1 September 2014

Morning Glory: Calicut's fuss-free breakfasts

Months after a breakfast-heavy Kerala trip, a brief recounting for Nat Geo Traveller magazine: 

Mutton stew and fiery fish curry are traditional accompaniments to appams. Photo: Simon Reddy/Alamy/Indiapicture
I was due to arrive in Calicut (Kozhikode) early in the morning, en route to Wayanad’s thickly forested hills. I had only a couple of hours to spare. Anticipating a rumbling tummy when I got off the train, I asked
 a friend to recommend a place
 for breakfast, something near 
the railway station that would
 be open at 6 a.m. “Not near the station,” he texted back, “inside it.”
That was my introduction 
to Hotel Salkara on platform number one—and to the seaside city with breakfasts as bracing as its ocean breezes. 
By 6.35 the next morning, 
my companion and I were ensconced at a Salkara corner table, our two small strolley bags standing flat against the wall 
so they wouldn’t get in the way 
of the waiters striding about at top speed. Salkara is run by the same people who own Paragon, an old Calicut institution known for its lush beef fry and Malabari biryani. Like its more famous sibling, Salkara’s decor is spotless, but functional, with rows of plastic chairs and tables on a gleaming tiled floor. This no-frills style, I soon discovered, was typical of Calicut’s eateries. The focus here is solely on the food. Within minutes of our arrival, we had steaming appams with two delicious accompaniments: a richly flavoured egg roast (hard-boiled eggs in a chunky onion-tomato gravy) and a subtle kadala curry, black Bengal gram cooked with onions, curry leaves, and shredded coconut. By 7 a.m., we were done—and only because we dawdled over our filter coffee.
Rice is the star of the Malayali breakfast menu. Photo: STA/Shutterstock
Rice is the star of the Malayali breakfast menu. Photo: STA/Shutterstock

The humble grain (Rice) takes on numerous avatar, including appams, string hoppers, and puttu. Photo: AJP/Shutterstock

Three days later, after the quiet of Wayanad’s forests, we were back in buzzing Calicut. And I couldn’t wait to have breakfast. We made our way to Paragon, expecting crowds, even a queue. But the branch we visited on Kannur Road was pleasantly relaxed. At the table next to ours, a middle-aged man was tearing methodically into a gigantic dosa. We gave in to greed, ordering both a ghee roast dosa and a plate of appams with mutton stew. The dosa was great, but breakfast at paragon really is all about appams. Crisp and lacy around the edges and soft in the middle, they looked like bowls because of the deep tawa they’re cooked on. The fluffy centres sopped up the silky mutton stew perfectly. We left promising to return for Paragon’s legendary biryani and mango fish curry.
Next morning, we abandoned the hotel’s complimentary buffet for the next stop on our Calicut breakfast pilgrimage. Though I like stuffed parathas and kachori- samosa-jalebi as much as the next person, all the force of my half-North Indian blood can’t make me eat them at 8 a.m. Good half-Bengali though I am, I can’t eat rice in the morning either. But once rice has been magically transformed into dosa and idli, appam and puttu (rice flour steamed with grated coconut)
 by the infinite Malayali genius, it feels like the perfect thing to eat at breakfast.
Pillai Snacks, on the busy Kallai Road, seemed like the ideal stop en route to the Tali temple. It was a long, narrow space crammed with tables and customers on their way to work. We began with idlis and kutti dosas, fluffy mini uthappams that seemed to be on everyone’s plates. Then we ate our way through a massive, milky-white mound of upma on a green banana leaf, had a vada each with thick, spicy coconut chutney, and rounded off our meal with a plate of pazham puzhungiyathu, steamed Kerala bananas steamed to golden perfection and sweetened with sugar.
Somehow we managed the 15-minute walk to the temple, but it was hard to summon up energy for anything with that breakfast sitting in my stomach. So I settled down in a shady corner and watched sari-clad women lead little girls in pavadais (long skirts) around the Shiva shrine and the courtyard.
Calicut has many culinary icons, but there are also surprises around the corner. On our way back from the Kadalundi Bird Sanctuary, we stopped at a 
little bakery for flaky, spicy egg puffs and ice-cold milkshakes. There was a luscious avocado (butterfruit) smoothie, but the real winner was the Sharjah shake, made with milk straight from the freezer, blended with banana, coffee powder, sugar, and Horlicks. The sugar rush continued on the walk along S.M. Street, where several
 shops sell the dense, rich Calicut black halwa.
Work up an appetite for a big Kerala breakfast with a walk along Kozhikode beach. Photo: Luis Davilla/Dinodia
Work up an appetite for a big Kerala breakfast with a walk along Kozhikode beach. Photo: Luis Davilla/Dinodia

