Thursday, August 7, 2008

Author Interview - Raghavan Iyer of 660 Curries, The Turmeric Trail and co author of Betty Crocker's Indian Home Cooking



I caught up with Raghavan Iyer while he was on his multi city US, Canadan, and UK book tour for an exclusive interview in which Iyer shares his journey to a book that "has been four years in the making and at 832 pages I feel I've delivered a horse!" Read on to find out more...
RMG:   Why did you choose the subject you did to write about?
RI: I always wanted to do a definitive book on Indian curries – it was never done with such depth and scope – finally I got around to it.
RMG: Why "660 curries? Why not more? (not that we are complaining…)
RI: The initial proposal was 1001 – but that was too big for a book – the publisher wanted it under 1000 pages – so we settled for between 600 to 800 – the book has 700 recipes – 660 of them curries). 
NOTE: the remaining 40 recipes are accompaniments to eat with curries – called Curry Cohorts. Very clever – we thought…
RMG: Forgive me if I sound clueless but are that many curries really possible? What by your definition is a curry? What was the criteria by which recipes went into your book?
RI: Yes there are that many curries and when you read the intro, you will see how that is possible (the elements of a curry) – there is a nice definition printed on the inside front jacket of the book – also on page 3. It goes "CURRY n: any dish that consist of either meat, fish , poultry, legumes, vegetables, or fruits simmered in or covered with a sauce, gravy or other liquid that is redolent with any number of freshly ground and very fragrant spices and/or herbs." Recipes in the book were in keeping with this definition of curries – that was my sole criterion. 
Iyer's idea of a Curry from the introduction of the book "
In England and the rest of the world, "curry" is the catchall word for anything Indian that is mottled with hot spices, with or without a sauce, and "curry powder" is the blend that delivers it. In keeping with my culture, I define a curry as any dish that consists of either meat, fish, poultry, legumes, vegetables, or fruits, simmered in or covered with a sauce, gravy, or other liquid that is redolent with spices and/or herbs. In my India, curry is never added – it just is!
To make it easier to comprehend the constitution of curries, I stripped it down into the seven Asian taste elements of sour, salty, sweet, hot, umami, bitter, and astringent and added an aromatic component to comprise a flavor profile (chef mumbo jumbo). To put it into perspective, all the ingredients we use (spices, legumes, meats, vegetables, dairy, herbs) to compose a curry falls neatly into one of those categories – but that neatness loses its clarity when you apply cooking techniques to them, changing their up-front quality to one that jumps taste boundaries. In other words, curries and their flavors are dynamic. Here is a simple chart that empowers you to create your own curry."
RMG: How did you become interested in cooking? And when and how did food and its exploration become important?
RI: It was more out of a necessity to survive – I came here {to the USA} not knowing how to cook – youngest male child from a large family – so had to cook at age 21 in the US in my dorm for my meals – it all evolved over the years – now it is a passion. And then after I got done with working at an Indian restaurant in the US, I decided to embark on a teaching career, teaching Indian cooking way back in 1991 – as a teacher I also learned by experimenting, reading, practicing.  That's when I started exploring more.
RMG: The scope of a book such as his is so huge, how did you set about working on this book?  Did you travel, meet people?  Spend hours in your own kitchen? What were some of your most pleasurable moments during research, interactions with cooks, food tastings, learning to cook?
RI: Yes to the questions – in the intro I talk about the methods I used and also the research I did while writing the book – I spent 6 weeks in India and then interviewed a lot of people there and here in the US – not only from all corners of India and everywhere in-between, but also Pakistan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. The best part for me was the opportunity to meet such a myriad of talented cooks, their families, and friends, and taste fantastic flavors.  Their hospitality always bowled me over and I could never have done this book without their input and openness to share.
RMG: What was most enjoyable about the process of writing your cookbooks?
RI: I love the process of gathering recipes, creating them, testing them, and writing them in a manner that would appeal to many cooks from all backgrounds – having been a cooking teacher for 18 years, I like to empower my students in the amazing world of curries, and the kitchen being my laboratory helps me get there.
RMG: What's your favorite recipe from your book?
RI: With so many it's hard to chose one but I love the simplest of the simple dals and a vegetable curry and plain rice to accompany that – a toor dal with turmeric, salt, and clarified butter is amazingly satiating and a rajasthani style baingan nu bharto is a perfect match for that with pungent red chiles, garlic, and rock salt.
RMG:  What were some of the things you were uncompromising about as regards to your book, that you think should be given more attention in other cookbooks? (Language, recipe testing etc)
All you mention – I have to write the book for the audience I wish to address – I cannot address all types of cooks – I have to zone in on a few and that's my target market – living in the US, where most of my audience is and they cook from my books and teachings, I have to present matter that is approachable, accessible, easy, and yet maintains the integrity of the dish – if I need to limit the number of spices in a complex blend, and I want the cook to make it, I try to keep the blend's integrity by cutting down on some of the ingredients – having a 40-spice blend is not something the average American will wish to make – even though that might be how it's done in India.
RMG: Anything you would have done differently?
RI: I wish I had more pages about the history, it was in the original manuscript but space was an issue – we did not want the book to be over 850 pages – you want people to cook from it after all.
RMG: Lastly, is there anything else you can tell us about yourself, your career, or the profession that would be interesting or helpful to others aspiring to write a cookbook?
RI: believe in yourself and do quality work – if you like what you do, it gets conveyed to the reader and cook through your pages – but be true to yourself.
RMG: What were some of the things you were uncompromising about with your book, that you think should be given more attention in other cookbooks? (Language, recipe testing etc)
RI: all of the above you mentioned – I have to write the book for the audience I wish to address – I cannot address all types of cooks – I have to zone in on a few and that’s my target market – living in the US, where most of m audience is and they cook from my books and teachings, I have to present matter that is approachable, accessible, easy, and yet maintains the integrity of the dish – if I need to limit the number of spices in a complex blend, and I want the cook to make it, I try to keep the blend’s integrity by cutting down on some of the ingredients – having a 40-spice blend is not something the average American will wish to make – even though that might be how it’s done in India.
RMG: Do you feel that the Internet has opened doors for authors who never dreamed they'd ever see a publishing contract and how has it influenced you in regards to your own publishing journey?
RI: In this day and age of blogs, the internet has given everyone a voice to represent their opinions – it is for the reader to judge each blog’s integrity and quality of work – I think it’s a great medium for many to share their writing skills and get themselves published in a global arena
RMG: Do you think a blog/website is important to promotion? Have you done anything special with any bloggers to promote your book?
RI: I think it is vital to have a website to present your skills and talents to the world – blogs are of course a great way to do that also – I have a 660curries.com blog that is solely in existence to discuss the fantastic world of Indian Pakistani, Nepalese, Sri Lankan, and Contemporary curries – Bloggers are passionate people with diverse opinions and I find them a great resource for having a dialogue and sharing of opinions – again, the integrity of a blogger or their opinions are very personal and it is up to the individual to decide who they believe in.
RMG: Lastly, is there anything else you can tell us about yourself, your career, or the profession that would be interesting or helpful to others aspiring to write a cookbook?
RI: Believe in yourself and do quality work – if you like what you do, it gets conveyed to the reader and cook through your pages – but be true to yourself.
660 Curries is available at stores all over India for more on the author go to http://www.raghavaniyer.com, the 660 curries blog http://www.660curries.com/  and here is a rather interesting note from Suzanne Rafer—"the lucky editor of Raghavan Iyer's cookbook" http://www.660curries.com/?p=32


