Reviewed by Shabana Zahoor
Title: Vegetarian India – A Journey through the best of Indian Home Cooking
Author: Madhur Jaffrey
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
It’s a challenge as well as a delight to review a book as elaborate as Vegetarian Indian by Madhur Jaffrey. When I first got hold of the book, I made a kadak cup of chai for myself and sat down to slowly savour the book along with the freshly made strong concoction.
The book tasted better with every sip, whetting my appetite and my curiosity. What we’ve got here is a seriously huge book, one that claims to bring together Indian vegetarian dishes from north to south and from east to west. The very thought of such geographical vastness and diversity of region and people brings to mind the many possibilities of vegetarian dishes from across the country. I don’t know how Jaffrey has managed to do this with detail and meticulousness; this is not an easy feat when you have so much to choose from.
The range she brings to the table is breathtaking. It goes from as simple a snack as boiled peanut with shells to bondas, fritters, to stir fries, mouth-watering gravies… the list is endless, but a pattern emerges – Vegetarian India focuses on simple preparations; most of the dishes featured here are easy to make, without the need to sweat it out in the kitchen.
The book has various sections such as soups and appetizers, vegetables, dals, grains, eggs, drinks, and desserts. The appetizers are inviting. It’s not that I haven’t cooked or eaten any of these, but the pictures make you salivate. Fried Okra, bondas… fresh and crisp… ummm….
At my home, dal, sabzi, salads, bhajis or chokhas are everyday favourites and I love them all.
Sometimes we forget to prepare simple dishes in the race of modern cooking or more complex cooking. This book brings back the calmness to our kitchen and whispers to us, ‘Hey, chill! Life is simple. Fix some roti, sabzi and relish it.’
Each recipe is preceded by an accompanying story that is not only lucidly written but also contextualises the dish. It seems to cast a spell on me, as if I too were present with Madhur Jaffrey, exploring, talking, watching and jotting down notes of innumerable family recipes. Pictures from street vendors, home kitchens, flea markets, et al, transport you to those authentic spots for the first hand experience, the variety giving you a 360 degree experience.
A tale of two pictures
The first two pictures, physalis and berry pilaf, set my mood for the book. I love eating berries but I find physalis (rasbhari) very different from other berries. The taste is different, quite wild, with a strong fragrance; when I put it in my mouth and break it between my teeth the aromatic juice bursts on to my taste buds and fills my senses. Ummm… heaven on earth! This berry feels so natural, so humble. Its uniqueness makes it stand out in the crowd.
The other picture of berry pilaf has a wonderful and interesting back story that you will find in the book. These are the marvels in the book which make it a keeper.
There are many other gems in the book which earns it its worth. Kodava mushrooms recipe is one of them; so are the varieties of koshambaris, poriyals, and upmas. Among snacks and dessert I am thrilled to find namakpara and nan khatai, the long forgotten favourites of my childhood.
I love the varieties of upmas, parathas, dosas, and pohas included in Vegetarian India. There are some recipes which I am going to try out straight away like parathas with peppers and shallot, toasties, chili-fried eggs for my breakfast and berry pilaf for my lunch. Though what I miss here is good old apna sabudana ki khichdi, Kashmiri dum aloo, dishes of bitter gourd, pointed gourd, drumsticks and drumsticks leaves among others.
Overall, I find Vegetarian India utterly useful. The simple, easy to fix dishes are the soul of this book.
Shabana Zahoor is a mother and homemaker.
About the author:
Madhur Jaffrey is an author of several cookbooks. She has received the James Beard award several times. She is also an award winning actress. She lives in New York City.