Review: Vegetarian India, by Madhur Jaffrey

Madhur Jaffrey, Vegetarian India: A journey through the best of Indian home cooking. Knopf Publishing Group, 1995.

So that was a longer break than I had planned. Basically, I went back to work, where there were grants, organising our participation in Midsumma, and the aftermath of the restructure – I have lost six labs and gained six labs, so while my workload is theoretically stable the handover is complicated in the extreme, and because we aren’t physically moving for a while, I haven’t really ‘lost’ those six labs as far as workload goes (though for a number of reasons, I definitely have already gained the extra six). The good part of this is that my new labs seem to be very nice, and new and old labs are quite keen to work together; also, the work of forming disparate groups into a team is something I’m fairly good at, I think – it’s certainly something I enjoy. But it’s making for a crazy workload.

And in the meantime, Melbourne – indeed, Australia – has been having record-breakingly prolonged hot weather, which makes the very idea of cooking unappealing in the extreme. I certainly haven’t been creating anything new – I’ve been hard pressed to get something reasonable on the table at all.

So instead of recipes, you are going to get a review of one of my favourite cookbooks – Vegetarian India: A Journey Through the Best of Indian Home Cooking, by Madhur Jaffrey.

I got interested in Indian cooking a few years ago, when the lovely Vikram and Ambika began their Curry Delights kickstarter, and sent a box every month with all the ingredients for a feast from a different region of India. Very sadly, not enough people in Australia were interested in being surprised by new, exciting Indian food every month for this to be a viable business model, and so they eventually switched to providing extremely luxurious and delicious butter chicken kits through their new business, Spice Craft.

I have bought quite a number of these kits (as well as their kit for mango rose lassi, which is to die for) both for myself and others, but for me, the most exciting thing was discovering a whole world of flavours that I hadn’t cooked with before. I started seeking out Indian cookbooks, and these days I have a reasonable collection, but Vegetarian India is the one I use the most often.

Let me start by saying that you are going to need access to a good Indian (or, in a pinch, Asian) grocery store to get a lot out of this book. (If you don’t have this sort of access, I recommend my second favourite Indian cookbook, Anjum’s Quick and Easy Indian as a good starting point – it’s less authentic, but the flavours are delicious, and the vast majority of recipes don’t require you to go further than your local supermarket for the ingredients.). Jaffrey uses a lot of dals (legumes) and spices that are not readily available in western supermarkets, as well as a few grains and grain products, such as ‘poha’, a flattened rice, that are likewise tricky to track down.

Having said that, I have only needed to visit an Indian grocery store once so far (need and want are two different things, of course), because once you have tracked down those ingredients, you will use them again and again – essentially, Jaffrey requires a different pantry to the one I had when I started cooking from her recipes, but it is a single pantry, and if you are fairly thorough on your first shopping excursion, you won’t be needing to return for more obscure ingredients every time you want to make a new recipe.

(Also, my local Indian grocery store is absolutely FASCINATING, even if they did keep trying to direct my very white self to the packet curry mixes and pre-made curries ‘most Australians like these’ when I was trying to find things like black cumin seeds and toor dal… I mean, yes, I absolutely use some packet mixes for curries – the Spice Tailor ones are excellent, for example – but I really was trying to find ingredients to cook from scratch…)

So many digressions! In my defense, it’s currently 40°C outside and quite warm inside, and my brain feels like lukewarm soup.

Jaffrey draws from all sorts of different regions of India for this book, and she helpfully tells you where a particular recipe comes from, and which other recipes will go with it. This second part is particularly helpful to me, because vegetarian Indian cooking does seem to involve multiple components most of the time – rice or some sort of bread or pancake, plus a dal, plus a vegetable, plus a raita. Which sounds like harder work than it is, because the vast majority of the recipes in this book are very fast to make, once you have assembled the ingredients. You do need to plan a bit, and figure out what order to make things in, but once you’ve done that, it’s pretty plain sailing.

The cookbook lists the following chapters:

  1. Soups, Appetisers and Snacks
  2. Vegetables
  3. Dried Beans and Legumes
  4. Grains: rice, semolina, quinoa
  5. Grains: breads, pancakes, savories and noodles
  6. Eggs and Dairy
  7. Chutneys, Relishes and Salads
  8. Drinks, Sweets and Desserts

Chapter 1 is largely soups or things that are deep fried, all of which look good, but all of which are also the sorts of things I don’t tend to cook very often. But the Pan Grilled Zucchini with Spicy Tomato Sauce was fantastic (it’s a great sauce, and I’ve also used it to make a Paneer curry), and I liked the Cucumber Spear and the Cherry Tomato recipes, both of which involve making a quick tarka to pour over the cold vegetables just before serving. Tarkas are something I’ve really discovered with this book – for those who share my ignorance, a Tarka is something you add to a recipe at the end, to give it a quick hit of flavour. Usually, it involves heating oil or ghee, then adding spices like mustard seeds and cumin seeds, or asafoetida and dried chillis and shallots, or curry leaves, letting them sizzle for a few seconds, and then pouring them into whatever is being Tarka-ed (not a real word).