Friday, July 25, 2008

To market, to market...

Moras Bhajjji seller

The Moras Bhajji


Kantola seller


The Kantolas

Most cookbooks have a buying guide, but for My Mumbai cookbook, even that section has to be a little different. I am going to be writing on some of the markets I have grown up shopping in.

And Vikram's excellent column on Bhajji galli ~

"Mumbai has many good vegetable markets, but Bhaji Gali near Grant Road station is one of the best. Probably because many vegetarian Maharashtrians and Gujaratis live nearby, the veggies always seem extra good and fresh. Another sign that it’s a good market is how sellers specialise."

And it's treasures within including Moras bhajji ~

"
A few sellers away I spotted a bag of leaves half hidden under other veggies. They looked odd, long and fleshy ovals that I almost thought were discarded bean pods, but they had the thick stems of a succulent. The vegetable seller called them moras-bhaji and he told me it grew near the sea, coming to them from the beaches at Vasai. "

... finally
had me calling him to fix a day to go marketing together. It is something we have been meaning to do but not getting around too. Ignoring pangs of guilt I left the DH with my able housekeeper, Shobha to look after the kids and drove into town. I was really looking forward to this trip since I had been pretty much confines to my colony the last couple of weeks thanks to kids work and the monsoons. The rain gods were also indulgent and held themselves back for me.

