As someone who likes a spot of paying it forward; goes doolally for a decent read; and is rather fond of a gimmick, I was only too pleased to be asked to take part in the ‘blog tour’ for Ragini Dey’s new ‘Spice Kitchen’ book. Particularly alongside the ‘NR11 Blog’, ‘Salad and Sequins’, and the ‘Botanical Baker’ – the latter blog belonging to my gorgeous Gujarati mate, Urvashi Roe.
The idea behind this bit of guerrilla marketing? Each day, the book ‘visits’ a different foodie blog, whose owner gives it the once over before pointing out to readers where it’d be rated next. Rather like a promiscuous, limelight-loving filly turning up to parties and premiers all over town; ensuring it maximum exposure in much the same manner as a miniscule minidress. And spread out over a number of days, rather than over in a single burst of publicity. Clever, clever. Sign me up!
‘Spice Kitchen’ by Ragini Dey
I’ll start with a controversial statement for someone who forges a living through a digital world. I much prefer books. The cold glass of a tablet is hard, smooth, sleek, and unyielding; a book has warmth, palpable texture, heft, and crumples at will. Not that I’d ever commit the heinous crimes of dog-earing or defacing. But at least I could if I wanted to. There’s comfort in a book’s physicality. They have their own smell. They’re the ‘real woman’ to pornography’s robotic, idiotic ideal.
Northern Indian Ragini Dey spent her childhood roving the subcontinent with her family – eating not only food itself; but gobbling up, savouring, and learning about the diverse cultures behind it all. In the 1980s, India’s loss was Australia’s gain. Raghini’s restaurant, ‘Spice Kitchen’, swiftly converted locals to the width and breadth of Indian cuisine. She hasn’t been selfish in spreading its secrets, sharing sharp skills through cookery classes and on the telly – and now in this brand-new book.
There’s no doubting it’s one for the aesthete with a penchant for clean design. Perusing ‘Spice Kitchen’ – all cool minimalism and somewhat stark, beautifully-shot images – could be a most effective tonic for the searing summer heat my Indian friends are suffering. But I prefer my pages a little more cluttered – riots of colour, cleverly cluttered with an abundance of pictures and prose. Lucky, then, that this book offers its own abundance in other ways.
Like a wealth of geographically-diverse, regionally-authentic dishes and plentiful information on their origins, divvyed up according to main ingredient. That chapter classification makes it hard to navigate putting together a menu of recipes from a single area; but also all the more pleasurable to do so, as interest and intrigue causes you to take a country-wide wander in your search. Sometimes the circuitous route is the nicest… as is said so often, it’s about the journey, not the destination.
And a journey through Ragini’s ‘Spice Kitchen’ is as much feast for the senses as the food cooked from her recipes. Unless it’s shored up by legacy and legend in the same way good stock provides a solid foundation, until it’s afforded a final seasoning with personal anecdote, a dish will always taste lacking. This food is fulsome, full-flavoured and finely crafted. Ragini knows exactly how to pique interest and prime tastebuds. Although, being greedy, I would like all the Indian dish names too.
This is a big bugbear for me. You may cook and love Bengali mishti doi or patishapta, but if you know them only as ‘sweetened steamed yogurt’ or ‘coconut pancakes’, you’ll never realise they’re one and the same. Including original names means when you’re talking food, there’s no waiting for that illuminating moment – the light’s already on, and you can get on with communicating just how much you dig that dish to the people whose culinary traditions yielded it.
Because I, for one, need to be demonstrative in my digging of that mishti doi paired with a sweet tomato jam – I want to state how moreish I find that ‘murabba’. I’ll concede it’s not always necessary. ‘Christmas kulfi’ communicates itself comprehensively and deliciously clearly. It’s not, by any means, a constant omission throughout ‘Spice Kitchen’. But it’s common enough to concern me.
Thankfully I’m soothed by the succour provided by a rich bowl of haleem – a meat’n’wheat porridge that eats a treat with (Amul) buttered toast. From the South, utthappam and upma top up that Hyderabadi breakfast; then it’s time to zip to Mumbai for a mid-morning munch on pau bhaji; a Pakistani picnic lunch of corn takatak; taking tiffin with Gujarati bhajia… A fish feast in Bengal brings an excellent day’s eating to a full-bellied finale, making room for a malpua while I’m in the area.
So whilst my enjoyment of ‘Spice Kitchen’ is slightly soured by certain niggles, the rest of the book’s riches are sufficient to temper my temperament. As any Indian knows, it’s all about balance. In books; in food; indeed, in life; there will be bitterness along with sweetness. A well-balanced cook is a happy cook, one likely to knock out great grub. And, on balance, I’m a ‘Spice Kitchen’ convert. After all, in the capable hands of a cook like Dey, even bitterness can become pretty palatable.
- ‘Spice Kitchen’ by Ragini Dey is published by Hardie Grant, RRP £22.99
- WIN WIN WIN!
- Hardie Grant has kindly provided me with the chance to furnish one lucky reader with a copy of ‘Spice Kitchen’. To enter, email your name and details to firstname.lastname@example.org by Friday 7 June. Sadly, this is one for UK residents only!