Cherry Tomato Salad with Curry Leaves

Chapter 2 contains so many recipes that I can’t even remember which ones I’ve tried any more. Certainly, the roasted cauliflower with Punjabi seasonings is delicious, and the Aloo Gobi is also lovely. I was completely delighted by the stir-fry of zucchini and yellow squash, which starts with oil, asafoetida, cumin and mustard seeds, in which one sautées the vegetables, and then at the end you stir in a mixture of yoghurt, coriander, salt, pepper and chili powder. It’s so fast and so simple and tastes so completely different to anything I’ve ever done with zucchini before. The Spinach with Dill is a lovely, simple, gently spiced recipe that I really like with rice and dal, and the stir-fried pumpkin is sweet and spicy and delicious. I need to have more people around so that I can try more of the potato recipes, too, because they look fabulous, but Andrew is anti-potato.

Tarka Dal (from Anjum’s Easy Indian) Hyderabadi Rice, and Spinach with Dill

Chapter 3 contains the very first recipe I tried from this book, Goan black-eyed peas with coconut, which, truthfully, isn’t my favourite thing, but meshed beautifully with the other Goan recipes I made (from a different book) that day. It’s a very mild dal – I find that most of Jaffrey’s dals are a little blander than I expect – but it does go with the other flavours of the region. The Chana Dal with Spinach and Tomato is a handy dish, because it gives you almost all your food groups in one go and all you need is rice and some yoghurt to go with, but my all time favourite in this chapter is the Chickpeas in a Simple Northern Style, with onion, ginger, garlic, chilli, coriander, cumin, turmeric and a little tomato. I could eat these all day. I served them in a feast with the aloo gobi, spinach with dill, butter paneer, and an amazing pilaf with saffron and cranberries (and the tomato and cucumber dishes mentioned above, and a raita, and…), and they were to die for. Also, they are super fast and easy to make, especially if you cheat and use ginger from a tube. Which I do, every time.

Chickpeas in a Simple Northern Style; in the background, Aloo Gobi and Cucumber Spears witha quick tarka

In Chapter 4, we discover that Jaffrey mostly cooks her rice in the oven, and it is much drier than the rice I’m used to. I’ve tried a few recipes here – rice with dill and peas, and rice with moong dal and potatoes, as well as spiced Hyderabadi rice, which is probably my favourite of the everyday rices. The berry pilaf, however, is fabulous, and the vegetable biryani is very good, but requires and absolutely gigantic dish.

I’ve also tried one of the poha dishes, which I’m less certain about. Poha is a short-cut ingredient, consisting of flattened (and perhaps par-cooked?) rice. Cooking poha is a lot like making cereal, it turns out – you rinse it, leave it to soak for a couple of minutes, and then drain it; then you stir fry the vegetables and spices you plan to include in it, and add the poha right at the end, just to heat it up. The resulting texture is… OK? But maybe I’ve been doing it wrong. I should probably give it another try in this weather, especially as I have oodles of poha in my pantry now…

Kodava Mushrooms, Poha with Potatoes and Cauliflower, Yoghurt with Cucumber, Kodava style

Chapter 5 I have not really touched, though I want to. The main reason I haven’t is that most of the breads and pancakes require more pre-planning than my brain has been capable of, and the other reason is that I haven’t yet got my hands on the Indian semolina (sooji) or the chickpea (gram) flour I need to construct them. I do, however, have my eye on Bombay Sandwiches for the near future – toasties with tomatoe, potato, onion, capsicum, cheese, and green chutney. Yum.

Chapter 6 is mostly egg recipes that Andrew is never going to eat, but I’ve made the butter paneer, which is incredibly rich but very good, and the indian cheese with green peppers, which is also lovely.

Chapter 7 has some amazing things in it. The green chutney, which I still haven’t made, but need to make soon, and the aforementioned spicy tomato sauce, and an enormous variety of other chutneys which I haven’t gotten around to because I never know what to do with chutney. But it also has the most incredible variety of raitas and yoghurt relishes, ranging from the allegedly ‘cooling’ yoghurt relish from the south which contains 1 cup of yoghurt but two entire dried chillis, and also 1/4 tsp of brown mustard seeds, among other ingredients, to a very simple yoghurt dish with a little cumin and chilli, to an almost salad-like raita with cucumber, tomatoes and spring onions. I have made just about every raita in this book now, but I think my favourite is the carrot raita with the quick tarka of mustard seeds and cumin that goes in at the end. It’s sweet and spicy and filling and delicious.

Roasted Cauliflower with Punjabi Seasonings, Tarka Dal, Quick Stir-Fried Zucchini, Carrot Raita

Chapter 8 is full of things I haven’t tried and want to. There is a pomegranate and mint drink which I might go out and get the ingredients for this afternoon, and a lot of fruity, fresh looking desserts, but also fried stuffed dates, and several sooji based halvas and crepes and similar.

I don’t know how to end this review! Basically, I have cooked a LOT of things from this book, and they have all been excellent, though a handful have not been quite to my taste. The book is rich in vegan recipes – the dals and vegetables and rice and bread dishes are almost all vegan, other chapters rely a bit more heavily on yoghurt – and of course, most of the recipes are also gluten-free. There are even a few things here for the fructose-avoidant, given the use of asafoetida to replace onions in some parts of India, though the legumes are going to be a problem. Spice levels are variable – I would class myself as something of a wuss, and most of these recipes have been fine for me. Having said that, I’ve also avoided the southern Indian recipes that use 4 dried chilles as a starting point…

Basically, if you are looking for a good, thorough introduction to Indian food, and some recipes that you aren’t going to find at your local curry restaurant (as well as some you are), I highly recommend this book.

A feast! Northern style chickpeas, cucumber spears, tomatoes with curry leaves, berry pilaf, spinach raita, aloo gobi and Anjum Anand’s cardamom lamb curry.

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