Tasting “Them Days” With Indian Delights

Words and collages by Youlendree Appasamy

[This essay was first published in Kajal Magazine Volume 4. You can buy a copy of the delicious magazine here: https://store.kajalmag.com/product/kajal-volume-4]

Indian Delights, a South African cookbook, is a hefty, red-covered kitchen companion created by the Women’s Cultural Group in the 1960s. Edited by Zuleikha Mayat, a founding member of the organisation, the cookery book is still immensely popular, selling more than 500,000 copies, and has gone through different iterations and many reprints.

The culinary artists behind the book are self-described “housewives.” The Women’s Cultural Group was formed in 1954 and came together around the idea of community and civic participation, and consisted of women from mainly middle class and wealthy Muslim families in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal. Over time, the Group’s membership included women from different social backgrounds, coalescing around the organisation’s intention of being a non-racial women’s club.

“[…] the self-described ‘non-political’ Women’s Cultural Group laboured to bring about its own vision of social good. The story of the Group reveals the dynamic meanings of community, culture, identity and space during a time when apartheid legislation was attempting to make these fixed and synonymous,” writes Tembisa Waetjen, in her book Gender, Modernity and Indian Delights.

The genesis of the group coincided with the increase in restrictive, racist apartheid laws. From the 1920s through to the 1940s, various Afrikaner Prime Ministers instituted legislation that inhibited freedom of movement for Indian traders and ex-indentured laborers, removed Black citizenship, voting and land rights, and restricted economic activities for non-white traders. These policies then paved the way for large-scale segregation legislation such as the Immorality Amendment Act, Suppression of Communism Act, The Population Registration Act, The Group Areas Act, and The Bantu Authorities Act. These were some of the most powerful legislative tools that the racist government used to control all communities of color in the country, to ossify racial identities to specific locations, and to limit the economic and spatial freedoms of racialised peoples in South Africa.

In this milieu, the Women’s Cultural Group strove to offer a space where women over the age of 16, could come together to debate, form friendships, and discuss the politics of the day. The voluntary organization sought to connect with other women’s groups in the area and often created fundraising initiatives such as the 1978 Meena Bazaar, where profits generated went to both housewives looking to supplement family incomes and to Black and Indian organizations in financial need in Durban and the surrounding area.

In Gender, Modernity and Indian Delights, Mayat explains that the formation of the group cultivated and harnessed the talents of the “ordinary housewife, who was sitting at home, being a bonsai, really. They had talent, [but] they didn’t even know what talent they had.”

More than philanthropy, the group worked to excavate lived realities of housewives at the time, and support their endeavors — both financially, and socially through their meetings and informal get-togethers.

The original version of Indian Delights was printed in 1961, the same year that the Treason Trial — where prominent anti-apartheid activists were charged with treason — concluded. Although all defendants were found not guilty, the trial re-affirmed the lengths to which the apartheid government was willing to go to stamp out any sign of resistance, especially inter-racial resistance.

How does a cookbook fit into these politically turbulent times? In the late 1950s, the Group hoped to create a literary work which could help them fundraise bursaries for children living in poverty. After some debate, they settled on a cooking book — a literary project that could house various skills and interests the members had. Proceeds from books sales went, and continue to be funnelled into education bursaries, tying into the organization’s original motivation for creating a literary project.

“It was a project, too, in which the private duties of a homemaker could be put to valuable use in the fashioning of a public voice and presence for women in the Group,” writes Waetjen. In her interviews with group members, they note that because of changing family structures, with more children leaving home to study, a recipe book would be the perfect gift to pass on to the next generation.

Mayat, an animating force in getting the cookbook published, wrote in 1960 about the genesis of Indian Delights in her column “Fahmida’s World” in Indian Views newspaper: “Indian recipe books from India are out of touch with simplified cooking methods used here [in South Africa], and also that lavish use of spices most of our people have discarded in this country. The method of cooking employed in these recipes is simplified.”

Indian Delights offers a view of how migration and the social realities of colonialism and apartheid shaped South African Indians understanding of ourselves, and our navigation of culture and identity. On one hand, Indian Delights sought to show the heterogeneity of cuisines, cultures, and religions that underpinned Tamilian or Gujarati styles of cuisine, for example, but it also drew on and propagated a sense of “Indianness” in South Africa. But, this sense of Indianness is ambiguous, and has shifted over the years.

“Indian South Africans have undergone significant changes. Well over 95 percent regard English as their first language and cuisine, dress, and other markers of ‘Indianness’ have mutated,” write Goolam Vahed and Ashwin Desai in Identity and Belonging in Post-Apartheid South Africa: The Case of Indian South Africans. “While their everyday lives are increasingly distant from India, they remain ‘Indian’ in the eyes of fellow South Africans and to themselves. The post-apartheid period has been witness to a search for ‘roots.’”

