 143 of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, showing paragraph 285 on the red mullet [full text of paragraph 285 in the Alternative Text].

Beeton peppered her Book of Household Management with such historical notes, focusing especially on antiquity, which particularly interest me as an ancient historian. In these notes she named various ancient sources: the Scriptures, Homer, Herodotus, Aristophanes, Aristotle, Xenophon, Theocritus, Cato, Caesar, Horace, Martial, Virgil, Pliny, Dioscorides, Galen, Athenaeus, Apicius, and Julius Firmicus. However, in most cases, her knowledge of these sources was second-hand: she had borrowed it from a curious book published in 1853, the Pantropheon, which was circulated under the name of Alexis Soyer, a famous and flamboyant Victorian chef (but origianllly composed in French by Adolphe Duhart-Fauvet). The Pantropheon retraced the history of food and eating habits, with a focus on antiquity. It drew on numerous classical sources, listed, with varying degrees of accuracy, in the ‘table of references’. Beeton only acknowledged Soyer’s Pantropheon once (paragraph 1016), probably deeming the information to be, as it were, ‘in the public domain’.

Some of Beeton’s borrowings are word-for-word copies of what she found in the Pantropheon. In most instances, however, she reworked the Pantropheon’s material . For instance in her paragraph on the red mullet, she brought together various passages from the Pantropheon’s chapter on this fish, and added the information on where to find the fish in the British isles.

Even though Beeton’s historical notes are trivia apparently selected at random, two types of anecdotes recur with particular frequency. First, she often commented on the religious practices of the ancients, usually displaying a critical attitude towards what she deemed to be superstitions.  Second, she often included anecdotes relating to the excesses and cruelty of the ancients. We have already encountered her comments on the cruelty of the Romans towards the mullet. In paragraph 214, which is part of her general introduction on fish, she also wrote that ‘with all the elegance, tastes, and refinement of Roman luxury, it was sometimes promoted or accompanied by acts of great barbarity’. Writing on the luxurious excesses of the ancients (and more particularly of the Romans) was nothing new, but Beeton seems more angered by cruelty towards animals than by conspicuous displays of wealth. The theme of humane treatment of animals is  one that runs through the Book of Household Management: historical anecdotes helped Beeton reinforce her argument against animal cruelty. Thus, even with plagiarised material, Beeton managed to convey at least two moral messages. Her readers may have been oblivious to these implicit lessons, but they cannot have been to her explicit aim to educate her middle-class readers in every aspect of household management and its history.

Photo of a Roman mosiac displaying an eel and three fishes.
Roman mosaic with fish from Utica, Tunisia. Photo by Kritzolina, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia.

Including historical and scientific information in Books of Household management was not entirely new. Books of household managements published at the beginning of the nineteenth century sometimes included sections on geography, history, architecture, or similar topics. Yet, I would argue that what Beeton was doing was new in two respects. First, rather than concentrating all her historical notes in one chapter on the history of food, she offered food history in bite-sized parcels. Second, she integrated those  historical bites into the structure of her recipes. These innovations may appear trivial, but they are not. The readers of Beeton’s Book of Household Management could irgnore her historical notes only with some difficulty. These readers may have chosen not to read them, but it would have been very difficult not to see them. If the readers ever chose to examine some of these historical and scientific notes, they could do so in very little time. Beeton was well aware that time was of the essence for many of her readers who did not often have the leisure to read for pleasure.

It is for this time-poor reader that Beeton pre-chewed and bite-sized history. One could easily imagine a reader of the Book of Household Management pausing for two minutes to read the notes on the red mullet once she had placed her concoction on the stove. In that reader’s mind the trivia she had learnt about that fish thereafter would be associated with the smell of the roasting fish. To today’s reader, Beeton’s didactic method may appear surprisingly modern: she had chopped history into small bits easy to memorise, and by associating them with recipes, she made the learning experience a multisensory one. Of course, it would be wrong to overinterpret Beeton’s didactic method, but it would be equally wrong to deny that Beeton had didactic intentions. The Beetons were fervent advocates of female education.

In her small way, then, Beeton did contribute to the education of the middle classes. Isabella would certainly have disagreed with Sarah Sewell who in 1868 argued that ‘Women who have stored their minds with Latin and Greek seldom have much knowledge of pies and puddings’ (Woman and the Times we Live in, p. 51) . As any aspiring domestic goddess will know a woman’s brain can well accommodate pie and pudding recipes as well as Latin and Greek!