The internet is teeming with food blogs and other websites and one can get lost in the wonderful world of food seduced, in no small measure, by accompanying pictures that make it all look so, so delicious. Many bloggers present food from their everyday-kitchens that make my everyday-cooking varied and interesting. I love to cook traditional fare that home-cooks feed their families. Food blogs are a great resource for such recipes, with detailed explanations and step-by-step pictures. Also thrown in is an opportunity for a conversation. Many times, the comments section becomes a resource in itself with much discussion about a recipe, methods, and variations.
Who need cookbooks, right? Ah, but I love cookbooks. Especially those with a theme (most have one). A good cookbook can teach you a lot about the food you are cooking. It can be a guide when you are trying an unfamiliar cuisine for the first time.
Presently, the Indian market seems ripe for cookbooks; I see so many new ones coming out on a regular basis. Since I reviewed Bong Mom’s Cookbook, I find a Harper Collins’ published cookbook in the mail every now and then. Few of them have made me want to try anything from their pages, honestly. So, you haven’t heard about any. This week I received Husna Rahaman’s Spice Sorcery which is about the Kutchi Memon cuisine, a cooking style I know little about. The fact that the author is a fellow designer (she’s an interior designer) made me look through the book with even keener interest.
The author creates a story around the traditional foods of the Kutchi Memon community through the eyes of a young girl and how food is integral to her navigating her way through life. As I said before, I think cookbooks are being churned out at amazing speeds. If it is going to be a quick journey from concept to print, something is going to suffer. The breezy story, is it necessary? Why compete with chic-lit? It just seems to gloss over the role of food in the community. It barely scratches the surface and tells us little about the intricacies of tradition, culture, and food. It would have served the purpose of the cookbook better if, instead, the time had been spent on testing and checking the recipes. A seasoned cook will be able to make a guess about missing ingredients and confusing instructions but a novice cook may well be thrown off not knowing how to prepare the onions for a particular dish, at what step to add the salt, and how much of an ingredient to use! I went through the book (the story) in the span of an hour or so and every time I shortlisted a recipe and scanned through the instructions (not reading very carefully) I saw ingredients in the recipe that were missing in the ingredient list. The measures are inconsistent – sometimes by cup-measure, at other times by weight, or a mix of the two.
Take, for example, this recipe for Gosht ki biryani: (pg69-74)
“…Stir for a while and add the meat. The meat must be coaxed to befriend the companions in the pot by stirring tirelessly.
After 10 minutes, add a few cups of water and parboil the potatoes. Pressure cook the meat in the pressure cooker. After four whistles open the pot. The meat should have cooked by now.
The meat and potatoes should have become tender by now…”
After 10 minutes of doing what? Are the potatoes to be added to the same pot as the meat? “Pressure cook the meat…” – what happened to the potatoes? I referred to other recipes which had similar steps and they all seem to imply that the potatoes have to be parboiled separately. If there is pressure cooking involved, I doubt there would be any need to parboil the potatoes; they are, likely, required to be cooked separately. See what I mean? The instructions are not clear.
If you try the Shahi murgai – butter chicken (pg 19), which has no butter (?!), there is a step in the recipe towards the end instructing you to “pour the cream and fold it gently into the mix,” but you may be left guessing about how much cream to use since it is missing from the ingredients list.
A good cookbook obviously is more than just a collection of favourite family recipes. The recipes in this book are, no doubt, valued family treasures, but to present them to an interested cook requires they be tested in a test kitchen so that obvious oversights can be avoided. That is where Spice Sorcery falters. A good editor can fix the grammar, but may not be able to correct the recipe. The rigour, that could have made this a great cookbook, is, sadly, missing.
Priced at Rs699, it could have benefited from a few glossy pictures that add to a good cookbook. The mixing of clipped pictures into sketches, while novel, does nothing for the meat curries that all end up looking very similar. And, what’s with index-less cookbooks?! Too much work for publishers or an assumption that home-cooks have too much time on hand? Thankfully, there is a list of the recipes under “Table of Contents,” which helps locate recipes.
Yet, recipes from a lesser known cuisine will intrigue you. Despite the technical omissions, it’s a good enough cookbook and if you are an experienced cook, and like so many of us, cook with andaza (guesstimate), you should be able to avoid the pitfalls. Just read some recipes before and after the one you want to try, and you should have a fair idea of what not to do.
I picked Haleem from the book, a recipe that has been on my to-try list for a long time, after deciding against Gosht ki biryani, which looked equally delicious but too time consuming. Most recipes in the book list “1kg meat” (lamb, mutton, or just ‘meat’) as the first ingredient, in a cuisine that is obviously meat-biased. I would have loved to see more vegetarian dishes in the book since most of us want to include vegetables in our meals today. I love meat, but I love my vegetables more. Currently, I am the lone non-vegetarian in the family so, I quartered the recipe, and it was sufficient for three, one-dish meals. I am reproducing the recipe below from the book with my notes and remarks in [parentheses].