This notion of hybridity and cultural assimilation in South Africa was succinctly commented on by Mayat, speaking as her writerly persona Fahmida. In 1957, when the Group Areas Act was coming into effect, she wrote that Lenasia, demarcated as an Indian-Only area due to the Act, became a big jar of mango pickle in her dream, but that “God intended South Africa to be a stew pot of many different races and cultures in that way retains the tang and piquancy of chow-chow pickle.”

Unlike mango or lime pickle, chow-chow pickle consists of a mixture of vegetables and fruit like carrots, onions, mango, and cabbage which are pickled in a sour, spicy vinegar. The cookbook reveals some of this chow-chow pickle mentality. It provides standard recipes for well-known South Asian dishes — such as biryani and puris — but also demonstrates its commitment to the fluidity of cuisine in South Africa. There are location and context specific “delights” in the book like Namaqua steak, Cape frikkadels, putu, Indian biltong and braai recipes. Indian Delights reveals more of the diasporic nature of the people that created it, and the audience it hoped to resonate with.

In the 1961 version of Indian Delights that my mother has, the categories were divided roughly around different ethnic and linguistic groups — Tamils and Telegus from Southern India, Hindustanis from the North, and two groups of Gujarati cuisine, separated by how Islam and Hinduism influenced food habits.

Housewifely resourcefulness is often referred to in the texts accompanying dishes where ingredients are made to stretch over days and weeks, and the lack of protein doesn’t make them feel any less luxurious. The book simultaneously speaks to an imagined audience of young Indian women who were studying, or working away from home, but also reasserts values and virtues of Indian housewives in the kitchen, or in-laws homes.

The inscription in the first version of the cookbook reads: “This book is dedicated to all the husbands who maintain that the best cooking effort of their wives can never compare with what mother used to make.’” This tongue-in-cheek reference to sometimes knotty relationships women have with their mothers-in-law, and to patriarchal notions of a woman’s place being in the kitchen. Although never explicitly arguing against gendered roles in South African Indian communities, there are wry and mocking references to making food for “Prince Charming” or “Lord and Master” throughout the book.

The mixture of respect for traditional gender roles and support for expanding the idea of a housewife (work that the Women’s Cultural Group as a whole were invested in) makes reading Indian Delights a lesson in ambiguity. The narrow version of femininity that led to women “being bonsai” in their homes is subtly subverted to become a space of power to work from.

I learned how to cook in my aya’s kitchen through watching her. Recipe dissemination starts when she speaks, and I followed through repeating the actions she made with her hands — how much a pinch looks like, or how to cut the green beans in a way that best allows the sauce it stews in to penetrate. Recipes are verbal gestures, and they’re only written down when deliberately asked for. Even then, the measurements are rough guidelines, and sometimes the methods are jumbled, as my aya’s written English extends to her Grade 8 education. She refers to all ingredients in Tamil which adds another layer of opaqueness to our written recipe traditions.

Waetjen, reflecting on this process of recipe sharing and food preparation in South African Indian homes, writes: “In early twentieth-century Durban, South Africa, a woman wishing to concoct a biryani, kurma, khuri or patta employed the skills and knowledge transmitted through apprenticeships to her mother, aunts, or mother-in-law. Her repertoire of dishes was largely a familial or circumstantial inheritance, falling within a matrilineage of recipes that had traversed the Indian Ocean.”

Working in this vacuum of cookbooks about South African Indian cuisine, Indian Delights reflects the cultural values created through shared experiences of indenture, migration, and trade, and “turned household kitchens into public spaces and their gendered readership into agents of diaspora,” Waetjen argues.

In addition to the recipes and stories in the cookbook are photographs of hands engaged in rolling out dough or tasting food.

“Nowadays, it is not mother’s cooking. We wanted to retain this — retain how meals were prepared in ‘them days’. Do you notice how papad is a lost art, and samosa pur is bought ready-made?” notes Women’s Cultural Group member Khatija Vawda in Gender, Modernity and Indian Delights.

The black and white images used alongside the recipes show the care and gendered duty to “them days” Vawda evokes, again mixing with ideas of housewifely duty and nostalgia for the “lost art” of cooking for one’s family.

As I read Indian Delights now — in the archive of literature created by South Africans of South Asian ancestry, I optimistically and nostalgically feel it is a testament to the communal activism and community-building happening in Durban during the 1950s onwards, and despite apartheid’s racist rule. And as much as the idealized Indian housewife figure haunts many of us, Mayat and the Women’s Cultural Group demonstrates the power of meeting people where they are, and broadening the term to mean so much more.

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