We met at the Grant rd. station side. The plan was to walk through to the other side and then drive on to our next destination. Almost immediately we got down to shopping since one of the vendors I especially wanted to visit was right at the corner on which we met. The water chestnut seller.

Water chestnuts come into season at this time of the year, and I had been wanting to get my hands on some for a while now but they are not available near where I live in Powai.

I discovered Water Chestnuts in their fresh form at Mayo girls where we would sometimes get them for tea. Prior to that I had only eaten the cooked salted ones.

Fresh water chestnuts are extremely different from their cooked counterparts and I must say I like them better; tender, crunchy, sweet, juicy and faintly herby, they are great to eat raw and absolutely delicious in curries. A fact I discovered entirely by chance a few years ago when. Anticipating a day of many acquisitions I conservatively bought just half a kg and ended up wishing I'd exercised the judgment to buy more because the were over before I could savor them.

Tucking them into my shopping bag, I moved on with Vikram. We saw a whole lot of other vegetables, identifying them and telling each other how we used them, until we came to the Moras vegetable guy. In fact we almost missed the basket full of Moras he was selling, because it was buried under a bunch of green bananas as you can see in the picture. A little later we happened upon a vendor selling Kantolas. These are prickly little things that my husband confirmed are the Meethe Karele of Uttarakhandi cuisine. All too soon we'd finished with this short stretch of a vegetable wonderland and emerged at the other end.

My Dadi, swore by two markets, Bhulleshwar and Bhajji galli, but Bhuleshwar was further away. Bhajji galli (which literally translates to vegetable lane) was very close and extremely accessible.

Bhajji Gali is a small lane that stretches on a perpendicular from Grant road station. Which makes it a popular stop for commuters to shop for vegetables on their way home. We visited in the lax hours, so vendors were patient with us but try come peak hours and a cacophony of hundreds of voices will greet you selling everything from tomatoes to greens. The fact that it is right in the middle of the vegetarian gujarati populated area makes it a treasure trove for indigenous seasonal vegetables.

It was a great trip so unlike the sanitary supermarket shopping I have access to in Powai. It reminded me what a great experience marketing is and I have every intention of doing more of it!






Posted by Picasa

Thursday, July 24, 2008

What is My Mumbai cookbook about?

Even before I signed the contract for My Mumbai Cookbook, I was making big plans. It would be a runaway best seller and become so famous that I would get a book deal out of it and then a TV show et. etc.

My classic case of counting chickens screeched to a resounding halt when I got down to actually writing it. I spen ages agonising over the dedication page, I didn't want to miss anyone! (It it were an Oscar speech I'd have been hrown of the stage). then I decided to write the introduction. After the third day of staring at one paragraph, I decided to come back to it later and moved to the firt chapter. I wrote and rewrote and rewrote. Suddenly nothing sounded right.

So when I had written things out for the sixth time, I took a break and shifted focus to recipe testing. I will say his though, Thank god for the delete key or I'd have made a serious dent in the environment by chucking wads of paper into the bin! And as I tossed up a quick garlic pasta that is to go into the book, something my husband always says when I make it came to mind, “Quickly prepared dishes sometimes turn out better than the most elaborately prepared recipes."

Maybe I was just trying too hard!

I decided to go back to scratch and reading the notes I sent the pblisher with my book structure helped clear my brain. The May 2009 deadline does not look so scary now....

There is a similarity between writing and cooking. Both are activities that come easily to some, who seem to have thrive at them, but are harder for others who have to keep at it. And even the best writers and finest cooks have probably had that moment when all the elements are present in a piece of writing or a dish and yet it lacks that one element that will take it from just plain good to superlative.

But int both cases, there comes a point when one should just let things happen by themselves.... Let the chemistry happen as they say.....

A few excerpts from my notes to my Publisher

As a food writer the aspect of food and foodways and their ability to travel have aways fascinated me and nowhere is a better example of this than the home kitchens of Mumbai.

Food has a way of crossing the divides of community other barriers and over the years this has resulted in a variety of cuisines, their aormas, flavours and tastes all combining into one huge melting pot that is Mumbai.

