Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Cookbooks for mE

Cookbooks roundup for mE magazine

When one is bonkers about something, it tends to permeate every aspect of one's life. But when two loves combine, well it is a recipe for chaos! I have always been book lover. Then gastronomy writing happened to me and food took over my life. My husband may well disagree but it has to be said, that my bookshelf bore the brunt (literally) of my new interest!

With a new one arriving almost every day for review, my husband stopped commenting, or even looking heaven wards about 200 cookbooks back. In fact when I carried in a bagful of new cookbooks on Saturday, he made me so proud by not batting an eyelid! (Although I suspect that might have more to do with the array of dishes and cuisines he's been coming home to every night!)

The first book I snagged on my latest shopping spree was One Perfect Ingredient by celebrity-chef, Marcus Wareing. The beauty of it is that it offers simple but unusual ideas to get creative with easily accessible ingredients. Got cabbage? Do a Savoy Cabbage with Nut Butter, spiced red cabbage with apple or with hicken. Fishwalla delivered prawns? Try the Prawn Laksa, Panceta prawns or Prawn Bisque, defrost that chicken and roast I with forty cloves of garlic, toss it with bacon and pesto or make a Thai green curry. One Perfect Ingredient is a neat book that delivers on its promise, 50 ingredients X 3 recipes each that cover each section of the kitchen; vegetables, fish and shellfish, meat and poultry, dairy and eggs, fruit and the store cupboard. It has been written for a UK audience so access to some ingredients (negligible) might be difficult and a few recipes might be too complicated for Indian kitchens but that said it is a practical book that you will actually use AND come to love. I have added several recipes from it to my home menus already, most celebrated of which has been the Lemon and Olive oil cake. Not only did the recipe inspire me to bake after YEARS but it turned out the PERFECT cake in with no wrist exercise required!

Books by chefs seem to be all the rage currently, Exploring Taste and Flavour by Tom Kime is another one I am glad I bought. It is not as simple to use as One Perfect Ingredient but Kime uses the principles of the Eastern taste theory and shows why combining the 4 main 'taste' elements of hot, sour, salt and sweet guarantees truly delicious food, every time. Ever one for exploring interesting combinations of food, Exploring Taste and Flavour offers a lot of scope for exploring fusion cuisine.

And then while I am reveling in these two current favourites - "Exploring taste and flavour" and One Perfect Ingredient another book arrives for review. Italian Khanna by Ritu Dalmia. I find it extremely EXCITING. Because for the first in my five years as a food writer, here is an Indian cookbook that is at par with the other two. I have lamented often at the dismal standard of cookbooks that come out of India, but Italian promises to be fun. It promises to show the Indian food lover how to cook authentic Italian food using ingredients from the Indian kitchen. It shows one that it is possible to cook a cuisine from halfway across the world with intelligently used substitutes.

I am sure puritans will scoff but I believe that the evolution of all cuisine is in fusion and adapting to local produce. Which is why I love cookbooks Italian Khana and American Masala by Suvir saran, they explore the melding of varied culinary influences but celebrate the beauty that is to be found in local and seasonal produce. I had been waiting for American Masala because I liked Saran's approach to cooking in his first book Indian Home Cooking (which makes the ideal gift for newbies to Indian cuisine incidentally). I was eager to see what American Masalla would serve up. I was not disappointed Classic western recipes were served with a intellgent masalafied twists and Indian recipes were tweaked to perfection. His Kararee Bhindi is a favourite with my husband's beer buddies and the Chicken Chickpea Harrira has become a comforting spicy meal to make ahead and eat with pav on weekdays. I am so glad my darling husband did the forbidden and picked up this book for me on a recent trip to the USA.

