Approximately three per cent of my cookbooks are Indian cookbooks. After all, it in India that one can find the most sophisticated vegetarian cuisine in the world. I only discovered Indian food when I was in graduate school. My initial attempts to recreate the food from fellow graduate students’ kitchens or from Ann Arbor’s excellent (excellent even, I am told, by London standards) Indian restaurant, Raja Rani, were not too successful. Then I discovered Madhur Jaffrey’s cookbooks. I also figured out that although I liked almost all food from the subcontinent, it was the flavors of southern India, such as mustard seeds, cumin, and coconut, that I found particularly exciting. So I began accumulating Indian cookbooks, and assembling my own list of favorite Indian dishes to prepare. Now, with the advent of Cookbook Cornucopia, I will delve into all my Indian cookbooks, and expand my list of favorites. A curiously large fraction of these cookbooks have pink covers; enough for at least one more post, “Pink Indian Cookbooks, Part 2”.
Madhur Jaffrey is an accomplished actress and a prolific cookbook writer, with approximately thirty cookbooks to her name (of which I have eleven). Most of her cookbooks are Indian cookbooks; those that are not exclusively Indian still have a significant number of recipes for Indian food. Based on my experience of cooking from her books, almost all her recipes result in really good food, although every now and then there is a so-so recipe. I think that early Madhur Jaffrey is the best: An Invitation to Indian Cooking or Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cooking. The Madhur Jaffrey cookbook featured in this post, From Curries to Kebabs: Recipes from the Indian Spice Trail, is not one of her best, but is still quite good. The subject is Indian influenced curries around the world. The book itself is a hefty, solid volume with thick shiny pages. A few recipes are accompanied by a color photograph and the book is also illustrated with older archival drawings. There are some background essays that are interesting enough, but the recipe headnotes are very nice, putting each recipe in its geographic and cultural context. The bad news is that this book’s copy editor did a terrible job. Recipe instructions are inconsistently and illogically paragraphed and formatted. Crucial steps or ingredients may be omitted. And, just to nitpick, the font and recipe layout are rather unattractive.
Continuing in this negative vein, “Gujarati Mango Soup” (page 232) was just not that good. This is a hot (temperature-wise) mango soup with Indian spices. I had made it once before, and I remembered being not too impressed, but I like mango so much that I wanted to give this soup another chance. The soup was a beautiful color, as can be seen in the picture, but it just wasn’t that tasty and had a mildly unpleasant texture.
The other three recipes I tried were quite good, although the instructions on two of them left something to be desired. “Mixed Vegetable Pickle” (page 306) has us salting cauliflower and carrots and setting aside for 24 hours; the vegetables are never mentioned again. After cooking garlic, ginger, hot peppers, and spices in oil, then adding cider vinegar, it is unclear what to do. Should we dump in the vegetables with their juices? Do we try to cook the vegetables at all? I ended up not cooking the vegetables, and draining and rinsing them before I added them to the vinegar and spices. I also ended up using significantly less salt than called for. I don’t know if the pickle I ended up with was what Madhur Jaffrey had intended, but I liked it a lot. [Go to the recipe.]
Everyone at my table liked “Mushroom and Cilantro Curry” (page 169). The mushrooms and cilantro are flavored with cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom, which works surprisingly well. The instructions leave something to be desired: there is a point at which we are instructed to add a cup of yogurt to a pan of fried onions and to “cook, stirring, until all the yogurt is absorbed and you can see the oil at the edges.” There are no instructions to keep the heat low so that the yogurt does not curdle, and my yogurt almost instantly curdled. Was it supposed to do this? I have no idea. Since paneer is curdled milk, I decided that curdled yogurt was not necessarily bad, and so proceeded with the recipe. At the end, after the mushrooms were cooked, there was still significant watery liquid in the pan, so I removed the mushrooms and boiled down the sauce.
Madhur Jaffrey describes “Tomato-Garlic Rice” (page 255) as “wonderful”; I do not know that I would go quite that far, but this recipe did provide a new and interesting rice delivery method. Think of these as savory Rice Krispy Treats. You mash up some cooked jasmine rice with a little bit of garlic, tomato paste, and salt, then spread in an oiled pan and bake. Danny found these rather unimpressive as a stand-alone food item. I simply ate these as I would eat rice, as a starchy accompaniment to more saucy foods. I liked the way they held together and provided more substantial bites than rice alone.
