Monday, July 2, 2007

Review - Grains, Greens, and Grated Coconuts - Recipes and Remembrances of a Vegetarian Legacy

Book review for 4th Dimension Woman.

Fragrant with the aromas of pepper and curry leaves and delicious for it, Grains, Greens, and Grated Coconuts - Recipes and Remembrances of a Vegetarian Legacy, by Ammini Ramachandran is more than a cookbook. Through it Ramachandran a food writer of Kerela origin based in America, has shattered several stereotypes; that community cookbooks are self published black on white with recipe after recipe and no space wasted on frivolous things like anecdotes. That South Indian food ends at idli, dosa, vada, sambhar. And most importantly that Kerela cuisine is seafood based and non vegetarian.

Without being heavy handed with spices or making the cuisine exotic beyond recognition the author takes us on an exploration of the traditional Hindu vegetarian cuisine of the royal family and the Nayar community of Kochi in central Kerala. Each recipe is laid out against a backdrop of its position on the banana leaf, in the seasonal diet and in traditional rituals as well. Unlike some memoirs in which recipes seem to be an afterthought, each recipe in this book is easy to do, systematically laid out and broad - mindedly allowing for shortcuts that work today. Timely instructions allow even newbies to anticipate the next step and the added sharing of occasional anecdotes and friendly advice almost gives the illusion that Ramachandran is standing by you, guiding you through the recipe and sharing her first experiences with it. For cookbook aficionados like me - who enjoy stories with their food - there is ample fodder for the mind as well. A brief but erudite chapter on the history of the spice trade in Kerala, the cultural background, culinary customs, festivals and traditions of the traditional Kerela kitchen and home, all coloured by the authors own growing years in one of the few surviving matrilineal societies of the world. “Grains, Greens, and Grated Coconuts” captures the pride of a woman in her heritage, gently reminding us that progress may be all around us but it is possible to hold on to tradition.

Try a recipe from the book, Scroll down this post for a recipe from the book.

For more on the book and the author visit

The book is available from Ingram Book Group, Baker & Taylor, iUniverse, Inc.,, and

Publisher: iUniverse, Inc. (March 4, 2007)

Mindless Eating - Why we eat more than we think.

Mindless Eating - Why we eat more than we think.

Browsing through Crosswords bookstore at Kemps Corner one day I mindlessly picked up, well, “Mindless Eating”. It was the question “Wondering why you ate too much popcorn or Chinese food?” in one of the comments on the back cover that caught my eye. Since the one thing I cannot resist is Chinese food - I probably eat Chinese once a week and the totally “paisa vasool” but absolutely unhealthy personal buffet at the Mah Jong restaurant in Khar has been on the menu a lot off late - I wanted to see what would convince me to eat less of it!

Closer examination revealed that the author Brian Wansink Ph.D is a food psychologist who specializes in investigating the mental and emotional factors that cause us to eat. A food anything will usually catch my attention but a food psychologist was a new one and I bought the book despite the steep price.

According to the Mindless eating , each time I give in to this craving for Chinese food, I consume unnecessary calories. Just to check I got some expert input. According to nutritionist Naini Setalvad, “an ideal restaurant meal should total upto 500 – 800 calories, but in the case of Indian Chinese, which comprises of deep fried, corn flour gravy smothered dishes like Manchrian, Chilli chicken, and fried wontons, your calorie intake can shoot up to a whopping 2-3000 calories at a single meal. Factor in the buffet format, and you can cross all limits!” Taking into account the tendency most of us have to eat until our stomachs protest, this is worrying.

The problem lies in tendency most of us have to eat until our stomachs protest since, as mindless eating points out, our stomachs can’t count how much we eat and therefore don’t know when to stop. It goes on to say that an average person of normal weight underestimates their food intake by 20% and an obese person by 30 – 40%. Citing various case studies Mindless Eating illustrates the solution – while the stomach cannot count, the eyes can.

According to Mindless eating, if one was presented with the entire volume of food they consumed after several servings at a buffet, one would not be able to eat it all. It suggests you see your food before and while you eat it. Have you ever noticed how leaving restaurants that serve plated food, you are usually pleasantly full as opposed to bursting? Come to think of it, I rarely manage to actually clear the plate on these occasions! Plating meals result in you consuming 14% less then when you have everything handy for refills.

