By Vyasar Ganesan
With all the rage and craze around international cuisine these days, Indian cooking has come to the fore in America as a leader in flavors, textures, methods and ingredients. In layman’s terms, it’s delicious and everyone wants to eat more of it. There are so many cookbooks to find, boasting impressive kormas, tantalizing biriyanis and savory daals. But be warned – not all cookbooks are created equal. So, your resident book nerd and fat bacha has taken it upon himself to come up with four simple things to remember when desis hit up the discount bookstore looking for the easiest way to replicate mummy’s chole bhature.
Make sure the author is…actually Indian.
This sounds obvious, I know, but apparently, it is not! There are a slew of cookbooks published on cuisines and cultures from around the world, by non-native chefs, non-ethnic chefs, and even some non-chef chefs. Thug Kitchen remains the classic example for Asian cooking being co-opted by white people, but it’s not alone. Christine Manfield’s Tasting India, Rick Stein’s India: In Search of the Perfect Curry, Karen Greenvang’s Slow Cooker: 100% Vegan Indian Cooking and Jack Johns’ Indian Cookbook: Top 25 Real Home Cooking Recipes are a few modern counterparts (although if I’m honest, the “Betty Crocker Guide to Indian Home Cooking,” which was a collaboration with the chef and author Raghavan Iyer, is definitely my favorite). Cookbook writing as an art form really took off at the end of the last century, and that impetus has carried forward with a vigor that, while admirable, should also merit stricter vetting. It’s becoming clearer and clearer that while Americans are buying more books than ever before, literacy, intellectual diversity and general knowledge is in decline. Part of this has to do with this simple fact: Americans accept book-truths to be real-truths. And no books are bigger liars than cookbooks.
You may have friends who urge you to borrow their cookbook from this era, so I urge you to take a closer look before you get cooking. If there’s a gushing introduction about ‘my first trip to India’ or ‘be prepared to eat a lot of spicy food’ from a well-meaning white lady in an ill-fitting sari, you’re going to want to take some big steps back. (I would have said something about turmeric milk, too, but that train’s already left the station)
Accept the reality – it’s not going to look as good on your table as it does in the book
We live in the age of Instagrammed food, high-gloss full-cover spreads of full-table spreads, food writing and food photography that makes food look and sound more tantalizing than it could ever be. Cookbooks sell a myth that you too can create stunning vistas of chaat, steaming bowls of daal with that perfect cilantro sprig for a garnish, or intricate Om symbols in in bowls of raita. It’s not going to be that easy. Ask any culinary school graduate, and they’ll tell you how much work goes into micro detailing, spoon pushing, precision work that takes practice, not a good cookbook. Your first attempt at aloo chaat is going to be delicious, brown mush. Your second gulab jamun will have a weird, waxy feel to it. But maybe your third dum aloo, your fourth rava dosa, your fifth malai kofta will be close.
And really, it’s more important that you appreciate your food not based on how close it matches the cookbook, but on what it means to you. Regardless of appearances, you did the thing! You took the time to follow a recipe and produce a result. Be proud of that.
More isn’t always more, and less isn’t either.
Sanjeev Kapoor’s cookbook, “How to Cook Indian: More than 500 Classic Indian Recipes for the Modern Kitchen,” seems a steal for under thirty dollars. At that price, you’re getting almost seventeen recipes per dollar, and Kapoor is a massive celebrity chef, so his stuff’s got to be good. Don’t miss the forest for the trees on this one, folks – how many of those 500 recipes are you actually going to make? Even if you take a minute to shelve the utilitarian argument, you have to admit, the scale of things in the book is a little…off-putting. Twenty-eight pages for beverages, fifteen pages for raitas and salads, one hundred and thirty two pages for appetizers, snacks and kebabs, and we’re talking 2-3 recipes per page. I don’t doubt that there are that many recipes out there in the world, but the book claims to be a guide on an incredible journey through Indian food. Let’s get real for a minute – “Harry Potter” is a journey, this is an encyclopedia.
While we’re shying away from the size queens of Indian cooking, the cookbook hunters out there should be mindful not to go too small. Monisha Bharadwaj’s “Indian in 6: 100 Irresistible Recipes That Use 6 Ingredients or Less” is a fantastic example. For the young, modern Indian-American, the book presents a perfect compromise between trips to auntie’s house and a Blue Apron nightmare. A six-ingredient recipe seems like it won’t take any time at all, and can be scaled up or down, adjusted to taste, presentation or anything else your stomach desires.
Like I said in the beginning, there’s no untrustworthier book than a cookbook. Bharadwaj includes recipes that – spoiler alert – have more than six ingredients. But many of them require more intensive preparation, like soaking lentils for three hours or preparing yogurt before preparing the marinade. More damning are the occasional lack of important details, when it comes to chop dimensions, specific prep instructions or the like. We’re not just down to six ingredients, we’re down to six steps when there should be at least ten, maybe twelve for those beginner cooks out there.
What’s most problematic with both examples is the reductive or exotifying approach toward Indian cuisine. One approach says India and its food are too vast, grand and far-off for the modern consumer, the other says anyone who uses this one weird trick will be able to cook with the pros any day. It’s not about how many recipes a book can have, or how many ingredients it tells you to buy, it’s about one simple premise – Indian food is just the best, and everyone needs to eat more of it.
Be mindful of your budget, book-related or otherwise.
Books are one of the easiest things to break the bank on, and that’s without including pictures of food in them. What’s worse, cookbooks might be one of the only books out there that gets people to spend more money at the grocery store, hunting down that last expensive bottle of organic, non-GMO turmeric. The average American kitchen isn’t always equipped to handle a zealous Indian dinner – sometimes, you’ll need a pressure cooker, other times, a rice cooker. There are small adjustments, like turning butter into ghee, and larger ones, like boiling, peeling, baking and frying potatoes all for one recipe. Wherever you can, make compromises. Don’t be afraid to deviate from the recipes where following them means spending inordinate sums of money. Jasmine rice is delightful, but good old-fashioned white rice will work. Cardamom smells perfectly worth it when you pick it up the first time, but when you accidentally bite into a mushy pod somewhere in your sauce, you may feel differently about the flavor profile and your wallet’s profile.
Look, no one’s saying you shouldn’t buy an Indian cookbook. Sure, you can look up a good Indian recipe on the internet, or ask your parents what the makhani in daal makhani means, but cookbooks are an important literary tradition, and they make your bookcase look impressive. The main thing to remember is that a cookbook is reference material, not a self-help book. Chances are, it’s not going change your life, it’s not going to revolutionize your kitchen, and it’s definitely not going to help you lose weight. But you’re going to learn a lot from a cookbook, not just about Indian food but what you love about Indian food. And that’s as good as any reason to eat more of it.
Here are a few cookbooks worth the price tag:
“An Invitation to Indian Cooking” by Madhur Jaffrey
Really, anything by this delightful woman is worth putting on your shelf, but this one is the landmark, the foundation. Her memoir, Climbing the Mango Trees, is a delightful recollection of youth and food. In An Invitation, her recipes are sublime. I also heartily recommend any of her multiple vegetarian-specific cookbooks.
“American Masala” by Suvir Saran
I know, people have a lot of strong feelings about anything that approaches fusion cuisine, but Saran’s book is different. It’s less of a fusion than a marriage between Indian sensibilities and American staples. If you’re a fan of comfort foods, from either country, you’ll appreciate this book.
“Made in India” by Meera Sodha
Let’s not forget, the Brits may have terrible food, but they also have incredible Indians cooking up magic in family kitchens. Sodha’s pea kachori recipe is too much fun, and the cute family pictures are a big plus.