Sometime back there was a discussion amongst some food-blogger friends on cookbooks and their relevance in a world of food blogs and websites. The topic was triggered by the surprising admission of some food-bloggers (aspiring writers at that!) that they only look at and rarely cook from cookbooks. My bookshelf is lined with cookbooks I have been collecting since my teens; they are a weakness. They are my insights into a new cuisine or deeper explorations of a favourite one. I put a moratorium on further cookbook purchases because I am constrained where bookshelf-real-estate is concerned. That ended, as all fad diets do, in a binge. With e-shopping only a click away, I was on Flipkart, ordering away. I am no longer looking for cookbooks titled “All About Baking,” but seek out books that link food to a culture: “Gujarati Cooking”, or “Simply South.”
I have been searching for a recipe for the Goan Sambarachi Kodi ever since I tasted it at O’Coquero. On the Web, I came across only one recipe, the one on the charming Goan Food Recipes blog. While Googling for it yet again (I try to check multiple recipes before attempting a less-familiar dish), I came across a mention for it in Pushpesh Pant’s India: A Cookbook. Now, I am usually weary of cookbooks that want to cover all of India in one book. If you know anything about the diversity that is India, you cam imagine how daunting a task that is. In India, I assure you, we know nothing as “Indian Food.” But Pushpesh Pant is a respected scholar and reading some of the recommendations for the book, I thought, well, his might just be the definitive volume, the exception. To his credit, it has a 1000 recipes and weighs in at over a kilo! With those statistics I was expecting a tome of great research and insights. As usual, I started with the section on the cuisine I know better than any other – Kashmiri. That right there, is the cornerstone by which I judge a cookbook dishing out “Indian” Cuisine.
India: A Cookbook makes the all too common blunder of confusing fennel with aniseed. The Indian word for both spices is “saunf,” but for those who know both spices, imagine the taste of mutsch with a truck-load of aniseed instead of fennel! There were other, similar, oversights I spotted as I flipped through. I quickly sought the recipe for “sambarachi kodi” which had been the primary reason for buying the book priced at Rs 1400. That would be just fine and dandy had the booked lived up to its claim of being “The only Indian cookbook you will ever need.” Believe you me that it lists “sambar powder” as the main spice for sambarachi kodi! You are then referred to a recipe for Sambar Powder from Tamil Nadu, which happens to be not even on the same coast! The curry I ate had not tasted like sambar even remotely. Immediately, I put the book back in its muslin bag with all the other slips, chits, and bubble-wrap it had arrived with, and logged in to Flipkart praying they had a return policy on books. I wanted my money back!
I had to state a reason for the return of the book. I was honest and said, “This is just a collection of 1000 recipes. I was expecting a research tome.” Honesty is the best policy. The return was processed the following day, and the book picked up a day later. And those 1000 recipes from all over India – no attribution whatsoever! How can anyone come up with 1000 recipes, covering the length and breadth of India, with nary a source? That is a very good question, you will agree.
Getting back to e-shopping for books on Flipkart. I was searching for regional Indian cookbooks, reading the reviews and helpful comments of other readers, as I shortlisted my cookbooks. One comment on a Bengali cookbook lead me to RD Choudhurani’s Pumpkin Flower Fritters and Other Classic Recipes from a Bangali Kitchen. The slim, photo-less, Bengali cookbook as also Cooking with Pedatha, by Jigyasa Giri, and India: A Cookbook made up my purchases that night. There is not much that was new to me in Cooking with Pedatha. Chandra Padmanabhan’s two cookbooks, Dakshin and Simply South, are my go-to books for South Indian cuisine. Every recipe I have tried from these two cookbooks has turned out well, and many are now favourites. This summer I tried pavakkai pitlay, a tart and spicy dish of tuvar dal with bitter gourd that even TH, who never touches anything bitter, liked! That is HUGE. I served the pitlay with colocasia roast that used its own spice mix – a poriyal podi. I always wonder at a few key ingredients (dried whole chillies, coriander seeds, urad dal, and chana dal) are used in varying proportions and combined with a few other everyday spices such as cumin, or peppercorns, or methi seeds, to obtain seemingly an endless variety of mixes (podis) that can dress up a dal or a curry.