That said however plating food is tough to do in the Indian meal format but here is a workable solution. Serve recommended amounts of Dal, rice and rotis into your plate and leave serving bowls of them in the kitchen, out of sight. However keep vegetables and salads in front of you at the table. This results in the healthier options being more accessible making it more likely for you to reach for them to fill the gap between the stages of “I could eat some more” and “I am full”.

This is only one of the lessons I learnt from Mindless Eating, the book has many more. The essential lesson the book teaches however, is that the mindless food choices we make can add 200 - 300 calories to our diet daily amounting to 12-15 kgs annually! However, just like ones mind is conditioned to make the choices that result in weight gain, it can be reconditioned to lose weight, simply by being more mindful of one’s eating habits.

The message is a valuable one. It is also eruditely delivered in snappy packaging. The chapters are full of interesting, case studies based on scientific research but presented in an eminently readable avatar and each chapter concludes with solutions to the issues it studies.

What I appreciated most about Mindless Eating however was that it focused on the micro-environment – my surroundings as opposed to a macro-food environment of the world that other books have covered. After all it is my immediate environment that directly influences my food choices on a daily basis; tells me how seemingly unimportant choices such as the size of the plate I eat from, my dining company, and even the ambiance I eat in influences how much food I will serve and eat. It also underlined to me that as the primary food provider I am the Nutritional Gatekeeper in my home and 72% of what my family eats inside and outside the home is because of choices I make.

To think I almost put it back because I thought it was a diet book! I hadn’t read the first and last sentence of the book then - “The best diet is the one you don’t know you’re on!”

Here is a link to the authors blog and website.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Indian cuisine – so vast is this subject that it is easy to get lost in the maze of sometimes half baked and occasionally totally wrong information available. Here is a guide to some books on various aspects of Indian food.

No matter where in the world we live, the food we eat today is a result of our ancestors experimenting with all sorts of strange ingredients and cooking methods prior to settling on the best form of the ingredient to use and the best method to use it in. Indian Cuisine has classified, categorised and attributed every ingredient available to it with specific properties and functions and every cooking method and culinary traditions a long time ago. It would then be logical that anyone wanting to learn about Indian Cuisine would want to be introduced to its history first. There are only a few sources in English for this aspect of Indian Cuisine. An older out of print book called the Cooking of India by the Time-Life Foods of the World series written by Santha Rama Rau is a classic and still fairly impressive. One can still find stray copies on the Internet.

The most comprehensive and only easily available book on Indian food is the Historical Dictionary of Indian Food by K.T.Achaya, a concise version of his earlier book Indian Food: A Historical Companion. A content rich book that I find myself returning to repeatedly when looking for information on the origins of ingredients, food ways and historical trivia on Indian food; like the fact that it correctly attributes maize, coffee beans, tomatoes and potatoes as having come from the new world, which have caused extensive debates amongst friends who refuse to accept these things as fact, especially the great shocker = that chilies only came to India with the Portuguese!

Happy news is the latest entrant to this genre of books, Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors is a densely written history of Indian cuisine exploring selec byways of Indian cuisine, occaissionally losing focus (but happily so) of the fact that the evolution of Indian cuisine was feuled by a series of invaders—the Mughals of Central Asia, followed by the Portuguese and eventually the British—who fused their own culinary traditions with those of the Subcontinent, producing entirely new dishes such as, Curry! Collingham traces creation and eventual disintegration of curry from a spicy pan-Indian dish with many regional variations into a noxious all-purpose turmeric-heavy powder manufactured in England to pacify civil servants longing who pined for the lost pleasures of the Anglo-Indian table they left behind in India.

Before one would have even finished reading the historical background of Indian cuisine one would be inspired to cook it and The Indian Kitchen by Monisha Bharadwaj is the perfect book for this stage of one’s growing curiosity about Indian food. One of my dearest possessions this timeless book discusses Indian ingredients, grouping them into categories; spices, pulses, herbs, grains, vegetables, fruit and then covering each individual item in 1 -2 page spreads illustrated with photos and information on origins, sources, preservation, culinary and medicinal uses and a couple of easy recipes for each. I consider this book the perfect gift because it is helpful for the novice as well as the knowledgeable so that one might identify everything from the commonplace to the elusive.