My Mumbai Cookbook is a memoir with recipes, Shobha Narayan's Monsoon diary meets one of Claudia Rodens books. A culinary diary, let us say of home cooking in Mumbai. It will offer a sampling of various cuisines through recipes as opposed to just the one regional variety.

The primary objective of My Mumbai Cookbook is to bring to the fore a facet of food in Mumbai that seldom gets it's due. The versatility of the home kitchens of Mumbai. Home cooking in Mumbai has permeated the barriers of walls both the physical as well as those invisible ones of religion and community to be assimilated into one large vibrant tapestry. Although Mumbai has a very dynamic dining scene, home cooking in Mumbai tends to only make it to the recipe pages of columns like 'Ghar ka khana'.

A secondary but no less important objective is to document and preserve, a sampling of home cooking from various communities. As life in Mumbai gets tougher by the moment, there is a direct impact on the way we eat at home. Home cooking is getting more homogenous. Traditional recipes are being circuvented for quick cooking, heat and eat foods. My Mumbai cookbook, aims to perserve some of the easier recipes, offering interested a chance to experiment wih dishes from other kichens, no matter how limited their kichen may be.

Cooking is a given with any family and although there are families where men occasionally cook, the onus of the majority of food preparation is still on the woman of the house regardless of whether she has a career or other responsibilities to juggle or not.

The onus of exchange of culinary lore can be largely attributed to women and in a subtle way, My Mumbai Cookbook hopes to highlight this relationship. I am in awe of the amazing strength of women. They are the cornerstone of evolution of home cooking everywhere. By dint of their gender, women and cooking are inextricably linked. In a quest for variety, they also exchange culinary knowledge and recipes and food ways are passed on. Food and emotion come together in women, in a charecteristic unique to their gender. For women feeding a family goes beyond throwing something together, they will refuse to settle for anything short of the best, spend time planning and preparing meals.

And the Mumbai woman is the perfect example of this charecterisic. Whether she is sorting out the freshest tomatoes at Bhuleshwar, fighting for the freshest fish at Koliwada, or digging out the whitest mushrooms from the bottom of the pile at a supermarket in South Mumbai, she has her family’s best interests at heart and nothing short of the finest she can afford will do - even if it means shopping at Grant road vegetable market and cutting and cleaning the vegetables on the train journey home!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Cooked and booked!

Now that I have signed on the dotted lines, I can put my characteristic Virgo caution to rest and do a virtual jig!

I am excited to share the news that my book, "My Mumbai cookbook" has been taken on for publication by Tranquebar press.

Tranquebar Press is a literary imprint that, along with Westland Books and Landmark Bookstores are currently owned by the Tatas. Tranquebar Press was launched last year with literary critic Nilanjana S. Roy as chief editor. They are also the publishers behind Saeed Mirza's Ammi: A Letter to a Democratic Mother and Jeet Thayil's These Errors are Correct.

Friday, July 18, 2008



A couple of weeks ago, Aunty Savia came to stay with me, loaded with spice pastes, pickles, goan sausages, vinegar and Mangad - mango jam made of local mangoes that are high in pectin.

Aunty Savia, is a college friend of my mother's. Thanks to her, my mother became an amazing baker and our our childhood memories are enriched with a variety of baked goodies and Easter Marzipan. Aunty Savia had a pickle factory, and care packages from her always included delicious aromatic masallas, pickles, home made bebinca. She also introduced us to goan food albeit vegetarian since she cooked it at our house but later, when i moved into my own home, visits from her meant feasts of prawn curry, coconut curry and all sorts of delectable treats.

Aunty Savia is as Goan as they get, a homebody and one of the loveliest people I know, in the typically Goan way, food is an important part of her identity. The thhre days we spent together were full of learning on my part and nostalgia on hers -about learning to cook, feeding her kids when they were babies and feeding them now as adults, and nostalgia of the times she stayed with my mother in the Munshaw home. We cooked vindalho, xacuti, and a few other classic dishes for My Mumbai Cookbook but the highlight of her stay for me was this dish of stuffed squid she made.

I have only ever seen squid in rings so this stuffed version was a novelty for me. We found squid when we went to look for seafood to cook for our session and bought a few pieces. She chopped up the tentacles with a few prawns and sauteed them with onions, coconut and a little Vindalho paste. She then stuffed this mixture into the squids and cooked the whole in some more of the onion spice paste. It cooked to a spicy almost pickled dish that was great with rice.