Throughout this post I have, for the most part, been referring simply to “Indian food”, but India is a big country, with over two thousand miles between Kerala and Kashmir, and furthermore, has a long history, with all sorts of invaders and visitors through the ages. The cuisine is obviously quite varied, and in Cuisines of India: The Art and Tradition of Regional Indian Cooking Smita Chandra and her husband Sanjeev approach Indian food both geographically and historically. The book is divided into sections that correspond to a certain era in history and with a corresponding geographic area. For example, the first chapter is “Ancient India: Birth of a Vegetarian Cuisine”, with recipes from Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Bihar. I am not sure that history and geography always line up as handily as needed for this approach. The authors also, perhaps in an attempt to be user-friendly, consistently refer to paneer as “cottage cheese”, which is misleading. There are a lot of meat recipes, and not much dal; what dal is used is almost always chana dal. An unusually large number of the recipes use tomatoes. Despite skipping from region to region, I had a difficult time finding recipes that were significantly different.
With “Chewra Matar” (page 9), I found myself using a food product that I had never used before: poha, or beaten rice. There is a great Indian grocery store near my house, Bombay Grocers, and I love wandering the aisles, and imagining the day when I will know what to do with everything on their shelves. The poha that I used was not that different from rice, but had a nice chewy texture. Despite having lots of ingredients, this recipe was not that complicated, and one I plan to make again. After all, I still have a big bag of poha with only a little missing. [Go to the recipe.]
“Chana Dal Vadai” (page 50) are Indian falafel. Chana dal is, after all, a split type of chickpea. These are made by soaking the raw dal, then draining and grinding in the food processor. I added the additional ingredients (garlic, ginger, chilies, onions, dill, and curry leaves) at this stage instead of chopping them by hand and adding them later. The little balls fried up perfectly! Our friend Ben J. has told us that one of the techniques of his father (who makes the best falafel outside of Jerusalem) is to prepare the falafel batter exactly this way: soak, grind, and fry. Based on my experience with this recipe, this seems to be the way to do it.
“Chane ki Dal Laukiwali” (page 94) was a completely undistinguished dal with vegetables dish. The vegetables were onions, zucchini, and tomatoes. As I am writing this, it has just occurred to me that I may try leftovers of this dal with a fried egg for supper tonight.
One of my favorite recipes, for a tomato soup, comes from Laxmi Hiremath’s book, The Dance of Spices: Classic Indian Cooking for Today’s Home Kitchen, so I was looking forward to cooking more from this book. There are over 400 pages of interesting recipes, with very little useless filler prose. The non-recipe material mainly concerns ingredients, and might actually be useful. Laxmi covers a wide range of types of food; there are chapter headings such as “Chaat: Tantalizing Small Plates and Snacks”, “Idli, Dosa, and Other Casual Fare”, “Dal, Rasam, and Mulligatawny Soups”. The book has an attractive lay out (but no color pictures), and it was a pleasure to go through the book, marking recipes to try. However, once I started cooking and eating, it was another story. In addition to the tomato soup, I made two chutneys, which at best could be called mediocre, and two more substantial dishes, one of which was good but too much work, and another that was terrible.
I have made “Indian-Style Spicy Tomato Soup” (page 372) many times. This soup has a very high taste to trouble ratio, being both delicious and easy. The only real work is chopping up ginger and garlic. There is a secret ingredient: jaggery, an unrefined palm and cane sugar, which you can find at your local Indian grocery. If you use regular brown sugar, you will end up with a fine soup, but nothing special. If you use jaggery, the soup will achieve a certain ineffable transcendence. [Go to the recipe.]
Neither “Sweet Chutney Sauce” nor “Hot Green Chutney Sauce” (both on page 130) were particularly good. The main ingredients of the sweet chutney were dates, raisins, tamarind, and ginger. I was attracted to this chutney because there was very little additional sugar; many chutney recipes scare me away because of the amount of sugar. The green chutney was made of mint, cilantro, jalapeño peppers, and lime juice. Maybe someone who likes mint more than I do would have liked this chutney. People at my table politely tried these chutneys, but no one was very enthusiastic.
“Golden Paneer Kofta in Aromatic Spinach Sauce” (page 258) was very similar to the more familiar palak paneer. Instead of fried cheese cubes, this dish had fried balls of a potato and paneer batter which tended to disintegrate in the sauce. This was all good enough, but the palak paneer recipe that I use (from the self-published yet awesome Entertaining From an Ethnic Indian Kitchen by Komali Nunna) has the same tastes, yet is both better and easier.
