Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Not So Wonderful Indian Cookery Book

Singh, Robin. The Wonderful World of Indian Cookery. Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing Co., 1994.

(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!.


Eva said...

Sounds very intimidating! I bet by cottage cheese she means paneer: one of my favourite Indian things ever. :D It's a soft white cheese, and you can definitely cube it.

Anonymous said...

I think I might have a copy of this cookbook! I don't remember. I read it once and and showed a few recipes that sounded yummy to my husband and he laughed at me and, well, we've not made a single one of them.

We do have some asafoetida in the cupboard though and have used it in Americanized Indian dishes. It's pretty tasty. What is it? It comes from a species of giant fennel. We haven't used curry leaves before, but I do know there are lots and lots of different kinds of curry but since we are too lazy to go to a speciality shop, we usually just end up the hot medium or mild one that our food co-op stocks.

raych said...

HA! This sounds more like the 'Cookbook for People Who Are Probably In India Or At Least In Little India And Who Have A Bag Of Daal In Their Kitchen Corner Next To Their Coconut Scraper.'

Best of luck.

ZoesMom said...

I admire your spirit in even trying to figure out these recipes. I would choose the Calculus myself. To me Indian food is definitely one of those things that can only be had out at a restaurant. Of course, most non-basic food falls in that category for me these days so I'm no standard.

Anne Camille said...

I haven't read this cookbook, but I've read plenty like it -- ones that on every page I say to myself "can't make this recipe". Doesn't stop me from buying new cookbooks though.

Anne Camille said...

And I second what eva said: 'cottage cheese' is paneer. It is yummy.

Amanda said...

It sounds to me like the book you need is is "Indian Vegetarian Cooking at Your House"

I found it a very gentle accessible introduction to Indian cooking

Anonymous said...

Oh good lord. I mean, Nigella has recipes I toss out of hand for being too complicated - this one certainly wouldn't be one I could use. And coconut rice...while I've made more complicated versions of it with peppers and shrimp, quite frankly it's fine if you (a.) make rice and (b.) pour in some coconut milk.

Emily Barton said...

Eva, now to figure out where one can possibly buy paneer in these parts...

Stef, well if asafoetida comes from a species of giant fennel, then it must be delicious. I'll have to see if I can find some somewhere.

Raych, yes, absolutely!

ZM, I used to think as you do: eating Indian food = going out to dinner. Alas, good Indian restaurants don't seem to be a dime a dozen in these parts, so I'm stuck trying to make stuff that at least somewhat resembles it in my own kitchen.

Cam, doesn't stop me, either. After all, I've gotten quite a few ideas from reading this book, even if I can't make any of the recipes authentically.

Ms. Make Tea, oh thank you! I'll have to give that one a try.

Court, oh good. Now I have a simple version of coconut rice to accompany whatever I manage to find to cook from this book (maybe I'll even fry a few peanuts to throw in it).

mandarine said...

At least when it's an Indian cookery blog you can wikipedia ingredients on the spot.

I hate those cookbooks which do not seem to take the least care of what ingredients are available near where I live. The best example for me are vegetarian cookbooks translated from English (there are probably no French vegetarian cookbook authors). I am sure they have all those fine vegetarian, Indian or Chinese shops in London, but around here, Italian ingredients is as far as it gets. Sometimes, even the quantities are not converted: I even read one book where the quantity 'cup' (240 ml) was translated by 'tasse' (any cup-like holder, French cups being notoriously smaller than English ones, as they are used for black coffee instead of tea), which proves that the translator did not even have a notion of what he/she was writing about. So I am only left with a vague impression of helplessness and nice pictures.

Eva said...

On your advice, I read the Shirley Jackson, and I've posted my really long thoughts, lol. I even did some spoilery stuff, because I want to talk about w/ others who have read it!

litlove said...

I just love the fact that, in a book that clearly intends to tie the poor beleaguered cook to the oven forever, one of the recipes is missing. What a Freudian slip! It's like saying, oh for heaven's sake, just look at the picture and throw a few ingredients together in a way that appeals to you. Wonderful post, Emily. Only you could make an impenetrable cookbook such good fun reading.

Emily Barton said...

Mandarine, "vague impression of helplessness and nice pictures." I know the feeling! Actually, you'll see in my most recent post, though, that I fared better than I thought once I got going.

Litlove, and looking at the pictures and throwing a few ingredients together was just the sort of technique I ended up using.