Recently, after a delicious North Indian inspired dinner my in-laws and some of their friends reminisced about coming to Canada over 40 years ago with practically no knowledge of their way around a kitchen. They spoke of their culinary ‘apprenticeship’ under Mrs. Balbir Singh. Long before Madhur Jaffrey and Julie Sahni, Mrs. Singh’s Indian Cookery, first published in 1961, was THE English language cookbook Indians abroad used to recreate deeply missed flavours of home. A decade or so later they continued their culinary education from mentors Julie and Madhur. Leafing through each book kitchen scribbles in the margins reveal adjustments, additions or omissions of ingredients to personalize these favourite dishes. The books and written recipes are no longer needed. The quantities and spicing of their signature dishes were long established in their fingers and hands.
These seminal books have made their way on to the shelves of our kitchen library. But so have many many others. Listed below are some of my present favourite Indian cookbooks, guidebooks and current affair related books.
My Indian cookbook collection numbers over a hundred. Stacked they are much taller than my 2 ½ year old.
These are the cookbooks that I tend to use as regular resources. In general, they are dependable, the majority of the recipes are clear and actually work and most importantly they are wonderful bridges to the different cultures and regional cuisines of India. Some of you may be surprised of certain books not appearing on this list – I would love to hear your feedback- as I may not have them but mostly likely did not include them for certain reasons.
The following two books are solid, strong foundations for engaging with Indian cuisine. Both published in the 1980s they do not have the great visual impacts that today’s cookbooks have. I would be very interested in seeing what they would look like had they been published within the last ten years.
A Taste of India by Madhur Jaffrey (1985)
Classic Indian Cooking Recipes adapted for the American Kitchen by Julie Sahni (1980)
The first half of the book solidly describes the principles of Indian cooking ingredients; equipment; techniques. A large portion of the recipes are North Indian influenced and will be familiar to Indian restaurant goers.
The Indian Kitchen by Monisha Bharadwaj (1996)
I constantly refer to this book. A fantastic resource which provides great descriptions of the ingredients found in the Indian pantry. I really like how with each ingredient Bharadwaj explains how it grows; its appearance and taste; buying and storing tips; medicinal and other uses and culinary uses. There are two or three recipes with each ingredient. They are ok but not great. But the real value of this book is the background on the ingredients.
Mangoes and Curry Leaves: Culinary Travels through the Great Subcontinent
by Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford (2005)
I have enjoyed their books since the very first one, Flatbreads and Flavours, was released. I received Mangoes and Curry Leaves prior to moving to the Subcontinent and eagerly devoured it. Their food/ travels stories and photographs are fantastic and I often play a game with myself trying to figure out who experienced/wrote each story. The recipes are not solely India focused (Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh) but they are clear, concise and tasty. They are fabulous culinary interpreters. I am also drawn to their suggested reading lists and bibliographies for further resources of interest. As the book is rather large and could easily be considered a coffee table book I often re-write or photocopy the recipe I am preparing so that I do not get turmeric stained pages. I am very much looking forward to Naomi’s upcoming book Rivers of Flavour: Recipes and Travel Tales from Burma, about the culinary landscape of Burma (which I believe may be available in Autumn 2012).
Indian Essence by Atul Kochar (2004)
Sometimes professional chefs are not great recipes adapters- but this one is good. London based chef Kochar, owner of Banares Restaurant, has put together a book with relatively simple and straightforward recipes from different regions in India. The outcome is often clean and contemporary flavours.
Vij’s Elegant and Inspired Indian Cuisine by Vikram Vij and Meeru Dhalwala (2006)
Another book written by Vancouver based Vikram Vij and his wife Meeru Dhalwala. What I really like about their books are the adaptations of traditional dishes using local, sustainable ingredients from around British Columbia. Last year they came out with a second book, Vij’s at Home: Relax Honey: The Warmth and Ease of Indian Cooking. I have not cooked from it but friends have and they seem to like it. During my one and only visit to Vij’s I noticed that there are only women who do the cooking. Having worked in many kitchens in India I think this was a sound decision for harmony, consistency, and organization around the stoves. It also may be the real secret ingredient to the restaurant’s success.