He also got me another book I have been dying to get my hands on. Namely Super Natural Cooking by Heidi Swanson, a book that has been hugely coveted by me for a while now because I admire the author but her book never made it to Indian shores. I love experimenting with unusual ingredients, but I love discovering unusual local ingredients more and Super Natural Cooking offers a lot of inspiration. Written as a guide for cooks so they can cook with more natural (less processed) ingredients and recipes, like most cookbooks written in the West, it tends to be a little of the beaten track for Indians, but indirectly, this book has served to awaken me to the rich repertoire of whole-foods, whole grains and their flours, minimally processed fats, sweeteners, and phytonutrient-packed fruits and vegetables we have access to locally in India. Ingredients we should be fighting tooth and nail to save NOW rather than trying to revive them 10 years down the line.

And you will find the best recipes for these indigenous ingredients, in a special genre of homegrown cookbooks. The kind of cookbook self published by enterprising ladies or representative bodies of the various communities of India. Communities defined by religion, geographical location, history and a variety of other things but with a distinct cuisine of their own. Each of these books are full of recipes following the "a little this and a little that" advice grandmothers would be known for but they are invaluable to cooks of every stripe from the community they belong to and are often the uncelebrated but mandatory in the wedding trousseaus for girls getting married.

By that definition, On the Threshold of Kitchen, by the Danthis sisters has to be my most treasured possession. In no small part for the "Rasoda ni rani banje" (may you be the queen of your kitchen) inscribed in it by my mother. But also because, growing up in a modern Mumbai home I very rarely stepped into the kitchen, so this book that came as my "dowry" became my fallback when I needed to cook traditional Gujarati recipes in my North Indian marital home. I also love Dadima no Varso a beautifully put together cookbook of Palanpuri Jain cuisine by Nita Mehta, Rajul Gandhi, Dr. Satyavati S Jhaveri and the Rachana group of women because of its amazing attention to detail and comprehensive coverage of Palanpuri jain cuisine. In this genre, I also group a pile of local language and unusual cookbooks, I wont get into details but the I have to mention here "My Lady's Everyday Cookery Guide" by PD Dias. I just had to buy it after I read the following "late cook to Their Majesties King George 5 and Queen Mary and two former viceroys Lords Minto and Hardinge." I also love a Marathi book that promises 150 recipes for Baigan, a gujarati book of Faral or fasting recipes and a hindi recipe book of the unknown cuisine of Kumaon.

But Indian Cookbooks have come a long way since these community cookbooks. With India becoming the flavor of the moment abroad, Indian cookbooks are all the rage. Unfortunately this means that one could end up with some really bad cookbooks but the silver lining to this culinary cloud is that some excellent region-specific cookbooks have been published and giving the extensive but often lacking Penguin culinary range a run for their money. South Indian cuisine has had particular attention with classics like Dakshin and Southern Spice (both by Chandra Padmanabhan), making space for Pedatha on Andhra cuisine on Indian bookshelves. Some excellent books on regional cuisines of India that have been published abroad. Indian publishers have missed the boat on these but it seems that Indian distributors don't seem to want to correct the error either to the great loss of Indian cookbook lovers. There is the little known Purba – Feasts from the East by Laxmi Parida – a nifty little book that long ago addressed the lack of information on Oriya cuisine but never made it to Indian shores for some reason. It was joined by the stellar Grains, Greens, and Grated Coconuts by Ammini Ramachandran that I cannot praise enough which is into it's second print run and continues to curry favour in foodie circles all over the world but is unknown in India. And then there is the graceful My Bombay Kitchen by Niloufer Ichaporia King that silently set sail last year and returned to port triumphant, having won the most prestigious award any cookbook can win, the James Beard award. We have many parsi cookbooks in India, but none tell the story of Parsi cuisine quite as beautifully or as inspiringly as this book.