And equally invauable was the other knowledge she imparted, advice on baby food, ideas for dishes my kid would like, dealing with bab tummy upsets and a whole lot of things besides.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Author Interview - Ammini Ramachandran, Grains, Greens and grated coconuts - Recipes and Remembrances of a Vegetarian Legacy.



Ammini Ramachandran took a rather meandering route to the world of food writing. After clocking in over two decades in a career in finance, She now spends time researching, cooking and writing about the cuisine and culture of her home state of Kerala in India. In March 2007, she published Grains, Greens, and Grated Coconuts: Recipes and Remembrances of a Vegetarian Legacy. An excellent book that went on to receive endorsements from several well known food writers around the world and be celebrated by the New York times.

RMG: Tell us a bit about your background.
AR: I was born and raised in Kerala and moved to the United States in 1971. A chemistry graduate from Kerala University, I studied finance in the United States and received an MBA from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. I worked as a financial analyst in international banking until 2001. I took a rather meandering route to the world of food writing. Writing was always my hobby. After Sep 11, 2001, I took early retirement and decided to pursue writing. After spending over two decades in a career in finance, today I spend my time researching, cooking and writing about the cuisine and culture of my home state Kerala.
RMG:     How did you become interested in cooking?
AR: I got into cooking out of sheer necessity. When I came to the US in the 1970's, there were no Indian grocery stores in Rhode Island where we lived. The closest store was in New York City, some two hundred miles away. Vegetarian food was not popular in America at that time. Being a strict vegetarian, I had to learn to cook in a hurry if I wanted to eat Indian dishes. My mother's letters that came every week in the mail always contained a couple of recipes.  I learned to cook by referring to these recipes. During my many trips home, I learned more recipes from her and my extended family.  
RMG: When and how did food and its exploration become important?
AR: Today with most of the younger generation in my family living in the United States, I wanted them to remember the food prepared at their ancestral home, its history, and culture and started writing a family journal. After reading the initial drafts, the feedback I received from them, as well as their American friends, was most encouraging - They all wanted to read more about our history, and stories about our food.  This encouraged me to explore more about of food, history and culture. 
RMG: Why "Grains Greens and Grated coconuts?"
AR: A straightforward cookbook with only recipes was not my intention in writing this book. And so I did not want to give it a title that ended in "cookbook". When writing a book that brings the threads of history, geography, religion, tradition, and personal history together to present the food of my region in Kerala, a just recipes only book was not the way to go. Grains (rice and dals), greens (vegetables) and grated coconuts are the crucial ingredients in this cuisine and I felt that it would be an appropriate title.  
RMG: You have obviously given every aspect of the book meticulous attention. What were the criteria by which recipes went into your book?
AR: It was a very simple criteria- recipes for all the food that was cooked in my extended family, dishes that are traditional to the Hindu homes of central Kerala. This book by no means a complete collection of all Kerala vegetarian recipes. Several northern and southern Kerala recipes as well as specific vegetarian recipes of the Christian and Muslim communities of Kerala are not in this book.  
RMG: What made you decide to write a cookbook?
AR: As I said above I started a family journal documenting the culture and cuisine of Kerala.  After Sep 11, 2001, I decided to take early retirement from a career as financial analyst and decided to concentrate on writing about Kerala's food and culture. Slowly my family journal evolved into a web site - peppertrail.com and then to this book.   
RMG: Did you look to other cookbooks for inspiration?
AR: Most certainly I looked to several cookbooks for guidance. Ever since the late 1990's there is a growing interest in the United States in cookbooks that present ethnic cuisines against a backdrop of culinary history and culture. These titles also bring cuisines of the world into the modern kitchen in the form of balanced, unusual, and tasty recipes that are within the reach of any cook.  
Among these the truly exceptional and inspiring to me were - Frida's Fiestas: Recipes and Reminiscences of Life with Frida Kahlo, by Guadalupe Rivera and Marie-Pierre Colle, Splendid Table, by Lynne Rosetto Kasper, Gefilte Variations, by Jayne Cohen, and Italian Festival Foods, by Anne Bianchi, and The Food and Life of Oaxaca, by Zarela Martinez. My ambition was to write a book in a similar format about the practically unknown vegetarian cuisine of Kerala.
RMG: How did you set about working on this book?  Did you travel, meet people?  Spend hours in your own kitchen?
AR: How does a financial analyst go about writing a cookbook?  Of course I started with an excel spread sheet listing the various recipe categories – every day dishes, festival dishes, seasonal dishes, recipes that are special to my family. Then came sub categories – curries, dry vegetable dishes, pickles, chutneys- the list goes on.  A second spread sheet detailed who to contact for particular recipes.  
I already had a collection of recipes from mother. I taught myself to cook by referring to the recipes that my mother sent me every week in her letters. During my many visits home I also studied this traditional cuisine from native cooks who have lived and cooked in our region their entire lives. I have spent many fascinating hours listening and writing down their verbal culinary histories that go back hundreds of years. I also spent many hours researching about ancient Indian Ocean trade and its impact on Kerala's cuisine and culture.
Writing a book on Kerala cuisine, while living thousands of miles away from there, also posed a problem. It was especially difficult to reach older relatives via phone to ask any questions. So I enlisted the help of a research team - My sisters Girija Narayanan and Rathi Ramachandran and my cousin Usha Varma, my very patient research team, spent many hours collecting and writing old recipes and the oral history of our cultural traditions. I could not have finished this book without their help. This is as much their book as it is mine.  
Then came the recipe testing phase. While following my mother's recipes I had inadvertently followed her method of measuring ingredients by pinches and handfuls. Purchasing sets of measuring cups and spoons and redoing her recipes with measured quantities of ingredients was the next step- which needless to say took many months. Initially often I would forget to measure an ingredient midway through cooking, and had to start all over again. That was the most frustrating part of this phase. When it was impossible to find certain seasonal ingredients in the United States, again came my sisters and cousin to the rescue. They tested the recipes and reported back.    
