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.