India Explored… Without Leaving the Sofa

In which The Spice Scribe cogitates on a vast and valuable cookbook collection.

I apologise for the encyclopaedic nature of this post, but not for the nation that it might inspire at least one person to go and seek out even one of these word-y wonders. The ability of a Thoroughly Good Book to transport, influence and inform cannot be underestimated- taking you from the hill stations of Simla to the seasides of Sri Lanka between its covers, engaging you entirely in the deliciously intimate coupling of You and Book.

From memoirs to muscle-building tomes, all have the ability to conjure images of a land whose food heritage travels far beyond the lifetime knowledge of a single individual, indeed, beyond the living history of a nation of individuals. Even Cyrus Todiwala, one of the chefs often held up as an authority on Indian cuisine, claims he could live into quadruple digits, eating and cooking every single day, and still only scratch the surface. And reading is a most pleasurable way to make a scratch into a fascinating culinary world.

First up, book by ‘celebrities’, or, as I prefer, ‘culinary authorities’.  Atul Kochhar’s ‘Indian Essence’ is a treat, packed with esoteric regional food information, whilst Vivek Singh’s newest ‘Cinnamon Kitchen: The Cookbook’ is a showcase of fine modern ‘Brit-Indian’ cuisine. For something more steeped in tradition yet firmly foward-facing, ‘Reza’s Indian Spice’ offers the kind of noble dishes that earned Reza Mahammad the title of ‘Spice Prince of India’. And, for bringing Bangladeshi food to the fore, I must salute good King Rick Stein and his ‘Far Eastern Odyssey’.

 

And, years back, Pat Chapman with his ‘Bangladeshi Restaurant Curries’. In fact, Pat’s entire catalogue brought an untold awareness of the traditions and fundamentals underpinning the Brits’ favourite restaurant-style fodder.  Chef Cyrus Todiwala’s catering manual-style ‘International Cuisine: India’ offers definitive recipes for everything from daal to dhansak, whilst Chrissie Walker parcels up all the best restaurant dishes in London for your delectation between two covers in her enlightening ‘Capital Spice’.

For the real celebrity fans, ‘The Bollywood Cookbook’ is a frivolous frippery that delivers dishes as tasty as the featured stars. But often it’s the unsung heroes of the cookbook world that shine the brightest. Monisha Bharawaj, Dharamjit Singh, Michael Pandya and Mridula Balkejar have all penned a library of stellar volumes that introduce regional, festive and traditional food to a Western audience. Faced with decoding an unfamiliar ingredient, Monisha’s ‘The Indian Kitchen’ is utterly indispensible- and for cooking them up (or propping a door), turn to Yamuna Devi’s weighty ‘The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking’.

Lots of my favourite books have a vegetarian focus- not surprising for a country where the majority either follow a veggie diet or enjoy a bit of plant-based roughage nonetheless. Jack Santa Maria’s ‘Indian Vegetarian Cookery’ is both lip-smacking and revealing- as is the same author’s seminal work, ‘Indian Sweet Cookery’. Funny little Indian-published soft-back titles like Jyoti Parekh’s ‘Easy-to-make South Indian Dishes’, Vijaya Hiremath’s ‘South Indian Tiffin’ and  the ‘Masterchefs of India’ series have a lot to offer in this vein, too.

Regional recommendations? Vimla Patil’s ‘Food Heritage of India’ is a decent starting point, and Chitrita Banerji’s ‘Eating India’ offers intensely personal, country-wide discovery. For specifics, try Chitrita’s divine musings in ‘Bengali Cooking- Seasons & Festivals’; the joyful ‘Kitchens of Kerala’ by Nimmy Paul; or, for Sri Lankan cuisine, ‘Ceylon Cookery’ and ‘A Ceylon Cookbook’ by Chandra Dissanayake and Doreen Peiris respectively. Or perhaps the lush ‘Serendip’ by Aussie super-chef Peter Kuruvita. Sabiha Khokar’s ‘Baltistan’ is a rare exploration of the much-loved dish’s true origins, and Cass Abraham’s ‘The Cuisine & Culture of the Cape Malays’ is a good introduction to the South African-Indian diaspora.

For better, for worse, the Raj yielded the original fusion cuisine, summarised beautifully by the late Jennifer Brennan in ‘Curries and Bugles’, whilst the Indian-published ‘Much Depends on Dinner’ by Satarupa Banerjee demonstrates the style remains in evidence today. Veterans were understandably captivated by Indian cuisine during their tenure, inspiring Harvey Day’s wonderfully archaic and superbly sentient ‘The Complete Book of Curries’. Latterly, actor Terence Cooper was no less enamoured, penning the rambunctious ‘Trouper Cooper’s Curry Cookbook’.

Memoirs use food to illustrate complex, transitionary political climates and render relationships, events, and even the most mundane  daily occurrences in glorious technicolour, coaxing you from sofa to stove-top in a single, singularly enticing paragraph. Madhur Jaffrey’s wistful ‘Climbing the Mango Trees’, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s blazingly impassioned ‘The Settler’s Cookbook’, and Shoba Naruyan’s engrossing ‘Monsoon Diary’ are a tasty triumvirate destined for dog-ears, oil splatters and many a fond re-visit.

Author Monisha Bharadwaj

Lastly, we come to those titles which defy categorisation- those curious geegaws that make you glad to have shuffled through a box of odds and sods at a jumble sale. I’d hate to be without Zuleikha Mayat’s ‘Indian Delights’- a staple text of the Women’s Cultural Group in Durban, or the eccentric mithai-and-namkeen recipes in ‘Aneri: My Favourite Recipes’ by Nayana Shah. And how would I cope without practical housewifery advice from Savitri Chowdhary, Laxmi Khurana or the esteemable Mrs Balbir Singh- or, for that matter, Nilam Vadera’s thoughts on ‘Creative Table Decor’?

Of course, this is an entirely subjective selection. You may have been nodding furiously, furiously fidgeting, or simply scratching your head throughout. But that’s the beauty of books- they’re divisive, thought-provoking, uniting…sometimes all at once, and many other things beside. In a world where we can only experience so much first-hand, books are a vicarious and welcome pleasure, expanding horizons- and even, with many of these Indian delights, waistbands. So, sorry for the extended reading list. But it’s going to be a long, dark winter. Immerse yourself.

For many of the listed titles, visit Amazon

Reza Mahammad’s ‘Reza’s Indian Spice’ is published by Quadrille, RRP £17.99

Vivek Singh’s ‘Cinnamon Kitchen: The Cookbook’ is published by Absolute Press, RRP £25

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