Any American cook who longs to plunge deeply into the cuisine of India is bound to grow impatient with the cookbooks offered by major U.S. publishers. Wonderful though many of those books are, their scope looks awfully limited stacked up against the riches now found in the innumerable groceries and restaurants that the Indian diaspora has brought here.
But mainstream cookbook publishers are no longer the only game in town. Thanks to globalization and new technologies, Americans have access to a surprising range of ocean-hopping alternatives. Many Indian-published books show up at American shops. Even more options are available online and from publishers in other countries.
These off-the-map volumes aren't for everyone. What is often their greatest virtue is also their most frequent drawback: They rarely get any professional editorial whacking into conventional shape. So they can be rich in originality and insight but amateurish in design, writing style or - among the recipes - decipherability.
Two good illustrations of the tradeoffs are The Calcutta Kitchen, by Simon Parkes and Udit Sarkhel (Interlink Publishing Group, $29.95), and Grains, Greens and Grated Coconuts: Recipes and Remembrances of a Vegetarian Legacy, by Ammini Ramachandran (iUniverse, $23.95). The first roves adventurously around the great port city of its title; the other lovingly recalls the food of its author's native Kerala state in the far south.
Here, essays are the bread and butter
The Calcutta Kitchen, a British import available from Interlink, a Massachusetts concern, deals with culinary terrain that is nearly unknown in the United States despite the abundant presence of Calcuttan immigrants and Bangladeshi restaurateurs (who, unfortunately, almost never serve Bengali food).
Parkes, a food reporter for BBC Radio, explores the city and its food with 10 witty, eccentric, thoughtful essays. His angles include the local passion for freshwater fish rushed to markets from an extraordinary wetlands system, declining ex-outposts of the British Raj like the Tollygunge Club and the many ethnic presences that enliven the flavor of Calcutta, among them Armenian Christians, Baghdad Jews and Tibetan dumplingmakers.
His lively summings-up are magnificently reinforced by the photographs of Jason Lowe, whose chronicling of faded beauties, brash incongruities and glory-amid-grime cooking is alone worth the price.
The downside comes when you hit the recipes by Sarkhel, a London restaurateur. He covers many bases, as varied as ghee-enriched boiled rice and mustard-seasoned fish in banana leaf packets, but he seems clueless about what makes directions intelligible. People used to improvising from unorthodox cookbooks can follow some recipes to good effect. But even they may be stumped by foggy terminology, wildly inaccurate timings and measurements, or the omission of details (white or black poppy seeds in the condiment called posto?).
I got about four times the stated yield for the mustard condiment kashundi and have no idea whether the fruit of long struggles with incomprehensible directions resembled the real thing. On the other hand, pan-fried shrimp in a spicy wet rub and a dish of spinach with assorted starchy vegetables needed only minor guesswork for really excellent results.
No-frills book explores cuisine's diversity
Grains, Greens and Grated Coconuts, a self-published volume sold almost exclusively online, is a much more consistent work, whose virtues are the direct opposite of those in The Calcutta Kitchen.
Expect no photographic tours or colorful reportorial vignettes. The purpose of this modest, no-frills book is to place a region, its history, and its family and cultural heritages into a coherent context for understanding food.
Instead of trying to cover all menu bases that an editor might insist on, Ramachandran is free to concentrate on unorthodox categories, including amazingly diverse "curries" (sauced vegetable combinations), pickles and preserves, breakfast specialties, rice dishes associated with sacred observances, and temple or rite-of-passage offerings.
Other books have ably explored India's far southern territory, but Ramachandran reveals amazing range and depth in Kerala's Hindu vegetarian traditions. And American home cooks should find her introductions to ingredients, techniques and equipment accessible.
Though the recipes are best used by cooks who know something about Indian food, they make eminent sense.
I had fine success with the coconut-laced vegetable melange aviyal, as well as with cold rice in a spicy yogurt dressing and a gorgeously seasoned spinach puree. Indian sweets are mostly a closed book to me, so a simple, irresistible dish of ripe plantains caramelized with sugar and ghee came as a welcome surprise.
Thayir Choru (Yogurt Rice)
4 cups cooked long-grain white rice, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups whole-milk plain yogurt, drained in cheesecloth
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon brown or black mustard seeds
1 1/2 teaspoons urad dal (split hulled black lentils) (see note)
1 1/2 teaspoons chana dal (split hulled yellow peas) (see note)
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped raw cashews
3 fresh Thai or serrano green chilies, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon grated ginger
15 to 20 fresh curry leaves
Papadums, optional (see note)
Indian pickles, optional (see note)
- In a bowl, combine rice and yogurt. Mix well, and season with salt to taste.
- Heat oil in a small skillet. Add mustard seeds. When they sputter, add urad dal, chana dal and cashews. When dal and cashews turn golden brown, add green chilies, ginger and curry leaves. Stir-fry 1 to 2 minutes.
- Remove spice blend from heat and pour over rice mixture. Mix well. Serve at room temperature with, if desired, papadums or Indian pickles.
Yield: 4 to 5 servings.
Note: These ingredients are available at Indian markets such as Bay Stop India, 1749 State Road 60 E, Valrico, (813) 681-4884; Kiran Indian Grocers, 5691 E Fowler Ave., Tampa, (813) 980-1184; and Mamtaj Mahal, 7640 Park Blvd., Pinellas Park, (727) 544-3821.
Source: Adapted from Grains, Greens and Grated Coconuts by Ammini Ramachandran (iUniverse)