On our final morning in the city, we took a long stroll on the beach, working up a voracious appetite. We considered returning to Paragon, but decided to try Sagar Hotel, another local icon, instead. Thinking we should end the trip the way it had begun, we ordered appams with kadala curry. But then we looked at what everyone else was eating: pungent gravy the colour of red earth. Wasn’t 8 a.m. a bit early for fish curry?
Round off the meal with Kumbiappams, steamed dumplings made of rice flour, jaggery, and coconut. Photo: STA/Shutterstock
Round off the meal with Kumbiappams, steamed dumplings made of rice flour, jaggery, and coconut. Photo: STA/Shutterstock

We got only one plate, and with it, a green gram curry and a plate of puttu. The gram was subtle and creamy without being heavy, but it was no match for the ayyakoora (kingfish) in a fiery-red curry redolent with the sourness of kudampuli (Malabar tamarind). If a breakfast like that doesn’t put a fire in your belly, nothing will. On my next trip to Calicut, I know where I’m starting.

The Confidence Man

Yesterday's Mumbai Mirror column:

Emraan Hashmi has perfected a persona whose unapologetic appetite for the good life (both sex and money) makes him a rarity in Bollywood - and crucial to it.

Emraan Hashmi is Bollywood's under-acknowledged seamy side. Over his decade in the film industry, he has built a massive devoted fan following. Most of his films come from the Mahesh-Mukesh Bhatt stable, (Mahesh Bhatt's mother and Hashmi's grandmother were sisters, and Emraan began his career assisting on Vishesh Films' Raaz). 

Many of them are franchises - films that bear a common name and broad theme (Raaz, Jannat, Murder), but whose plots, narratives and cast changes completely from one film to another. The one thing that unites them is Emraan. 

We're talking of an actor who is the main draw for a stream of films that are as close to dependable moneymakers as is possible at our notoriously fickle box office. And yet he and his films are barely mentioned in the growing list of synthesizing books about Bollywood, or the column inches regularly devoted to the transformation of Hindi cinema. We go on about the 100 crore club, and act as if the Bhatt films don't really count. 

Yet Hashmi is probably among the most successful leading men in the industry. And more importantly, he has a persona that seems to give him rather more moral leeway than most mainstream heroes still have. 

I'm not talking just of erotic action, which has been almost expected of Hashmi ever since his breakthrough hit Murder (2004) saddled him with the silly 'serial kisser' tag. But his characters do enjoy a degree of sexual openness rare in Bollywood; his audience seems to forgive him whether he is a frequenter of whores (as in Jannat 2), the obsessive stalker of another man's wife (as in Murder), or the rakish lover who dismisses the heartbroken woman he's been sleeping with for three years as an "aadat, aur kucch nahin" (as in Murder 2). 

The films themselves are less judgmental or apologetic about sex than most of contemporary Bollywood, where sex still must come attached to love. A Murder may not advocate an extramarital affair, but it seems to understand it. Murder 2 by no means romanticises the flesh trade, but its money-minded pimps and resigned call girls produce a slightly less black-and-white version of that world than say, a Mardaani

The moral leeway with regard to sex is even greater when it comes to money. Hashmi is always a smooth-talking hustler. And he's always the lower middle class man with a heart of gold - at least as far as the poor and the "deserving" are concerned. But whether he's a small-time cardsharp or pulling off multimillion dollar cons, he is never plagued by high-minded ideas about honesty. Not for him the staid middle class job, or even the relative risks of binness (think a Rocket Singh or a Band Baaja Baraat). 