Meanwhile I attended conferences and symposiums for food writers and took continuing education courses on food writing from the food studies department at New York University. I joined several professional organizations for food writers - International Association of Culinary Professionals, Slow Food USA, and Culinary Historians of New York. Through these organizations I learned about the "science" of recipe writing (how each recipe has to be organized beginning with the first ingredient you use in a recipe) and the value of head notes to recipes.   
RMG: Would you share some of your most pleasurable moments during research, interactions with cooks, food tastings, learning to cook?
AR: It was very amazing for me to see how the home cooks I spoke to responded with enthusiasm when I showed genuine interest in their recipes and cooking methods.  
There is young woman Lakshmi in my home town who cooks every day meals to a few elderly people in the neighborhood for a small fee. She also takes orders for snack foods and spice mixtures. All of the cooking is done in her own kitchen and she and her husband deliver the food. Her food is simple and delicious. My mother always asked her husband's aunt used to come and make the snack murukku in our home. Making this snack by hand is a dying art today. One day I went watch Lakshmi make murukku by hand. And we chatted as she sat on the floor twisting the dough into multi-layered circles of curly spirals on the cotton cloth spread on the floor. She asked me about how I cooked Indian food in America and what vegetables and fruits were available in the USA. I mentioned that good jackfruit is hard to come by and the best we could do is to use canned jackfruit from Thailand.  
I am a huge fan of her sambar powder and I had placed an order for it to bring it back to the USA. The day before I was leaving she came with a package. I did not get a chance to open it immediately. Later that evening when I was packing my bags I opened the brown paper bag, I was surprised to see a small stainless steel container inside. I opened with curiosity and it was full of homemade jackfruit jam, glistening with a coating of ghee. How thoughtful of her!  
RMG: What was most enjoyable about the process of writing your cookbook?
AR: Researching, writing, editing and publishing - it was a long haul. The enjoyable about the process was the satisfaction that I am finally getting around to documenting the food and culture of my community.  But the most enjoyable part came after it was published. I connected with so many wonderful people through this book. After an excerpt and a recipe were posted on Anothersubcontinent.com, the members started a thread devoted to 'Cooking with Grains, Greens, and Grated Coconuts'. Many of them posted photos of recipes they prepared, with Kavitha Ravi from Malaysia taking the lead to make sure that every single recipe was cooked, photographed and posted. The thread has evolved into an online full-color pictorial companion to the book's recipes.  
When the book won the Cordon D'Or award for best self published cookbook, I traveled to St. Petersburg for the award ceremony. And there was arunr (whom I had never met before), a member of anothersubcontinent forum, at the airport to welcome me. Although the award ceremony was held as a fund raising event for Abilities Foundation, arunr got special permission from the organizers to take my photograph as I received the Award. And before I got back home he had already shared the pictures on the forum thread.   
It is so touching when people I have never met in my life write to me after they have read the book. One young woman wrote how grandmother cried with joy when she prepared ela ada, a typical sweet prepared for Onam festival. From a young Kerala woman from Dubai to a retired professor from Canada, I have met so many wonderful people because of the book.  
RMG: What's your favorite recipe from your book?
AR : It is hard to pick one recipe as my favorite. Ellukari, the sweet, sour and mildly spiced curry with a fragrance of toasted sesame seeds and coconuts and chethumaangakari- the spicy hot green mango pickle are definitely two of them.    
RMG: What were some of the things you were uncompromising about as regards to your book; that you think should be given more attention in other cookbooks? (Language, recipe testing etc)
AR: I believe that in her New York Times article Anne Mendelson really summed up about the things I was uncompromising as regards to my book. She wrote: "Instead of trying to cover all menu bases that an editor might insist on, Ms. Ramachandran is free to concentrate on unorthodox categories, including amazingly diverse "curries" (sauced vegetable combinations), pickles and preserves, breakfast specialties, rice dishes associated with sacred observances and temple or rite-of-passage offerings. Other books have ably explored India's far southern territory, but Ms. Ramachandran reveals amazing range and depth in Kerala's Hindu vegetarian traditions. And American home cooks should find her introductions to ingredients, techniques and equipment accessible".
Regarding other cookbooks, each book is a personal journey of the author. Publishing houses have the final say and they often dictate how the content should be presented. It is up to each author to decide how and when they should compromise to these demands.
RMG: How do you determine your book's success, so far?
AR: The success of the book so far has been in receiving good reviews. Sales are alright, nothing fantastic. This is mainly because most sales are only through the internet.  Only a few specialty cookbook stores in the Unites States and Canada are carrying the book. This is because iUniverse do not accept returns and offer smaller discounts to booksellers. I hope this will change with the Star edition. Star editions offer industry standard discounts to booksellers and books are returnable.  
RMG: Anything you would have done differently?
AR: Of course I would have loved if a publishing house had picked up the book. Then again, I would not have had the freedom to include all of those historical facts and personal anecdotes.   
RMG: What next? What can we, as your fans, look forward to next from your kitchen/pen?
AR: I continue my research on Indian Ocean spice trade and the food history of south India. It was a pleasant surprise for me to learn about the tremendous interest people in the United States have in learning about Indian Ocean spice trade. At every presentation I make, I get more questions about this topic.  I also continue to write about this topic. I have contributed to two forthcoming publications - Encyclopedia on Entertaining through Time and Cultures to be published by Greenwood Press and Storied Dishes: a book with fifty women food writers donating recipes and the story/memory behind the recipes. 
RMG: Lastly, is there anything else you can tell us about yourself, your career, or the profession that would be interesting or helpful to others aspiring to write a cookbook?
AR: I have only a simple advice for aspiring food writers. Never give up your hope. Road blocks are many in the world of publishing- but if you have your heart in it, you will find ways to work around them.  

