(Sorry, the book is out of print, so can’t give you a snapshot of it.)
As many of you know, I work as an editor on books about teaching math. Most of these books are for educators working at the elementary and middle school levels. I am not a mathematician. Through my work on these books, I now have a pretty solid understanding of elementary-level math. Give me a calculus text, however, and I would be as lost as your average sixth-grader.
Well, lo and behold! It seems I decided to kick off the Soups’ On! cookbook challenge with the calculus textbook of cookery. Just as I have a basic understanding of math, I also have a basic understanding of cooking. Actually “understanding” might not be the right word, because I have no real understanding as to how my particular style of cooking works, other than that I seem to have sensitive senses of taste and smell and some sort of touch of magic combined with a curiosity that could kill ten poor cats. It usually goes something like this, “Hmmm, last time we ate at an Indian restaurant, it seems those lentils had hot peppers, mint, and cilantro in them. I wonder what would happen if, instead of lentils, I boiled some potatoes and then made a sauce for them with lemon, hot peppers, cilantro, and mint.” Most of the time it works quite well, but I haven’t a clue why.
Cookbooks tend to be mere guidelines for me. They help me think about different ways to combine flavors (which this one certainly did). They teach me how to do some things (like roast a chicken, which I would have no clue how to do without a little help), but they’re basically just there when I need them. I love to read them, but I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to them when I’m actually in the kitchen, unless I’m trying to do something I’ve never done before (again, like roasting a chicken).
You know, you can get away with this when all you’re doing is adding 2 + 3. However, once you start trying to figure out the area of a sphere that’s spinning around on an axis, it’s probably going to be very important to do so by the book. I guess, just as I’ve shied away from calculus all my life, I’ve also shied away from the calculus of cooking.
Well, no more. I’ve read this book from beginning to end. What have I learned? First and foremost: it can easily be donated to next year’s library sale with no regrets. Secondly, I really do want to learn more about Indian cookery, but I definitely need to find something more along the lines of Indian Cookery for Dummies. And thirdly, remember those scenes in Bend It Like Beckham when the mother is so intent on teaching her daughters how to prepare the traditional meal? Now I know why. It seems this type of cooking, like math, is something someone needs to start cultivating as soon as a child can stand on a stool to stir sauce in a pot.
So, why was this book so intimidating? I don’t blame you if you’re finding it hard to believe that a cookbook can actually be intimidating. The first answer is: ingredients. Most international cuisine cookbooks I’ve read have appendices that explain ingredients and where to get them (especially for an American audience. I didn’t find out that by “curds” she meant “yogurt” until the last chapter of the book, and there was nowhere in the book to look it up. I still don’t know what she meant by “cottage cheese,” as nobody in her right mind would try to “cube” what we Americans call “cottage cheese.” Can anyone help me out here, because some of the recipes calling for “cottage cheese,” sound both delicious and do-able?). For instance, what the hell is asafoetida, and where do I look for it? What about curry leaves (curry? Isn’t that that powdered stuff good on chicken and in salad dressings? What are these “leaves?”)? Or how about a “small piece of jaggery?” Oh, jaggery, that’s right. It’s right there in my fridge, next to the ghee.
My second answer to the question is: I’m not real big on books that tell me that with plenty of practice, I will be able to perfect this dish. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m an instant gratification sort of a gal. I want any dish I make to be perfect the first time I make it. I never pursued such pastimes as tennis and piano playing precisely because they involve practice, and I don’t have the patience for that. I enjoy cooking, because it’s typically easy to make something well worth eating the first time you try.
My final answer is: I’m tired of thinking, “This sounds like it might be do-able.” For instance, doesn’t coconut-flavored rice (nariyal chawal) not only sound delicious, but also sound like maybe all you need to do is cook some rice, add a couple of Indian spices and some shredded coconut, and be done? Nope. Let’s start by frying some peanuts. Then, let’s get a fresh coconut and split it open. She lost me when she started describing the special tool needed to scrape the coconut out of its shell and then went on to describe all the steps needed for soaking the coconut in “coconut water” (both heated and unheated). All that work for a side dish? I had to take a quick walk down to the convenience store to get a Mounds Bar to satisfy my craving for coconut.
Oh, and how about a recipe that begins this way? “The procedure for making idlis [steamed rice cakes] must start a whole 24 hours before you want to eat them.” (p. 93). Again, not something Ms. Instant Gratification is jumping at the chance to cook.
One thing I will say in favor of this book is that it’s got gorgeous pictures. The page layout and design is stunning, too. It would make a lovely coffee table book for someone who doesn’t like to cook. Another thing I like is that a list of utensils needed follows her list of ingredients for every recipe (never mind the fact that I don’t own half the utensils. It’s the thought that counts). The book is very, very poorly edited, though. One of the recipes is missing its ingredients list, and wouldn’t you know it? The recipe that follows it is one that builds on it.
When I decided to take on this challenge, I made a pact with myself that the recipe I’d choose to cook for each book I read would be one that I would, for a change, follow to the letter. This means no recipe with impossible-to-find ingredients, no recipe that requires cooking utensils I don’t have, and no recipe that requires 24 hours to make. There’s got to be at least one besides boiled rice, right? Once I find it, I’ll make it and let you know what happens. In the meantime, please send plenty of good karma my way.
Cross-posted at Soup's On!.