No, for Emraan it must be a gamble, and with the highest stakes. "Jeb khali ho tabhi toh sapnein dekhne chahiye (It's when your pockets are empty that you should dream)," says his character in an early scene in Jannat (2008). A little later in the same film, he falls in love with a girl wandering through a mall because of the sadness on her face as she admires objects she can't afford. Their whirlwind romance involves his using his roommate's flat deposit to buy her a diamond ring he saw her gazing at, then swamping her telephone-shopping helpline with so many credit card purchases that her monthly target is met in an hour. Their first romantic duet involves sneaking into a shuttered Home Store and trampolining on a display bed that has 'Sale 20%' off signs all around it. 

Hashmi's hero is always out to inhabit the good life - beaches, yachts, fast cars and beautiful women, whom he wines and dines and most crucially, beds, in immaculate hotel rooms from Turkey to Capetown. "People who save money are those who don't know how to make enough of it," says Raja in this week's Raja Natwarlal. But even if they don't necessarily make an appearance - like in the joyous heist pulled off in Raja Natwarlal - there are hidden costs to this good life. So Emraan Hashmi's cinema toggles constantly between a surface sheen and the darkness that is its necessarily obverse - porn, sex work, adultery, trafficking, kidnapping, murder. 

Credit is what makes this world go round. Dons show their creditors 'trailers' of the violence that awaits them if they default on payments (Jannat). Loving mentors might only be pretending to tot up loans in blank notebooks (Raja Natwarlal), but even unwritten debts can accumulate. "A man's body burns when he dies, but not his debts," goes a dialogue in Murder 2

I wonder if the films of Emraan Hashmi are the 21st century inheritor of the 70s Amitabh Bachchan legacy: the bad boy with a good heart, who wants to live the good life at any cost. Only the bets are bigger, and the heroines purer arm candy, who must ask no questions about the provenance of the money showered on them. 

Two things have changed, though. One, it no longer matters that he doesn't have Ma (in fact parents are usually long dead, unable to stop our hero hurtling into his future). And two, he doesn't have to die at the end. Instead of Bachchan's celebrated tragic deaths, Emraan Hashmi has perfected the art of staging his own death. Plenty to think about there.

25 August 2014

How to be a Leading Lady

Yesterday's Mumbai Mirror column:

Two new films this week offer compelling portraits of women in power. But must gender roles be copied rather than changed? If we can't beat them, must we join them?

Something interesting is going on at the cinema this week. Two wonderfully dissimilar films -- one a mainstream Bollywood production house attempting a songless policier, the other trying to undercut documentary's dull image with colourful characters and music -- give centre stage to women in positions of authority. Pradeep Sarkar's pacey crime drama Mardaani stars Rani Mukerji as a Mumbai Crime Branch cop, while Deepti Kakkar and Fahad Mustafa's documentary Katiyabaaz is staged as a face-off between Loha Singh, the power thief of the film's title, and Ritu Maheshwari, an IAS officer trying to reform the dysfunctional Kanpur Electricity Supply Company (KESCO). 

Considering it's a Yash Raj production and a star vehicle for the Chopra family's new bahu, Mardaani has generated rather little buzz. Perhaps that's unsurprising: it's a hero-less film and contemporary Bollywood -- and our male-dominated box office - clearly rations out bhaav along gender lines. But the title has also put off many members of the film's would-be audience, who are annoyed by the idea that a woman's strength must necessarily be couched as her masculine side. 

Mukerji has defended the title, implying that we should read it not as literal but literary, since it's taken from Subhadra Kumari Chauhan's poem about the valiant queen Lakshmibai, who famously rode into battle against the British in 1857: "Khoob ladi mardaani woh toh Jhansi wali rani thhi". Mukerji spent her childhood in Jhansi, and her father (filmmaker Ram Mukerji) liked reading the poem to her, whether or not he actually named her after it. 

But there's no getting away from the gendered signals sent out by the title, and watching the film, it's clear that the name is no coincidence. Shivani Shivaji Roy can hand out slaps and cuss words as easily as any man in the force, and she revels in the street display of physical power. Her clothes make no concessions to femininity, not even a kurta. She is either in uniform, or in trousers and collared shirts - and not fitted women's shirts that emphasise her curves. Roy's no-nonsense look is sans make-up. Her hair, though long, is always tied back. She's shown in a sari once. But that opening scene is also the one that establishes her comradely rapport with her all-male team. And how do we know she's one of the boys? Because she's happy to make their kind of jokes: their (male) boss's mood is off, it seems, because his wife yelled at him for forgetting to take her "anniversary shopping". It's as if entering into masculine repartee about ordinary 'wives' is the only way to signal that she isn't one. 

