On January 1st, I resolved to cook my way through the 400+ recipes in Gurbāni Sangeet, which actually isn’t a cookbook, but a collection of songs remembered by the oral tradition for more than 400 years. If these were actually recipes, how did they turn out? At the end of the first quarter of the year, how are the results so far?

Like my attempts in the actual kitchen, some dishes have been delicious, some may have been close approximations of the original recipe and others might be appreciated by family but maybe better not served to guests. Like cooking, the process can be enjoyable, satisfying, or at times frustrating. And just as food carries with it the heart of the one who prepared it, the best songs appear when the singer’s heart is in the right place.

As I try to recreate a recipe from the printed page, I remember with admiration the ones who wrote the cookbook. Even more remarkable is the remembrance of the ones who developed the original, who had the vision to concoct this food the first time, the ones whose recipes the authors have shared in these volumes. Just like the first chef who discovered what happens when ice is added to the alchemy of milk, sugar and cream, the original kirtan-chefs discovered timeless formulas of sound.

The chefs - Bhai-s Gurcharan Singh & Avtar Singh...

Trying a new recipe from a cookbook, alone at home, is just one way to learn to cook. Watching a cooking show on TV reveals so much more, just as listening to recordings of a song can show details that cannot be written down. Learning from a teacher, direct instruction, cooking or singing alongside the master, will open the doors for the learner.

What is learned for one recipe or song can be transferred, the skills and techniques become familiar, although recognizing where to use them takes time. When you look at a recipe can you imagine how it will turn out, even if there is no photograph and even if you haven’t tasted this dish before? You can probably imagine it if you have experienced similar foods. You may be able to recognize a certain style, appreciate a new ingredient or variation.

Recognizing a masterpiece takes imagination. Cooking recipes in my kitchen, on my small stove, serving them up the best I can for a family meal is different from preparing in a professional kitchen on a large scale, delectables arranged on the best dishes, tables set with the finest linens, the trays garnished with cut fruits and flowers, served up by perfectly trained waiters in their best banquet attire.

Can you imagine the possibilities for soup? It may be a homely, thin broth served in a clay bowl, evoking memories of warmth, perhaps a grandmother’s love, or healing relief when you were sick. Soup can also be served up in style, a simple dish turned into an art form. Of course the most exquisite accessories won’t make a poorly made meal any better. But recognizing the potential of a masterpiece, you realize that the way it looks in a simple container in humble surroundings is only one possibility. Imagine the strength of the masterpiece to hold its own in the most regal setting, the elegant presentation, the delight it would give even the most discriminating palate, the way it would be remembered long after the other dishes at the feast have been forgotten.

Today’s recipe was a song of Kabir. There are two different melodies in rāga āsāvari given for the poetry. One is a slow teentāl, sixteen beats, and one is a chārtāl, twelve beats. They are both proclamations of the joy of marriage, announcing the union of the soul with the divine king himself. Both are regal and stately songs of celebration. The teental composition, like a slowly moving royal procession observing great decorum, conveys a personal meeting shared with intimate friends. The chārtāl composition has much more fanfare, sharing the power of the moment with all the invited guests as well as anyone near enough to be an onlooker. Both songs in honor of Rājā Rām, food fit for a royal banquet.