Photo by Catherine Downes.


From the Dining Critic’s Notebook: Indian Cookbooks

You've read the guide, now peruse the books.

Here is a round-up of the cookbooks, recent or from my past, that I kept near me as I worked on the guide to Indian food featured in the May issue of the magazine. Some are excellent as cookbooks, others as historical or grocery store guides, and still others as beautiful, smart coffee table books. Many include the word “vegetarian” in the title. Indian food is one of the cuisines most friendly to vegetarians, and now that we’ve moved away from the heavy chicken tikka masala model of dishes, young, energetic chefs are showing us the vast array of pleasures you can discover in the vibrant, fresh vegetarian Indian repertoire. Dream of spices and take a gander.

Vegetarian India: A Journey Through the Best of Indian Home Cooking by Madhur Jaffrey, Knopf, 2015

The doyenne of Indian cooking, Madhur Jaffrey has published many tomes, starting with An Invitation to Indian Cooking (first published in 1973, it was the Indian Mastering the Art of French Cooking). At Home with Madhur Jaffrey and Madhur Jaffrey’s World Vegetarian, a book with a lavish gold and purple cover, are familiar staples in so many of the kitchens I know and love. Jaffrey’s approach is encyclopedic and full of soul. She is deeply attuned to the way Indian food appeals to the senses, and she is both thorough and wise, with the mix of wisdom and unaffectedness that comes from having written about the subject for over forty years. In Vegetarian India, she goes through the vegetarian repertoire. Her love for simple, good food she finds regionally on her expeditions is obvious, and the header notes are full of insight. It’s a treasure.

Made in India: Recipes from an Indian Family Kitchen by Sodha Meera, Flatiron Books, 2015

Another “quick and easy” take, bright and approachable. The work emerged as a way for Meera to preserve her mother’s recipes and tastes from her childhood. An energetic ambassador for Indian food as home cooking, she has charm and voice and leads you by the hand in header notes that are quite wonderful. The photography is crisp, the art light and fun. An incredibly useful alternate content guide at the front sifts recipes into first-timer recipes like Bombay eggs, mid-week meals (cauliflower, cashew, coconut curry), best for packed lunches, vegan, and for the freezer. Her green beans with mustard seeds and ginger (in “quick things to have on the side, ready in 10 minutes”) are a staple I turn to regularly. And, of course, mango chutney passed down from her grandmother. Meera lives in London, and you’ll not be surprised to know that her book is highly praised by the likes of Nigella Lawson and Yotam Ottolenghi.

Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors by Lizzie Collingham, Oxford University Press, 2006

For history nerds who love the tales of the places where food, history, and culture intersect (here, the British, the Portuguese, the Persians), this book is wonderful. Originally begun while Collingham was a research fellow in Cambridge, it’s dense and intricately detailed, deeply researched, but moves remarkably quickly. Collingham is a good storyteller, and that helps. The intersections of influences are completely engrossing, and I have to admit to loving that it opens with a list of illustrations and maps. These illustrations, featured in a section at the book’s center, include things like a fine 19th century ink piece depicting Cooked food and kawab makers with this explanation: “The Muglai art of kebab making was perfected at Lucknow where the cooks produced such soft, velvety shammi kebabs that even the toothless Nawab Asaf-ud-Daulah could eat them.” With chapters like “Curry and Chips: Syhleti Sailors and Indian Takeaways” or “Madras Curry: The British Invention of Curry,” it’s everything I want in a nerdy history book.

The Indian Grocery Store Demystified: A Food Lover’s Guide to All the Best Ingredients in the Foods of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh by Linda Bladholm, Renaissance Books, 2000

Halfway down the aisle of legumes—amongst the yellow dal, mung dal, split dal, urud dal—you know you are lost and you surrender. An incredible, encyclopedia guide with hand-drawn illustrations, like a J. Peterman catalog, Bladholm’s guide is fascinating even if you aren’t planning a visit to an Indian grocery store. Hard to read when you’re hungry, the book manages to be utterly thorough and practical and at the same time mouthwatering, with chapters on spices, spice mixes, and pastes, a chapter titled “Dairy Products: The Milky Way,” and the all-important chapter on pickles and chutneys. The last chapter introduces you to notions of the Ayurvedic kitchen, the Hindu system of health through food and lifestyle.

Also excellent:

Prashad at Home: Everday Indian Cooking from Our Vegetarian Kitchen by Kaushy Patel, Headline, 2015

I love the chapter organization, which divides dishes into “Seedy Suppers,” “Slow Suppers,” “Light Lunches and Leftovers,” “Indian Fusion,” and “Feast, Festivities and Sweets.” Which, if you know Indian cooking, particularly the fresh, vibrant new Indian cooking coming from a demand for true-to-roots dishes that are simpler but still imaginative and fresh for a Western cook, is about exactly what you’d want to see. The photography is also rather stunning, intimate and bright; it makes for an inviting coffee table book. The Patel family has a respected restaurant in the U.K.

The Dal Cookbook by Krisna Dutta, Grub Street Cookery, 2014

This is a fabulous, colorful guide to the lentil staple dal, highlighting the myriad variations you find all over the Indian subcontinent. It can be hard to make a single-ingredient cookbook appealing. This one is terrific.

Vegan Richa’s Indian Kitchen: Traditional and Creative Recipes for the Home Cook by Richa Hingle, Vegan Heritage Press, 2015

An excellent array of vegan recipes, very versatile, from savory split pea and rice zucchini cakes to tempeh tikka masala and vegan rasmalai (usually cheese balls) in saffron cream. Hingle has developed a reputation for excellent recipes that manage to recreate the sweets that are traditionally so dependent on dairy products—milk, cream, and soft fresh cheese.

Vibrant India: Fresh Vegetarian Recipes from Bangalore to Brooklyn by Chitra Agrawal, Ten Speed Press, 2017

A brand-new tome, newly on shelves this month, the book follows the premise of Agrawal’s journey to mother’s home in Bangalore and back to Brooklyn. She captures Southern India’s staples of like the crepe-like dosa, turmeric, citrus, coconut, but also coconut polenta with spring vegetables, lime dill rice with pistachios.

Mangoes & Curry Leaves: Culinary Travels Through the Great Subcontinent by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, Artisan, 2005

Alford and Duguid are true travelers and researchers and everything they do is wonderful, perhaps most famously the much acclaimed Hot Sour Salty Sweet, a round-up of Southeast Asia. More recently, Duguid has single-handedly written the beautiful Burma and Persia. In Mangoes & Curry Leaves, they bring you a wealth of experienced and recipes which cover Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, with lots of stories and details about their travels. It’s a lovely coffee table book.


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