Since the film insists on gender reversal rather than parity, we are not surprised to find that our heroine is partnered by a Bengali doctor husband as inconsequential and vulnerable as countless policemen's' wives and girlfriends from Shool to Seher (let's not even talk about Singham). And though the film nods at Shivani's nurturing side by having her bring up an orphaned niece, she doesn't have children of her own. 

Contrast this with the real-life Ritu Maheshwari, the bureaucrat of Katiyabaaz, who's shown to have two young children and never wears anything but colourful saris. We learn almost nothing about her husband, but neither her domestic life nor her professional one shows any signs of gender role reversal. What also fascinated me about Maheshwari's authority is that it does not depend on her creating a rapport with the men who work under her, but seemingly the opposite -- maintaining a distance. 

Perhaps this has less to do with these women as archetypes of female power and more with the different spheres in which they operate. Both are state functionaries. But for Mukerji's policewoman, the law is an ass. It is something whose limitations must be overcome to provide vigilante justice; while for the bureaucrat, the only means she has at her disposal are legal ones. It is not by swearing like a man that Maheshwari earns respect, but by keeping her voice down and insisting on decorum. In one remarkable scene, a shouting male MLA trying to browbeat Maheshwari is made to leave her office. 

But in the long term, the even-tempered Maheshwari is transferred, while the male MLA wins the election, and presumably retains a hand in Kanpur's dysfunctional political present. Meanwhile Shivani Roy, though she wins her particular battle (a case of child sex trafficking), has to deal with male colleagues' accusations of taking things "too personally". Another time, she's told that she achieves more when keeping her cool: "jab tum shaant rehti ho"

Political mobilisation in both films is shown to be manipulated rather than representative. I was struck by the honesty of Mardaani's recognition that in the wrong political hands, even the discourse of women's safety (on which the film is itself riding) can be twisted to harass innocent people. All men are not evil, and all women are not innocent. But even this film doesn't seem to understand that if vigilante justice is so dangerous in one instance, it cannot be assumed to be the solution in another. Self-defence is one thing. But is female violence now the only answer to male violence? I completely understand the urge to clap, but I do wish we had something better to clap for.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, Sun 24 August, 2014.

20 August 2014

Picture This: Not a home away from home

In the consumer desert of pre-liberalisation India, filmi hotels were a salacious fantasy. Will we never see them as anything except sites of scandal? My BLInk column last Saturday:

