It is hard to believe that the idea of co-authoring a cookbook did not quite come up in the 20-something years that Bettina Chua Abdullah, a former newscaster turned editor, and Manju Saigal, a caterer and cooking tutor, have been friends. It was only in recent times that the duo were inspired to put pen to paper, a decision that resulted in a pre-pandemic trip to Saigal’s hometown of Mussoorie, India. Over three weeks, Bettina cemented her love for this Indian hill station, eating up its stories and food, while Saigal revelled in her friend’s adoration of her hometown.
It took two long years to complete because of the pandemic, but To Nourish with Love is finally ready — a food memoir that celebrates ideas found in its two authors’ personal philosophies of feeding, sharing and nurturing. Through 130 recipes, the book pays tribute to the food and tastes of an Indian home.
“To Nourish with Love is not just a book that Bettina and I wrote,” Saigal says. “It is a tribute to where I have come from, reliving all the memories of food and family through the numerous recipes and stories included here. It is a celebration of the philosophy my family has lived by. It is a legacy for my grandchildren which I hope can be shared far beyond our circle of family and friends.”
Because Indian cuisine is so notable for its distinct flavours, the pair decided on a most unusual categorisation of recipes: how the food tastes. Khatta celebrates her sparkling sours, Mitha is her joyful sweets, and Taaza is the welcome fresh flavours that are often found alongside the meals of heat and spice in the chapter Teekha. Namkeen is the section on salty and savoury foods that many find to be the most comforting and Karhwa is a collection of game-changing bitter flavours.
“We realised that food flavours provide wonderful parallels to life’s flavours. Take bitter. It takes people a while to like a bit of bitterness in their food and appreciate its goodness. Similarly, we may go through some challenges in life that eventually teach us or empower us. In Taaza, which is the chapter on fresh flavours, we explore the ideas of starting over and renewal,” says Bettina.
The writing of the book was primarily done during the pandemic, during which Bettina and Saigal, based in Penang and KL respectively, communicated via email and Zoom to piece To Nourish with Love together. In a Covid-induced exile in Italy, Penang-based artist Rebecca Duckett-Wilkinson was the third piece of the puzzle, so to speak, who provided the illustrations for the book. The short essays and musings on recipes and ingredients that would have been only text are brought to life in all their technicolour glory by her talent.
“So much care went into her paintings, most of which were produced during lockdown in Italy. And if you look closely at her paintings, the textures are a marvel: the weave on a wicker basket, a herringbone tweed coat, patterns on a saree. There’s so much to discover! They are pure joy; they are wistful, affectionate, beautifully composed and a riot of colour.”
“Rebecca did an astounding amount of research,” Saigal adds. “She would message to ask about Mussoorie fauna, or if a saree was draped right. She pored over old advertisements, checked with me about school uniforms, and was vigilant about getting details correct.”
Duckett’s drawings accompany beautifully taken pictures of the food, itself styled in an elegant and appealing way. But while plating is a major consideration here, so is accessibility; the images, though beautifully crafted, are by no means intimidating.
“There are so many ways to style food. This being a personal food memoir, we wanted the images to have a lovely, relaxed, home-made feel but still provide context. Nicky [Almasy, the photographer commissioned for the book] was more than happy to shoot this way. We hardly ever used a tripod and favoured natural lighting above all. As Manju cooked, Nicky would move around, photographing both the preparation and the plate. We styled them on our own, using our quite extensive personal collections of bowls, plates and other tableware and accessories. Our book designer, Allie Hill, was always on set working on styling and the look. We took a very collaborative approach.”
Bettina and Saigal refer to the book as a labour of love and consider the challenges of the last two years very much part of the journey of putting together this passion project. It is inspired by the very act of eating and being nourished, says Saigal. “All senses come into play when eating. Presentation is as important as taste. Food is a blessing from God and should be celebrated. I enjoy the whole creative process, from planning a menu to cooking, feeding and seeing happy guests. For me, the emotional rewards far outweigh the financial.”
As eating is a daily pleasure and cooking a creative act that connects us to our families, heritage and land, the duo hopes that readers will be inspired to try the detailed recipes — and embrace what it is to cook, serve and nourish with love.
'To Nourish with Love' is available in-store and online from Gerak Budaya Bookshop @ Hikayat, in George Town, Penang and Lit Books.
This article first appeared on Dec 5, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.