Book is currently available through amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, and iuniverse.com. It would be wonderful if major book store chains in India would carry it when the Star title becomes available through international distributors at industry standard terms. 

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Pictures of our lunch in Vasai





Lunch -which I was supposed to help cook... well I did manage to stir the curry before I put it on the table - consisted of pomfret done two ways; in a curry of coconut juice flavoured with the ubisquitious bottle masalla and local cane vinegar, and also two rather large specimens stuffed with coconut chutney and pan fried in banana leaves (a dish I found very reminiscent of Parsi Patra ni machchi, couldn't help wondering if there is a common root to that dish) all eaten with rice. (I have pictures of this bit but bear with me, because they are on my phone and my phone and my computer are not on talking terms currently! )

The seasoning in the food was less than what we eat at home, but that was a good thing because it allowed us to taste the delicate flavours of the fish and the curry it was cooked in. Bessy fried the rest of the chutney she'd stuffed the fish with, in a tempering of Mustard and Curry leaves. Lunch was delicious. Generously seasoned with hunger, the tangy slightly spicy fish curry came together beautifully with the chutney that tasted of fresh coconut. We ate a lot, quickly and with our hands, the next bite being ready to enter our mouths before we'd finished with the last and were still picking morsels of plates and spoons long after our stomachs were full.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Making East Indian Bottle Masalla for My Mumbai Cookbook





















The East Idian chapter of My Mumbai Cookbook will actually come up much later in my writing schedule but the legendary Bottle masala is only made this time of the year (January to April). It also has a 'secret recipe' so when I found a friend whose mom was ready to share the making of it, I grabbed the chance. I surmounted all odds to get there the stipulated weekend, planning things down to the 'p', prepacking on Friday, borrowing moms car (ours was in the shop). And I am so glad I did because the monsoons arrived in all their glory the very next week!



