Ask anyone, and they’ll tell you that my dal is great. It’s creamy, buttery and smooth, and contains the perfect amount of turmeric, cumin, ghee and Kashmiri chilies. When I make it, friends always tell me how different it is to the dal from their favorite takeout spots, emphasizing how much they appreciate tasting authentic, traditional dal.
I must finally admit my secret, though: My dal recipe doesn’t come from a long family line that originates back in Gujarat, an Indian province with a rich culinary history; it comes from a white, British, vegan wellness YouTuber named Madeleine Olivia.
I’m, of course, embarrassed to admit this fact. After all, as an immigrant kid from India (by way of Canada, by way of Uganda), I should be the last person relying on YouTube videos made by white, English vloggers in order to learn how to make my national dish. Not that my ignorance of Gujarati cooking is completely unexplainable. Growing up in a traditional, patriarchal household, my grandmother and mother did all the cooking. The men of the house weren’t even expected to be in the kitchen, let alone to cook.
I’m a competent cook now, but that’s mainly thanks to YouTube videos and Blue Apron recipe cards. So while I can make a decent enough curry, I’ve never been able to recreate the taste of home and make Gujarati dishes that are truly like my grandmother’s.
It’s actually a familiar feeling among the South Asians I know, who, despite living off traditional dishes throughout their childhood, had parents and grandparents who never thought to actually write down the recipes. “All my knowledge of Indian cooking comes from Priya from Bon Appétit,” my friend Anand tells me. “My mom knows all the recipes for traditional Sri Lankan food by heart, but for some reason, she can’t explain how to make them. When I’ve asked if she can show me anything, she just laughs. Then she’ll spend the whole night making loads of food to take back with me so that I don’t have to cook. I’m like, ‘No! I need to learn!’ But she understands that as me saying that I’m hungry and want to eat.”
There’s an undeniably romantic quality to family recipes. They remind us of loved ones we’ve lost or big family gatherings. In some cases, being given a recipe can be seen as a form of acceptance into a family; while in others, their function is a connection to places lost, or long forgotten. (For example, for Palestinian families who were forced to flee their homeland after the Nakba, dishes like maqluba are a vital part of forging an identity through memory.) Yet food critics such as the Guardian’s Jay Rayner not only believe that we’re seeing the death of the “traditional” family recipe, but moreover, that we should welcome it. “If we cook our parents’ food, it is to take us to an emotional place rather than a gastronomic one,” he writes. “We should bequeath to our sons and daughters an enthusiasm for food and a sense of adventure.”
“It depends on what’s meant by the ‘handing down’ of a recipe. I was never handed anything, I learnt by watching my family cook,” says my colleague Eddie Kim, the son of a restaurant family who writes our “Eat Your Heart Out” food column. In the kitchen, he adds, kids from immigrant families can end up contending with complicated histories, ones that, he suggests, can make older generations reluctant to pass on their culinary knowledge. “The whole idea of passing down recipes is so tied to nostalgia, inherited tastes and the memories that connect them,” Kim says. “For some families, passing down a recipe isn’t always this heartwarming, bonded experience of just sharing a recipe. There’s often a lot of baggage over who has the right to own a recipe and who has the right to tell a family’s story and traditions.”
So much of this, too, is about “authenticity.” As a recent Eater essay notes, the notion of “authenticity” has always been a source of contention when used to describe food — both in regards to what the term actually means, and whether it’s about a chef, the actual food or who the dish has been created for. When I think about a white girl having taught me how to make dal over the internet rather than my grandmother in our kitchen, I realize that my dish is, by its nature, catering to a white, Westernized palate. Even if fellow British Indians eat it, I know they will never tell me it reminds them of desh, or home.
But does any of this really matter? After all, per Mimi Aye, a chef and author of Mandalay: Recipes and Tales from a Burmese Kitchen, family recipes are rarely “authentic” in an orthodox sense. Her book, which documents the histories of Burmese cuisine (new and old alike), demonstrates how the genesis of a meal often derives from centuries of innovation, guesswork and cooks looking to recreate their own gastronomic memories. It also means that no dish — even those passed from one generation to the next — ever really tastes exactly the same.
“One of the big challenges [when writing Mandalay] was that older generations of cooks didn’t know the precise measurements that recipes require today. A pinch of this, a dash of that. How do you pin that down on paper? No way to hand down such recipes other than by word of mouth and muscle memory,” she tells me.
The dominance of the internet, Aye continues, also means that for cooks growing up online, precise measurements and ingredients — basically, Western practices of cooking — have become the norm. “Asian cooking tends to be different, if not sometimes forgiving,” Aye explains. “There’s a Burmese verb bwar that means to add a little bit more sauce here, or a little bit more potato there — to make the food stretch more. We don’t do portions in the way that English- or European-style food does, where you have a certain number of sausages, for example, to divide equally to get the recipe right.”
Where does all of this leave my delicious, but admittedly far from Gujarati dal? I’m not sure, but the last time I made it, I did deviate from Olivia’s recipe. I added more chilies and mustard seeds. I used yellow lentils, the kind my grandmother uses, rather than red ones. And I ate it with rice and my hands, instead of with quinoa and a spoon.
So its origins may be in the English countryside, but it’s evolved into something else — a dish that at least pays homage to my grandmother and our ancestral home.