Less encyclopedia like and full of personal anecdotes the next book really is an “Invitation to Indian Cooking”. This classic by Madhur Jaffrey is full of recipes from the north Indian-Delhi culinary style and when your palate is curious enough to get more adventurous try Jaffrey's “A Taste of India", it only covers the most obvious regions and select recipes from even those but what it covers is packaged and delivered well and certainly offers the perfect primer the intricacies of regional cuisines of India. As rich with anecdotes is Indian Home Cooking by Suvir Saran the acclaimed chef and cooking teacher and driving force behind the Devi restaurant in New York. This book lays a rich cornucopia of information alongside recipes for fuss free, home-style Indian dishes for everyday cooking written for a western audience, using ingredients found in most supermarkets.

Once your appetite for the intricacies of Indian cuisine are truly whetted and you are looking to get deeper in the regional cuisines of India there is a large selection of books available from Penguin. Their regional series are erudite books that cover the history and culture of each community before getting down to educating the reader on the cuisine of the community and although the recipes can sometimes be off the mark, they certainly are delicious reads. Starting in the north with The Kashmiri cookbook by Sudhir Dhar, the collection winds through Delhi with the very informative Flavours of Delhi by Charmaine O'Brien and makes it’s way East to the “seven sister” states of Sikkim, Arunalchal Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, and throwing light on the relatively unknown cuisine of this part of India with the Essential North-East Cookbook by Hoihnu Hauzel. The Calcutta Cookbook, Meenakshie Das Gupta, Bunny Gupta, Jaya Chaliha is an overview of the history of cuisine in Calcutta including chapters on the different influences on the cuisine as well. (Das Gupta is the author of Bangla Ranna which is the legendary classic that preceded this one. Heading south The Essential Andhra Cookbook, educates on the fiery cuisine of the Andhra region as well as the royal cuisine of the Mughals. The Essential Goa Cookbook, throws light on the rich heritage of Goan cuisine with its Dutch and Portugese influences. The Essential Kodava Cookbook by C B Muthamma and P Gangamma Bopanna is another jewel of a book not so much in the narrative but rather in the fact that it illuminates another hidden but rich cuisine of India that of the Coorg community, a race said to have descended from the Greek Warriors of Alexander’s army.

Besides the many regional variations, there have been many influences on Indian cuisine, the culinary influences of the British are covered in Taste of the Raj by Pat Chapman founder of the Curry Club in the UK. Content rich and a real account of culinary and family history is Curries & Bugles by Jennifer Brennan while The Raj at Table by David Burton is a more professional take on Raj history and food. Parsis are a community originating from Persia who settled on the West coast of India and evolved both a culture and a cuisine that was a blend of their heritage and their new homeland. Parsi food and Customs by Bhicoo J. Manekshaw which is part of the part of the Penguin Indian cuisine series, covers, the history, traditions, customs and cuisine of the Parsis. Also part of the same series is Anglo-Indian Food and Customs by Patricia Brown which very efficiently covers the history, traditions, customs and cuisine of the Anglo Indian Community of India.

The above list just skims the surface of books on various aspects of Indian cuisine. Underneath lies a wast sea of Information that has yet to be fully explored. The next layer of books I intend to delve into are community cookbooks. Cookbooks self published by enterprising ladies or representative bodies of the various communities of India. Communities that are defined by religion, geograhical location, history and a variety of other things but one commonality - they each have a cuisine of their own.

When these books have been explored, there is a deeper layer to delve into. Beyond the books that have been printed in english, there is a sea of self published local language cookbooks that exist all over India. Books that have never been explored because of the language barrier that exists due to so many regional languages that exist all over the country. I never thought about this untill my Pune based friend Uma Iyer brought my attention to the amazing wealth of information she has discovered in local Maharashtrian books. She discovered these 20-30 rupee books available in local bookstores and has been exploring them for the last few weeks with great results.