Not much has changed since Apicius. Most cookbooks are still handwritten notes and even though fairly generic, many women still guard their recipes like gold. Till recently, very few Indian women, especially in small towns, would willingly share their recipes .To get the exact ingredients of a dal makhani in North India was a task that required sleuthing skills and Holmesian questioning.There was always the option of catching the cook behind the memsahibs back and grilling him.
It sounds so Victorian but in a sense it was. Women were not encouraged to work outside , and their only realm of influence was the home . Socially acceptable work was running a boutique or a school in the home. Beyond that there were few ways in which a woman could give reign to her imagination or creativity.Where many women were so much more ambitious and smarter than their husbands , food was often a weapon of oneupmanship.Recipes were guarded like gold.
Old recipe books whether of Roman or Eastern origin gave the ingredients but never exact amounts. Much was left to the imagination.Great cooks were celebrated and feted and the feasts they prepared were talked about long after.
Now with the huge number of cookbooks available it is pretty tough to select ones that will be really useful to the average cook. Sadly some of the best Indian cook books look like nothing on earth...no appetizing pictures, bad typefaces and cheap paper as well as indiscriminate copy editing with ingredients missing or instructions misplaced. So they need imagination and determination to cull the best recipes from them.
Others look so good it seems unbelievable that the recipes are generically bad; they are compilations of recipes picked out from here and there with photographs bought from photo agencies that often have nothing to do with the given recipe.
Years of coming up with awful food productions have helped me to make a list of pretty decent cook books. I have tried to keep the variety of Indian cuisine in mind and have listed as many books giving recipes from different regions as possible . As usual there are so many books about Tandoori and North Indian food which has become popular the world over. The real gold lies between the covers of those unassuming little books with authentic home cooking written by some dedicated housewife. Sumaithu Paar was originally a three volume tome written by Mrs Ammal as a labour of love. Every Tamilian bride got one set much as 'The Joy of Cooking' as become a must have on every American brides gift list.
This list threatened to become the Top Twenty... but I restrained myself.And cheated a bit. Note 2 a and b.
P.S.Please note comments and links below from Lindy at Toast to get copies from other booksellers.
P.P.S.Other readers favourites with links also mentioned iin the comments section.