And since it is on my mind, I must say The Kitchen Revolution is another book that has been inspiring me greatly. The three authors, Rosie Sykes, Polly Russell and Zoe Heron have fine tuned a fantastic system that takes a 'back to the basics' approach to the kitchen. Travelling through the year one week at a time it offering 7 dinners each week that allow you to economize on time, money and ingredients and minimize wastage through thoughtful shopping and a little preparation. If you lived by the book (no pun intended) your week would start with a "Big Meal from Scratch" - a wholesome meal for the entire family that is designed to leave enough leftovers to make 2 dishes called "Something for Nothing" (recipes provided) later in the week. It also includes one Seasonal Supper recipe - a quick, simple supper made from seasonal ingredients, a Larder Feast - using ingredients from the store cupboard for later in the week when the fridge is bare and 2 for 1 - a meal that freezes well so that you can freeze half for another day. The recipes are foolproof, allow for division and multiplication and allow one to make the most of one's cooker, fridge, freezer and store-cupboard.

The Kitchen revolution has been written for a UK audience but it includes recipes from all over the world. It is easy to see that if one did live by it, it would certainly save money and time. That said it doesn't matter if you don't live by it. Skip weeks, use only what you can or treat it like a normal cookery book and you still save money, eat healthy and widen your repertoire of dishes. I have been using the 2 for 1 and Larder Feast recipes to great advantage at home. All in all, I think the idea behind The Kitchen Revolution is brilliant. In fact I will go so far as to say it is the sort of book I would love to write in the Indian context. (Any publishers listening?) In the meanwhile I will continue to be inspired by it.