We'd planned to leave by 10 but I only woke at 8:45 when Bessy, the friend I was supposed to visit called to ask if we had left! A mad rush ensued as I pushed husband and son to get dressed and got baby and myself ready as well.



The Ghildiyal family, with assorted baggage, baby gadgets and actually left home in record time. (Well 11.00 was not bad since we had planned for 10.00 all things considered.) I am coming to a conclusion after Natasha was born that babies come with a Murphy's law chip embedded in them. That is why they will choose to poop the exact minute you step out of the house? Trow up the exact minute you finish buttoning them into their new dress OR and this is a classic.. Poop the moment you've changed them into a fresh diaper.



We arrived at our friends (the Machados) Vasai home in time for lunch and all of a sudden the mad rush seemed to slow down as beer cans were popped open and the men got comfortable in front of the cricket match on TV, while keeping an eye on the kids (my 2 and Bessy's 2) while us women got busy in the kitchen.



Lunch -which I was supposed to help cook... well I did manage to stir the curry before I put it on the table - consisted of pomfret done two ways; in a curry of coconut juice flavoured with the ubisquitious bottle masalla and local cane vinegar, and also two rather large specimens stuffed with coconut chutney and pan fried in banana leaves (a dish I found very reminiscent of Parsi Patra ni machchi, couldn't help wondering if there is a common root to that dish) all eaten with rice. (I have pictures of this bit but bear with me, because they are on my phone and my phone and my computer are not on talking terms currently! )



The seasoning in the food was less than what we eat at home, but that was a good thing because it allowed us to taste the delicate flavours of the fish and the curry it was cooked in. Bessy fried the rest of the chutney she'd stuffed the fish with, in a tempering of Mustard and Curry leaves. Lunch was delicious. Generously seasoned with hunger, the tangy slightly spicy fish curry came together beautifully with the chutney that tasted of fresh coconut. We ate a lot, quickly and with our hands, the next bite being ready to enter our mouths before we'd finished with the last and were still picking morsels of plates and spoons long after our stomachs were full.



After that sumptuous lunch, a nap was on the cards, we were in Vasai after all, where afternoon naps after a big meal of fish curry and rice are de riguer.



At 5 going on 6 (are you surprised?) that evening, Riki, Bessy's husband dropped us off to Bessys moms house while my husband valiantly babysat the kids. Thank god for him, because without his support, the next few hours of idyllic culinary exploration could not have been possible.



It was in the next few hours that Bessy's mom, Mrs Margaret Nunes was going to teach me how to make Bottle Massala, Sorpottel and Vindhaloo.



But before I get into the details let me tell you about East Indian Bottle Masalla. This magical spice mix is a bit like the legendary Ras el hanout, it seems to have every spice in the world in it, only as opposed to being made by merchants it is made by women at home and each home has a separate recipe. It is then used round the year to distinctively flavour East Indian cuisine. It goes into everything!







The making of this Bottle masalla is an annual event amongst the East Indian community. The annual supply is made and put down just prior to the monsoon when hot sunny days are guaranteed and used round the year.



Bottle Masala travels far and wide, with members of the community carrying it with them so they can replicate flavours of home in far off lands.



Like all Indian spice mixes, the spices for this masala are also dried in the hot sun, then each is individually roasted over a slow fire and either in a mortar and pestle or processed like the one I made in Vasai. Once we had roasted everything, it was all mixed up and taken to the local flour mill where it was ground in a special mill reserved for grinding masallas.



The resulting powder was left to cool down completely and then tightly-packed in air-tight, dry bottles (now plastic but beer bottles were once the container of choice which is how the masalla came to be called bottle masalla). The bottle is then properly sealed and will last a long time if kept away from sunlight and moisture.