But, I digress. I was talking about this little gem of a cookbook on Bengali cuisine. In the short 240 pages, it manages to give a good overview of cooking in the Choudhury household. The translator, Sheila Lahiri-Choudhury, Renuka Devi’s daughter-in-law has selected recipes from the two original Bengali volumes that present 400 vegetarian and 300 non-vegetarian recipes. Renuka Devi recounts with great charm in the section titled Amaar Katha (My Story) how she supervised a hastiness of cooks in the traditional Bengali household and places the kitchen and its elaborate cooking in a rich context where “the culture of good cuisine was consciously nurtured and encouraged.”
The book has eight chapters: Rice, Lentils/Dals, Vegetables, Fish, Meat and Poultry, Chutney, and Dessert. The final Chapter, on Household Hints, is short but useful and will be of help to both the novice and the experienced cook. Remember the discussion we had about radhuni and how it is critical for a good shukto? Well, there can be shukto without radhuni. I had no idea there were multiple kinds of shukto which clearly justifies a dedicated section with nine recipes to boot! A Bengali’s love for khichuri (Khichdi/Kedgeree) comes through in the separate section on it in the chapter on Rice. Believe it or not, there are sixteen recipes for khichuri, including one called Ajizul Haque Khichuri, that traces its history to the patriarch, Dhirendra Kanta Lahiri Choudhary, and his political connections in pre-independence India. Don’t you love it when you come across such family treasures? The recipes are clear though they assume some familiarity with ‘Indian’ cooking styles and techniques. It need not deter anyone with a little experience in the kitchen. Another plus – there’s a Glossary in addition to an Index at the end! At just Rs295, it’s a steal.
[A khichuri recipe from Spices and Pisces.]
I gravitated towards shukto, a dish I love a lot and have cooked many times before. So, here’s Shukto #2, for you to try, every bit as good as Shukto #1. I skipped the bori (wadi/dried lentil cakes) since I rarely have this kind in my pantry.
Bitter Gourd Shukto
1 large bitter gourd (karela)
450gm seasonal vegetables (preferably 1 green plantain, 1/2 green papaya, 3 potatoes, 5 broad beans, 1 aubergine, 2 ridge gourds, 1-2 drumsticks) – I had only potatoes and green bananas in stock
10 small split-pea lentil balls (bori)
2 tsp mustard seeds
1 tbsp coriander seeds
1 tsp radhuni
2 tsp ginger paste a little flour (a tsp)
a little milk (enough to make a think slurry with the flour)
For singeing (tadka): 2 bay leaves (actually, tejpatta/cassia leaves), 1/2 tsp radhuni, 1/2 tsp fennel seeds, 1 tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp sugar salt to taste
2 tbsp (mustard oil)
1 tsp ghee (or mustard oil!)
Prepare vegetables into 1.5″ lengths. Thinly slice bitter gourd (as in picture). Boil all vegetables (except bitter gourd) in lightly salted water taking care to add quick-cooking vegetables later. Set aside. [Soak and] grind mustard, coriander, and radhuni seeds to a fine paste and set aside.
Heat oil in a kadahi and fry the bori till golden and remove with a slotted spoon. Fry bitter gourd till lightly browned. Heat a little oil for the tadka. Add tej patta, fennel, mustard, and radhuni seeds. As they release their aroma, add the boiled vegetables, the fried bitter gourd, a little water and bring to a boil. Add bori, if using, at this point. Add the spice paste and ginger paste [and ghee]. Mix a little flour with a little milk and add to the simmering curry. Simmer for a couple of minutes. [Finish with a teaspoon of mustard oil, if desired.] Serve as the first course for a Bengali meal.
Post Script: I am a Believer! God exists! My prayers have been answered! I found the recipe for Sambharachi Kodi, not just any but the one served at O’Coquero! (Bonus recipe for pickled Mackerel!) Thank you, thank you, God! And Alisha Patel, and Chef Peter Fernandes! Love. You. All. Yes, the recipe lists Goan Sambhar Powder as an important spice-mix. But, Goan Sambhar Powder is nothing like sambar podi from Tamil Nadu!