“the ultimate robust broth” [don’t be misled, there is nothing broth-like in haleem, even according to this recipe]
[to serve 12-16]
1kg mutton, in 2″ pieces with the bone
1/4 kg dalia (broken wheat)
1/4 kg channa dal (split chickpeas)
4 cardamom pods
2 cinnamon sticks
4 medium onions [sliced]
4 tsp ginger paste
4 tsp garlic paste
2 tsp coriander powder
4 tsp red chilli powder
1 tsp whole spice powder* [for a moment I thought this might mean “allspice”, but leafed through and came upon a recipe for “whole spice powder.” A page number for the recipe here would help direct the reader, and is pretty much standard practice]
A pinch of turmeric powder
4 big tomatoes, finely chopped
1/2 cup coriander leaves, chopped
10 mint leaves
1 cup yoghurt
Juice of two limes
10 mint leaves, to garnish
Salt to taste
2 cups oil [ahem, :swallow:]
Soak the dalia and channa dal separately in water for 3 hours. Then, pressure cook each one separately. Three or four whistles for the dal, followed by the same for the dalia. [I cooked them together in separate containers.]
Heat the oil and add the whole spices – cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves. They sizzle and discharge their flavour into the oil. Add the [sliced] onions. When the onions turn golden brown, remove half the onions and set them aside. Add the ginger and garlic paste. Stir for a few minutes with a drizzle of water until the pungency is lost.
Now add the coriander, red chilli, whole spice and turmeric powder and salt and fry the spice powders into the blend for at least 5 minutes.
Add the tomatoes and stir for over 5 minutes until they fuse with the curry. Add the coriander and mint leaves.
Introduce the meat into the curry and stir rhythmically [Manisha!] to induce the meat to suck the flavours. Continue this stirring for at least 10 minutes.
Now add two cups of water and pressure cook until the meat is virtually falling off the bones. Add the yoghurt and reduce then broth until the oil separates.
Scoop out half a cup of this intoxicating oil from the sides and set aside to be used later. [I had none to scoop, but I did quarter the recipe,so…Honest to God, I used 1/4 C of oil. Oops, that’s not a quarter of 2 cups! I guess, my better instinct prevailed! Truthfully, all the while I was frying the onions, I was thinking, “Well, at least all this extra oil is making the frying go faster”; it was plenty.]
Blend the cooked dalia and channa dal in a blender until they are all but smooth. Stop before it turns altogether smooth to retain their wonderful texture. [The texture is nothing special, really. But, yes, retain what little there is.]
Pour the blended dalia and channa dal into the meat pot and stir them in on high heat. Stir for 10 minutes to ensure the flavours and textures combine completely to create a wholesome feast.
Squeese the juiceof two limes into the half cup of oil that you had set aside and drizzle it in a circle on the haleem just before serving. [I drizzled some ghee, since I had no oil. If only I had fried some onions in that ghee…just like the topping on the haleem T’s mom had sent!]
Sprinkle a few mint leaves. Then use your fingers to crush the golden-brown onions you had set aside earlier and rain it upon your creation.
* For whole spice powder, dry roast green cardamom, cinnamon sticks, and cloves in the ratio of 2:2:1. Cool, and grind to a powder.
♦ ♦ ♦
I will definitely be making this recipe again. It turned out well for a first attempt at a classic, and despite miscalculation while quartering the recipe. I would like to try the Sabzi ki biryani for the vegetarians, and in cooler weather, the Gosht ki biryani which is reminiscent of the one T, my erstwhile Bohri neighbour, used to make very well. Actually, to tell the truth, all recipes look interesting – Shikampur Kababs, Khubani ka Meetha, Bagare Baingan, Khatti dal Gosht, and Nariyal doodh aur Sabzi ki Kadhi.
And here’s a bonus book review for you. Do not waste your money on NDTV Lifestyle Ltd’s (yes, that is the author!) Vicky Goes Veg (Price Rs 799), based on the NDTV program of the same name. It is produced like a coffee-table book with glossy pictures (most of them of Vicky wearing the same T-shirt from one particular day on the show) and even though I have looked at it again and again, I haven’t wanted to try anything from the book. This one belongs to the genre of cookbooks put together by TV companies in a bid to earn some extra money with little investment. If you have seen any food shows with Indian programming, then you know how poor the research and content generally is. To hope to get a respectable cookbook out of it, is hoping for too much. There is so little effort put into the cookbook that the pictures used to illustrate Black and Red Spiced Potatoes (pg.no. 80) and Vegetable Tagine (pg. 112) are the same! Who’s going to notice, really.
The two reviews above, might well be the end my career as a cookbook critic. Or Harper Collins might hire me to proof their cookbooks before they go to print.😀 New career? In any case, I bought a few cookbooks last month, and I will tell you what I think about those soon.