The recipe for “Dumplings Bathed in a Savory Yogurt Sauce” (page 138) was not a success. Unless I am inventing memories, I have enjoyed dishes like this at Indian restaurants, so I thought I would give this recipe a try. You soak some urud dal, grind it with water, then fry. After frying, the balls are dumped in water, the purpose of which is, I believe, to remove grease. After soaking in water, the balls go in a simple sauce of lightly sweetened and spiced yogurt. One problem occurred when I tried to fry the balls; although I added less water than the recipe specified, the batter was too liquid, so I ended up with pancakes. This, however, was not the problem with this recipe; the problem was that the dumplings were tasteless, the yogurt sauce was almost tasteless, and the whole thing had an offensive squishy texture. Our guest Hallie M. gamely put a dumpling with sauce on her plate, but could not bring herself to eat it. I would not have been surprised to have heard her softly singing a little song, like the song Frances in Russell Hoban’s Bread and Jam for Frances sings to her egg:
I do not like the way you slide,
I do not like your soft inside,
I do not like you lots of ways,
And I could do for many days
I certainly felt like singing such a little song. Danny got Hallie a clean plate.
Cauliflower and Carrot Pickle
Adapted from Madhur Jaffrey, From Curries to Kebabs
3-6 carrots, depending on size and your fondness for carrots
4 teaspoons salt
3 tablespoons peanut or olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 inch piece ginger, minced
10 tiny Thai hot peppers, sliced
¼ teaspoon tumeric
1 teaspoon ground hot red pepper
2 teaspoons brown mustard seeds
1¼ cups apple cider vinegar
Peel and slice the carrots; break the cauliflower into florets. Combine the carrots and cauliflower with 1 tablespoon of salt. Place in a nonreactive container, place a plate on top, and weigh down the plate. Leave the vegetables on your counter for 24 hours.
Heat the oil. Add the garlic, ginger, and pepper. Stir, then after a minute, add the tumeric, red pepper, and mustard seeds. Remove from the heat.
Drain and rinse the carrots and cauliflower. Combine everything, including the cider vinegar and the remaining 1 teaspoon of salt.
Poha with Peas and Tomatoes
Adapted from Smita Chandra and Sanjeev Chandra, Cuisines of India
1 cup thick poha
½ cup milk
2 tablespoons cream
1 tablespoon peanut or olive oil
½ teaspoon cumin seeds
1 bay leaf
½ inch piece ginger, minced
2 serrano chilies, seeded and minced
½ teaspoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon garam masala
½ teaspoon tumeric
¼ teaspoon cayenne
1 potato, peeled, cubed, and cooked
1 cup peas
1 14.5 ounce can crushed tomatoes
½ cup toasted cashews
2 tablespoons golden raisins
½ teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons orange juice
1 bunch cilantro, finely chopped
1 tablespoon melted butter or ghee
Juice from ½ lemon
Rinse the poha, then soak in the milk and cream for 20 minutes.
Over medium high to high heat, heat the oil in a large skillet. Add the cumin, bay leaf, ginger and chilies. Cook and stir for a minute. Add the ground coriander, ground cumin, garam masala, tumeric, and cayenne. Cook and stir for a minute. Add the potato, peas, tomatoes, cashews, and raisins. Cook and stir for about 5 minutes. Now add the poha, which should have absorbed most of the milk and cream. Cook and stir for about 10 minutes. Add the sugar and orange juice. Cook and stir for 5 minutes. Add the cilantro, butter, and lemon juice, and you are done!
Indian Tomato Soup
Adapted from Laxmi Hiremath, The Dance of Spices
1 tablespoon peanut oil or ghee
½ teaspoon brown mustard seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
3 cloves garlic, minced
½ inch piece ginger, minced
1 teaspoon cayenne
¼ teaspoon tumeric
1 28 ounce can crushed tomatoes
2-3 tablespoons jaggery
1½ teaspoons salt
2½ cups water
Heat the oil or ghee in your soup pot. Add the mustard seeds and cumin seeds. When the mustard seeds start to pop, add the garlic, ginger, cayenne and tumeric. Cook and stir for a minute, then add the rest of the ingredients. The jaggery will dissolve as the soup heats up. The amount of water you need is about 3⁄4 of the tomato can. Bring the soup to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 15 minutes. If you like (and I do like), blend the soup to your desired texture with your immersion blender.