Watching Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel got me thinking about hotels in our films. If you’ve never thought about it before, take a moment to close your eyes and remember what hotels were like in the imagined universe of Hindi films until the 1990s. What comes to mind? Men in suits and ladies in saris looking on in appreciation or bemusement as a scantily-clad young woman sashays expertly between the tables? Sometimes the dancer was the only bright spot in a dimly-lit space. Hindi film hotels were glossy fronts for dark dealings of all sorts — from the shady hotel in Howrah Bridge (1958) to Hotel Hilltop, from where murderous train robberies are orchestrated in The Train (1970).
As Jerry Pinto puts it in his book on Helen, Bombay cinema saw hotels “as a dreadful western invention where other ‘western inventions’ — smuggling, illicit or extramarital sex, the black market — thrived”. Respectable people, even if they went on holiday, had holiday homes to go to. Heroes only went to hotel bars for strategic purposes — in search of the vamp (Miss Ruby, Lily or Kitty, the route to the villain’s gang) — or else to drown their sorrows in alcohol when jilted by their lady-love. As the ’70s and ’80s wore on, what had been the preserve of the vamp and the villain emerged as the site of the discotheque, where a guitar-strapped hero might perform for a crazed, youthful audience, or where a misguided sister or a too-modern wife might display her waywardness by dancing with strangers.
Since most of the mainstream Hindi film audience had never been in one, it’s remarkable how much the hotel dominated our cinematic imagination. Or perhaps, it wasn’t surprising at all. Hotels were a fantasy world, which in the consumer desert of pre-liberalisation India, was both desirable and necessarily condemnable. A film that unfolded in a hotel was exciting, but the hero and heroine had to steer clear of the silken debauchery of the milieu. So Teesri Manzil (1966) was a murder mystery in which the hero must clear his name. By the time Namak Halaal (1982) hit the theatres, it was possible to combine the hotel-as-thriller-locale with a broad comic act from Amitabh Bachchan.
In the 2000s , seedy hotels continue to form part of thrillers — Johnny Gaddaar (2007), Talaash (2012). But sexcapades in them are now also a frequent site of comedy — the famous Hotel Decent in Jab We Met(2007) is the first of many. Bittoo Boss (2012) even had a photographer using a Shimla hotel to secretly shoot honeymoon porn. Still, a whiff of scandal continues to cling to the hotel. The Kay Kay Menon-Rajpal Yadav starrer Benny Aur Babloo (2010) pits the bleeding heart humanity of a dance bar against the evils of a five-star hotel. In 2014’s under-watched Bobby Jasoos, when Vidya Balan and her fiancĂ© are ‘caught’ by her conservative Hyderabadi father, it’s their emergence from a hotel that makes all explanations useless. Balan’s other outing this year, Shaadi ke Side Effects, begins with a couple using the inherent disreputability of hotels to spice up their marriage. By the film’s end, hotels have emerged as integral to secret lives less innocuous than a play-acting married couple’s.
What I can’t think of is a single Hindi film in which a hotel is not just a locale but the emblem of an era, as in The Grand Budapest Hotel. When we first see it, the hotel of Anderson’s film has come down in the world, but it still has a threadbare majesty. And the multi-layered flashback, moving from candy-coloured animated jailbreaks to the black and white of war, evokes the civilisation that the hotel once embodied. No amount of extramarital sex within its walls can rob the Grand Budapest of its grandeur. It probably helps that the spirit of the film — zany, not always honest yet somehow always admirable — is the inimitable maitre d’hotel Gustav (Ralph Fiennes in his most freewheeling performance yet). For Gustav, as for his appointed successor Zero, the hotel is not a career but a vocation.
The closest we’ve got is the Bengali film adaptation of Sankar’s bestselling novel Chowringhee (1968) and Uttam Kumar’s much-remembered turn as Satya Sadhan ‘Sata’ Bose, debonair receptionist of the Shahjahan Hotel. Sata’s initiation of Sankar, like Gustav’s of Zero, is the audience’s entry point into the hotel’s inner life. This is 1960s India, and hotel guests are either foreigners (doing important things like eradicating smallpox) or the Indian business class (wheeler-dealers all). The film’s biggest villain is a rich businessman’s wife. But, unlike in mainstream Hindi movies, the immorality of its elite clients does not taint the hotel staff. They are one big family, with class and community differences smoothed over by feudal benevolence and individual friendships. Also remarkable is the number of middle-class working women in the film — a ‘society’ journalist, a ‘hostess’ for a Marwari businessman, an air hostess. But either they’re bad girls, or if they’re good, they’re marked out for tragedy — one is tempted to read something into that. Despite some heavy-handed morality, Chowringhee is the rare Indian film that lets a hotel be something more than a den of vice. It may represent a civilisation in decline, but Shahjahan Hotel still manages to evoke nostalgia.
Published in the Hindu Business Line.

18 August 2014

The reality of illusions

Yesterday's Mumbai Mirror column:

How can a performance ever be honest, and other thoughts about acting via Nawazuddin Siddiqui.

Acting seems to me one of the most mysterious things in the world. Everyone who's watching knows they're watching someone simulate something. And yet we watch precisely to make ourselves believe in the truth of the performance. There are, of course, as many different kinds of acting as there are kinds of cinema and theatre. In popular Hindi cinema in particular, stardom depends on the ability to produce endless variations on a persona that has already met with approval. Those variations can be riffs on a central theme, but the persona needs to remain recognisable. Our relationships with the stars on screen are profoundly mediated by our relationships with their off-screen personas.