Regional Focused Cookbooks
A wonderful introduction to the Bengali kitchen focusing on the metropolis that is Calcutta and the influences which have helped create such a unique cuisine. A nice blend of stories and recipes.
Bangla Ranna The Bengal Cookbook by Minakshie DasGupta
This is believed to be the first book in English on Bengali cooking. In honour of their mother, Rakhi Purnima Dasgupta and her siblings founded the restaurant Kewpies, in Kolkata) to share their mother’s Begali love for eating and cooking the Bengali way. If you are a fan of pungent sharp mustard oil, jhols (stews) and fish the book (and restaurant) are a good introduction to the Bengali kitchen.
Wanting to prepare authentic flavours of the Punjab? This is the place to start.
Classic Tamil Brahmin Cuisine by Viji Varadarajan (2008)
I had the pleasure of meeting Viji shortly after this book came out. She graciously welcomed me into her home and prepared a dizzying array of delicious classic vegetarian Tam-Bram dishes. She owes much of what she learned from her grandmothers, mother and mother in law (as most children in India continue to do) and fittingly dedicates the book to the ‘generations of women in our families who quietly, anonymously carved their personalities in the cooking traditions and rituals of daily lives’. Her inspiration for the book was her own daughters, who live outside of India, but want to continue preparing the dishes from their childhood. So, she has taken traditional recipes and adapted them for a modern kitchen (and a modern dual income lifestyle). The recipes are very easy to follow, nutritious and wholesome. This is a great book if you want to learn how to cook and prepare Indian vegetables such as okra, snake gourd, fenugreek leaves, drumstick, raw banana, bitter gourd. A visit to the South Asian shop will be a must to get ingredients for these recipes.
The Best of Samaithu Paar The Classic Guide to Tamil Cuisine by S Meenakshi Ammal (1951)
When I want Indian food that is flavourful, easy to digest, and meat-free I turn to the South Indian ‘coffee’ shop comfort foods: dosas, idlis, uttapams, vadas, sambhar, rice dishes and simple vegetable ‘stir fries’. To make some recipes such as idlis you will need to buy specialized idli steaming holders and perhaps the odd Indian vegetable if you are looking for more authenticity.
The Kerala Kitchen: Recipes and Recollections from the Syrian Christians of South India
by Lathika George
While reading the recipes and sentimental essays, which describe recollections of family feasts, visits to the toddy shack and under grandmother’s culinary tutelage, the reader is instantly transported to the coconut inflected culture and flavours of the Syrian Christina community of Kerala. The traditional elements of food, family and community are clearly important to the author and she wants for these values to remain for future generations.
Food Writing, Novels and Guides
A Matter of Taste: The Penguin Book of Indian Writing on Food (2004)
Salman Rushdie, Vir Sanghvi, Rohinton Mistry, Jhumpa Lahiri, EM Forster, Amitav Ghosh, RK Narayan are a few key ingredients which comprise this appetizing anthology. I was particularly taken with the introduction by editor Nilanjana Roy and hope that one day she can devout some time to produce a book of her own on the culture of Indian food.
The Illustrated Food of India (A-Z) by KT Achaya (2009)
I cannot readily think of anyone in the present Indian food writing community who matches KT Achayas interest and passion for the flavours of regional and historical Indian food (maybe Pushpesh Pant). As the back cover says, this book analyzes the historical, regional and religious influences of Indian food showcasing the intricacies of the various subcultures of India through their cuisines. Each time I pick up this book I gain even greater respect for the diversity and complexities of the cuisines of India.
Curry: A Biography by Lizzie Collingham
This book tells the history of India and its rulers through their food. It follows the story of curry as it spread from the courts of Delhi to the balti houses in England, from the tiffin carriers of Bombay to the army canteens of Japan. The author reveals great stories about the history of ‘curry’ and the book is very well researched. Collingham adeptly show that the majority of Indian dishes are the product of a fusion of different food traditions.
