Publishing

How to write a family cookbook – Condé Nast Traveller India

how to write your own cookbook, family recipes

Family cookbook, Photos: Aysha Tanya

Finding any recipe that your heart desires has never been easier than it is today. If you’d like to learn how to make caramel custard the way it is made in the mountain villages in, Japan, there are sure to be at least five recipes for this. But, there will come a day when you’re scrolling through half a dozen options and you will realise that the only thing you really want is that one parippu curry, made the way only your aunt makes it and that nothing else will do. 

Luckily for me, two years ago, my family, the Arinhal Karuvantevalappil family from Kerala, decided to publish a family cookbook recording the recipes that have been passed down in my steadfastly food-preoccupied family for generations. 

Through writing , I got to know my people a little bit better. Stuffing a goat with a hen, which is then stuffed with eggs, showed me that my ancestors had a sense of humour. Boiled eggs tossed in a slow-cooked paste of chillies with coconut oil tells me that they had a few bold moves up their sleeves. But the best thing I learned from helping my family write a cookbook is this: food, and the space that we hold for it in our lives, has shaped us in ways that I am grateful for. 

If you come from a family where food plays a central role in your relationship with each other, do yourself a favour and plan to write a cookbook. At the end of the process, not only do you have a physical book that holds a piece of your family’s story, but the recipes you learn to cook from it will take you home and bring you joy in an indescribable way. 

Set a timeline

This is the single most important step in a project that could be a work in progress for eternity, given the number of people involved. We completed our book in a month, which limited the scope of what was possible but also increased our chances of actually completing the project. Our earlier attempts at writing a cookbook fizzled out for this very reason. A tight framework to operate within is often a blessing. 

Fix a budget

This decision will determine how many recipes you include, the number of pages of text and photographs the book will contain, the actual dimensions of the book and so on. If you’re looking to do a small print run (less than 200 copies), digital printing makes sense, especially if you consider using websites like where you submit recipes, pick a template, and have them printed into books by the website. If you’d like more of a personal touch, but don’t have the time or bandwidth to do the documenting and photographing yourself, consider hiring someone who will do the process for you, end to end. Pallavi Gurtoo, who is based in Mumbai, does exactly this through her initiative . If you’re looking to print a larger number of copies, as my family did, offset printing works out more cost-effective because it brings down the cost per unit. You could pitch the idea to a publishing house too. We went the independent route and it was a great decision because we had complete autonomy over the book from start to finish. It was published by an indie publishing house in Mumbai. Anand Prahlad, the founder of Qitaab, also executed the design and layout for the book. 

Identify your audience

Budget and audience go hand-in-hand to a certain extent. If you’re looking to make copies to share with family and close friends, it doesn’t need to be a big-budget, high-end production. However, if you’d like the book to find a wider audience, you will want to print more copies and invest more in design and quality. We created The Family Table primarily for ourselves, to be able to recreate home wherever we went. However, since then, we’ve also started retailing online, and in bookstores around the country. 

how to write your own cookbook, family recipes
We created The Family Table primarily for ourselves. Photo: Aysha Tanya

Document recipes precisely

Mentally prepare to have to explain, in excruciating detail, to the elders in the family why it is important to use measurements and standardise recipes. Most Indian cooks will bristle at being told to cook with measuring cups and spoons in hand, as it often breaks the flow. We dealt with this by having the recipe documenter pick up each ingredient after the cook preps it to quickly measure it and put it back before it annoys the cook too much. It worked pretty well. It added an extra step, but it was worth it. 

Figuring out the visuals

Including beautiful colour, photos can bring up the cost of the project, but the point of the book is to not just help you cook like you’re in your family kitchen but to also remind you what it’s like to be part of your family. When working on our cookbook, I found a lot of joy in pulling out the old, dusty China that had been sitting unused in my relatives’ cupboards for years. Please don’t fret if you don’t have access to these. The singular requirement of a family cookbook is that it needs to be a good representation of who you are as a family. If this means shooting photographs of your cousins eating take out from paper plates, run with it. 

Test those recipes

When writing The Family Table, we formed a voluntary committee of recipe testers who diligently tested a few recipes each. This helped in smoothening out any kinks in the recipes, making sure they could be replicated in any kitchen in the world. If you can get a professional recipe tester to do a final round of testing, that would be ideal. Given the time constraints we had, this wasn’t an option. 

Designing your book

If you’re working with a template from a website, this step doesn’t apply, if not, I cannot recommend a good designer enough. From the little things like where the page numbers are placed, and the amount of negative space on a page, to the larger elements like designing the book cover, a designer plays a huge role in making a beautiful book. 

how to write your own cookbook, family recipes
Test, test, test! Photo: Aysha Tanya

Editing

Proofread, proofread, proofread! Even if you choose to simply have the book full of recipes without introductions and the accompanying notes, not doing this step carefully will annoy you every time you pick up the book. 

Sending it out into the world

You’re going to find a million things you wish you’d done differently the minute the manuscript goes to print, but perhaps, telling yourself that you’ll fix those in the second edition will bring you a little comfort, as it did for me. There’s something special about holding something in your hand that you have worked on together, that represents who you are as a family. Congratulations. Now go shout about it on the rooftops. 

Writing a cookbook with your family can be a recipe for disaster, but it can also be a powerful bonding experience. Remember to take in the sounds of the kitchen, the insistent hissing of onions browning in a pan, the steady clop-clop of a knife cutting through a tomato and the cheerful chatter of relatives in the backdrop. This is the soundscape of much of the process of writing a cookbook, and it is something you’ll miss when it’s over. 

You can buy a copy of The Family Table