But outside of the pleasures of watching our favourite stars ham, repeat recognizable gestures, and generally entertain us, even Hindi film viewers these days seem to have come round to appreciating 'realist' acting. Though the appreciation of 'realism' comes up against another sort of problem: if acting is visible, it's bad acting - and if it's invisible, it's too ineffable to describe. If you can see it, it isn't working; if it works, you can't really see it. So how do we talk about acting?

Someone who has been a transformative presence in this recent phase of Hindi cinema, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, is often asked about acting. An interviewer asked about how the acting bug bit him. He said he had grown up in a religious, rural Muslim milieu where films were frowned upon, and anyway the nearest cinema was 45km away. So as a child there was no question of dreaming of being an actor.

It was much later, when a friend in Delhi took him to a play, that he realised he wanted to act. After that play (Uljhan, with Manoj Bajpayee in it), he watched some 50 plays, and then joined a theatre troupe. And later, the National School of Drama.

What fascinated me was not so much the story of Siddiqui's moment of recognition - though there is something inescapably dramatic about it coming from the first play he had ever seen. What struck me was the reason he gave for why acting appealed to him. Here, he thought, was a profession in which sifaarish (recommendations) or flattery couldn't help you. When you appeared on stage, it would become immediately apparent if you were good or not -- the tomatoes would start to fly if you were not.

What Siddiqui said, in other words, is that acting appealed to him because it was the most honest thing he could do. The direct encounter with a paying audience represented, in the actor's mind, liberation from the inherent artifice of life. But of course as Siddiqui himself found out soon enough, the paying audience does not guarantee the purity of performance that the actor might strive for. It came as a shock to me that during and after NSD, Siddiqui was typecast as a comedian.

He did comedy, he says, in many styles - he did slapstick and he did Moliere, he did grandiose Parsi-style theatricals - but he was largely stuck being the funny guy.

When he upped and moved to Bombay, he found it hard to get any work at all, because he was neither well-connected nor endowed with the gora-chitta good looks that Bollywood demands. As is now well-known, Siddiqui struggled for nearly four years, doing some work in television in true crime shows, while in cinema he got either no work or tiny single scenes in films like Sarfarosh.

When he did start to get mainstream attention, a little bit after Peepli Live and Black Friday, but on a big scale after Kahani and Gangs of Wasseypur (GoW), it was "intense" roles. Siddiqui denies that there is anything in him that is particularly drawn to angry, serious characters.

But in an industry so unused to allowing actors range, the relationship between the self and the screen persona plagues even actors like Siddiqui. And it is not always simple. Recently he has made a bit of a splash with Kick, about which he has said only half-jokingly that his mother is thrilled because he has finally fulfilled her desire to see him as a rich man.

About his GoW role, one of the most interesting things Siddiqui said was that he was thrilled not to be the small time thug getting beaten up, again. "I wanted status-wala role, where I would do the hitting. I had never expressed this wish, this desire to anybody. But [Kashyap] made it happen for me."

On Siddiqui's first day shooting GoW, Kashyap was surprised that he "was very aggressive". "He thought this is the first time he is doing a film where he was the hero so he came on as the hero." It was Kashyap who insisted he tone it down.

Siddiqui has often said that the only way to act "truthfully" is to draw upon an inner part of yourself that's similar to the character you have been called upon to play. But sometimes a character is what you always wanted to be in real life -- and you end up overplaying your part.