Nectar In a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya
Just as I was to embark on a trip to India last January a friend asked me if I had read this book. Luckily, a bookshop in Kochi had it stocked. The story is set in a village in South India just after Independence. It portrays the lives of a village farming family as India embarks on a path of development. Although written in 1954 the trials and tribulations that the matriarch of the family, Rukmani, encounters rings true to what is happening now almost 60 years later. I am eager to get my fingers on another of her books, A Handful of Rice. I would not be surprised to find out that the author, Kamala Markandaya, influenced many of the future great Indian authors (some in the anthology listed above) who write in English. This book may be hard to find outside of India. Used bookshops and libraries would be the best place to start.
Eating India: Exploring a Nation’s Cuisine by Chitrita Banerji (2007)
A relatively quick and easy read that pulls you in as she describes her explorations of different regional tastes. It is a nice blend of food writing and travelogue. Like Curry: A Biography, Banerji shows how restructuring old customs and making innovations is what India is all about: food in India has always been and still is fusion- one that is forever evolving.
Chef by Jaspreet Singh
Set in Kashmir, this book focuses on Chef Kirpal Singh’s trip from Delhi to Kashmir to cook for a previous commanding officer’s daughter’s wedding. As he travels by train he reminisces about his early years as a cook in the Indian army along the Kashmir border. Through food and chef Singh’s life the author tries to show the challenges and subtle similarities of the conflicting communities in Kashmir. At times perhaps overly descriptive using food metaphors but an interesting way of incorporating food into the long standing dispute in Kashmir.
Highway on My Plate: The Indian Guide to Roadside Eating by Mayur Sharma and Rocky Singh
I first met Mayur when he and his wife hired me for an event as part of their wedding a few years ago. They wanted me to help create a menu which was a balance of modern Indian and Vietnamese (part of his wife’s heritage) flavours. I quickly learned that he was part of a unique team (he the vegetarian and Rocky the carnivore) which tasted the roadside stalls and restaurants throughout India and offering their honest, simple and often humorous reviews of the food (as scene on NDTV’s Highway on My Plate). This book is not India’s Michelin guide but rather a good summary for someone who is planning to travel throughout India and wants to stay out of the pricier hotels and restaurants. Some knowledge of Indian food will be required to read through the lines to find the real roadside/village gems.
Love Travel Guides for India by Fiona Caulfield
(Chennai, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Kerala and Sri Lanka are is the works)
Often the traditional guidebooks do not have the time to search out the hidden gems of these cities: Heritage hotels, delicious regional restaurants, independent artisans and wonderful insights about what shapes the personality of each city can be found in this series. Holding a guidebook in your hands you realise that Fiona Caulfield has a passion for supporting independent artisans and craftspeople. The book covers are printed on traditional hand woven Khadi fabric made in Andhra Pradesh and the inside information is printed on hand made paper. A definite must have.
In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India by Edward Luce
I found this book was really good at examining the changes occurring in ‘Modern India’. That being said, I think it best to leave it to a seasoned and respected book reviewer, William Grimes of the NY Times, to provide a thorough summary of this book.
Relatively New Books I Hope to Get and Read
Tasting India by Christine Manfield (2011)
This is a BIG book. Had my hands on it at the Cookbook Store in Toronto but am hoping that it may makes its way into my library via a gift. Very much a coffee table book I don’t really see it being easy to use in the kitchen. What I did find interesting was the extensive list of suggested accommodations and food related restaurants/ sights that the Australian author provides. A good resource for anyone heading over to India (although many of the accommodations featured are on the high priced/luxury end of the scale).
I have read a few reviews of the following books and am eager to read them to see each author’s perspective on the ‘new’ India.
India Calling: An Intimate Portrait of a Nation’s Remaking by Anand Giridharadas (2010)
The Beautiful and the Damned: Life in the New India by Siddhartha Deb (2011)
Happy cooking and reading!