Gulp Fiction

I read every scrap of food writing I can lay my hands on, spend a small fortune every month on books and periodicals on cooking and food books and food blogs are part of my daily diet. And then there is that genre of books that will probably be the biggest drain on my wallet ever … edible fiction or Food Fiction!
If you’d asked me what food fiction meant to me a few weeks ago I would have named the food descriptions in Enid Blytons books I read as a child. For the longest time, I was utterly fascinated by large wobbly jellies, iced tea, balcmange, scones, treacle pudding, ices, sausage rolls and liquorice. Children always came home to "hot, buttered scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam". It all sounded so exotic, so delicious. And so different from the Bournvita and ganthiya I got at snack time! Ironically, years later my dad actually brought back liquorice from his travels. I hated it! However, I did like most of the other dishes I grew up reading about.
Or maybe I would have listed Charlie and the chocolate factory. Essential reading in school this had to be the most delicious bit of schoolwork ever! This children's book by Norwegian-British author Roald Dahl tells the story of the adventures of young Charlie Bucket inside a chocolate factory. The description of the Chocolate Room with that Chocolate River, that mixes and churns chocolate by waterfall making as Willy Wonka proclaim that "There is no other factory in the world that mixes its chocolate by waterfall!" Pipes hang down from the ceiling and suck up the chocolate, sending it onto other rooms of the factory, such as the Fudge Room. But it isn’t just the thought of all tha molten chocolate that gets me goint, the fact that everything in that room is edible from the very pavements, bushes and grass to trees made of taffy that yield jelly apples, bushes that sprout lollipops, mushrooms that spurt whipped cream and pumpkins filled with sugar cubes, jelly bean stalks, sends me on a candy craving every time!
High school brought the menu of a midnight feast at St. Clare's or Malory Towers into my world. One description was all it took to convince me I wanted to go to boarding school! "Golly! Pork-pie and chocolate cake, sardines and NestlĂ©'s milk, chocolate and peppermint creams, tinned pineapple and ginger-beer!" said Janet. I think "Talk about a feast! I bet this beats the upper third’s feast hollow! Come on—let's begin. I'll cut the cake." (From Enid Blyton, The Twins at St Clare's.). I did go to boarding school at Mayo girls. The school did not allow students to keep ‘tuck’ or food but we had many an adventurous midnight feast, with food smuggled in from local stores on days out; chocolates, burgers and bun omelets, cans of beans and condensed milk, Maggi which we ate uncooked was a favourite as I recall and Wai Wai which came from Nepal substantiated with pickles and chapattis smuggled out of the mess. But the best feast were when someone had a visit from parents and in came home made treats like laddus, mathri – achar and even home made food. We ate so ravenously on those days, that mothers would have felt liberated watching us! Reading descriptions of the back to school feasts at Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry in Harry Potter really reminds me of those times.
Or perhaps I would say it was Like Water for Chocolate, the first book I read that was fashioned around food and I was captivated. As soon as I was done with it, I went looking for more! But my next find would have been a strong contender too. Chocolat! The chocolate theme seems to be a favourite with writers, I suspect because it is hard to resist as much as the treat itself. But if Charlie and the Chocolate factory gave me Candy cravings, Chocolat made me crave chocolate like never before. And not the industrial chocolate bar – I now have to have real handmade chocolate all the time! Written by Joanne Harris this is the story of chocolatier Vivianne Rocher who moves to the tiny French town of Lansquenet to open a chocolate boutique. But the hidebound local priest does not approve of Vivianne, and soon, a power struggle shapes up between the two of them. All of a sudden, strange things begin to happen. The townspeople begin to eschew the self-righteous gossip of small-town life, and they find the courage to break the rigid codes of provincial behavior. In short, they start enjoying life-all because of the sensual power of chocolate. When I want to indulge myself, I will make myself a cup of thick hot chocolate spiked with a little chilli and settle down to read it all over again.
Reading about food makes one hungry of course, but it needn’t always be a books centered around food that get you inspired. Two recent chick lit reads had me cooking up a storm in the kitchen. It all began with Anuja Chauhan’s The Zoya Factor. The protagonist Zoya Solanki is a client service rep with an advertising agency. Things start happening when she’s made to leave an ad film shoot, featuring SRK, to go to Dhaka to shoot stills of the Indian cricket team and the junior members of the team discover that they simply cannot loose a game after eating breakfast with her! Her birth at the exact time and date that India won the world cup in 1983 has a lot to do with this. The unbelieving team captain Nikhil Khoda adds chemistry to the story but even as I was laughing and crying my way through the book I also found myself inspired by the food described in it. I cooked up my version the ‘balls curry’ Zoya’s maid specialises in and spicy rajma pasta and pizzas with the works like Zoya’s aunt does! And as I dug into the results of my culinary experiments I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like to sink into a story that only talked about food.
It was almost like the kitchen Gods were listening because a package turned up the next day bearing my review copy of The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister. In this remarkable debut novel, Bauermeister creates a captivating world in which food becomes much more than simple epicurean indulgence. The story revolves around the protagonist, a respected chef and restaurateur called Lillian who has spent much of her 30-something years in the kitchen, looking for meaning and satisfaction in cooking. She believes that cooking and food have great healing properties and endeavors to pass that know-how to others through her cooking classes. The School of Essential Ingredients follows the lives of eight students who gather in Lillian’s Restaurant every Monday night for cooking class but it is soon obvious that each one is looking for more than just recipes and Lillian, a woman whose connection with food is both soulful and exacting, helps them to create dishes whose flavor and techniques expand beyond the restaurant and into the secret corners of their lives. One by one the students are transformed as they are brought together by the power of food and companionship, as their lives intertwine. I was lost in the sensual, lush narrative, captivated by the tender hopeful stories, and the magical realism that reminded me of the first food book I ever read all those years ago. In fact ever since I put it down, I have been hoping that pens stories of Lillian’s next class!
Eating is such a human enterprise – from heart to stomach - that it has been grist for many literary meals, feeding the imagination of poets and writers across the ages, offering them an infallible connect to their reader. After reading The School of Essential Ingredients, I find I want to explore his genre more.
Other books on my food fiction reading list
Atwood, Margaret - Edible WomanDe Blasi, Marlena - A Thousand Days in Venice: An Unexpected RomanceFlagg, Fanny - Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle-Stop CafeHinton, Lynne - The Friendship CakeLanchester, John - The Debt to PleasureMayes, Frances - Under the Tuscan SunMehran, Marsha - Pomegranate SoupTemple, Lou Jane - The Spice Box

This article on food in fiction appeared in the April 2009 issue of Me magazine.

The Kitchen Thinker: picnic food A charming article by Bee Wilson in the Telegraph UK on the food in Enid Blyton's Famous Five series.