15 August 2014

Post Facto: A receipt for your recipe? Cooking and the question of credit

This month's Sunday Guardian column:
Can you copyright a kathi roll? Payal Saha thinks you can. Saha, who started the first Kati Roll Company in Greenwich Village in 2002, and now owns three outlets in New York and one in London, has filed a lawsuit against a rival called Kati Junction that opened in February 2014. She alleges that it has "unfairly appropriated her recipes, her menu, her layout and her colour scheme".
Reading the New York Times story reminded me of how grateful I was to discover Kati Roll Company as a graduate student in New York, reminiscent as they were of the plump but flaky Kolkata-style anda-paratha rolls I had grown up eating. But therein lies the rub. I liked the rolls at the Kati Roll Company not because they tasted startlingly new, but because they tastedlike they should. And they did so precisely because they drew on the memory of what founder Payal Saha, like me, had grown up eating as "a native of Kolkata". Saha did not invent the kathi roll. "Her recipes" were really replications of tastes she knew well.
And yet, I'm sure there is something distinctive about Saha's kathi rolls — just like that classmate's mum whose kadhi still lingers on your tongue, or the chaat-wallah you favour over the others on his street. But the chaatwallah would be unlikely to claim his recipe as an individual invention.
Recipes, like so many other things, are misunderstood by modernity: by a modern intellectual regime which insists on the clean separation of an original from its copies. Our insistent desire to credit an individual point of origin obscures the fact that recipes, like all cultural artefacts, emerge from a culinary tradition.
Any restaurateur or cookbook writer gets their recipes from several sources: chefs once watched, cooks once employed, columns once read, grandmothers, friends, and of course, other cookbooks. She might rejig them. But it seems highly unlikely that a single person can be the fount of a whole book's worth of completely new recipes.
But we persist in believing that they must. Is it any surprise, then that cookbook publishing, almost from its very beginnings, is plagued by the taint of plagiarism? Hannah Glasse's The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy (1746) was among the most successful cookery books of the 18th century (and one of the most successful books in general). But scholars have found that at least 342 of Glasse's 972 recipes were "borrowed" from earlier texts; most from the 1743 edition of The Lady's Companion, by Hannah Woolley. To be sure, what Glasse did unto others was later done unto her — her book was heavily plagiarised for the next 50 years. 
Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management, first published 1861, has been accused of lifting sections wholesale from others. But she did sometimes use memorable imagery. Here she compares the mistress of the house to the commander of an army.
Something similar, argues her biographer Kathryn Hughes, was true of the legendary Mrs Beeton. The real Isabella Beeton was not the venerable old matron of popular imagination, but a 21-year-old with just six months experience of running a house when she started writing her 1861 Book of Household Management (BOHM). First serialised in the Englishwoman's Domestic magazine published monthly by her husband Samuel Beeton, Isabella's detailed recipes and instructions for everything from dinner plans to servant management would make her a brand name that survives to this day. But it is clear that she drew liberally on all the successful cookery books of her time, those by practical Englishwomen (Eliza Acton, Elizabeth Raffald, Maria Rundell) and those by fancy French chefs.
The accusations of plagiarism flung at Mrs Beeton's book in later eras have led descendants to defend her, saying that she only claimed to be a compiler. But publishing a "Mrs Beeton's BOHM" is quite different from the compilation of a "household book", as was done by many ordinary 18th century women, like Martha Lloyd. We only have access to Martha's recipes because she was Jane Austen's good friend. Since the Lloyds and Austens combined housekeeping for years, the recipes were published in 1977 alongside Jane's literary and epistolary references to food and cooking, as A Jane Austen Household Book.
Quite unlike the clever Mrs Beeton, who might credit two recipes to an earlier cookbook only to reproduce ten others without credit, Martha's "book" is as much a record of recipes as of their sources. The name of physician Dr. William Olliver clings to his recipe for the biscuits still produced as Bath Olivers. Raspberry vinegar is credited to a Mrs Lefroy, and a fish sauce that "will keep good for a year" to Jane's brother Captain Frank Austen, whom Martha would eventually marry at the ripe age of 62. A Mrs Craven, Martha's aunt by marriage, contributed a recipe for gooseberry cheese in her own hand, appending the line "Good luck to your jamming".
In Martha Lloyd's household book I recognise the origins of my mother's cookery album from the 1980s, with a notepad for recipes where each page has a "From" slot, and convenient pockets for folded recipes, hurriedly noted down on the phone from a friend, or newspaper cuttings. It is a record as much of recipes as of a life of connections made over food.
I once read that in Thailand, a person composes a small cookbook before his or her death, to be distributed as a keepsake to family and friends. 20 or so recipes, for things he or she particularly liked to eat, or make. Now that's a custom that understands what cooking really is: something that's meant to be passed on. And hopefully, no one who's ever received a keepsake like that will ever pretend that their recipes come out of nowhere.
Published in the Sunday Guardian, 10 Aug 2014.