Friday, January 26, 2007
A Total Naan-Issue
As some of you out there know, Indian food is some of my favorite out there (and for those cultural purists/historical revisionists/bigots/people who routinely confuse the indigenous North American native peoples whose legacy the white man all but wiped out with people from India) that's grub from the Indian subcontinent. You know, Indian food. I'm not really snobbish toward either North or South Indian cuisine; I've been known to join the I Ate a Dosa by Myself Club and sling handfuls of sag paneer down my throat in the same sitting. (I do, however, have some Indian friends who always make fun of one Bengali guy for always smelling like fish, but that's neither here nor there. The humor is lost on me).
So, to celebrate both my love for Indian food and my reunion with The Honorable Rev. Dr. Professor Jayadev Athreya, I have decided to review my favorite cookbook of that culinary subgenre: Lord Krishna's Cuisine, The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking, by Yamuna Devi. For those of you fools out there who don't know, Ms. Devi studied for eleven years with THE A.C. Bhaktivedata Swami (or B-Swam as he is known in my head). So take that, all you haters and doubters. This woman is the real deal.
Being a white kid from Wisconsin with limited exposure to real Indian cooking (thanks for nothing, Ramit, Rajit, Rajat, et. al.), my favorite thing about the book is the easy-to-understand instructions and rich background on each family of dishes. Ms. Devi presents the elements of a traditional Indian meal in a logical fashion and keeps the approximately 800 pages of information lively with anecdotes from her travels and food experiences around the world. The author relates where she obtained recipes, who presented them to her, and innumerable tips on technique, materials, and preparation.
Like most traditional North American cookbooks, Lord Krishna's Cuisine follows a rubric of preparatory methods and dishes that proceed from the basics (starters, accompaniments, basic side dishes) through the more complex showpieces of a meal (more elaborate vegetable dishes, etc.). Since it is a vegetarian cookbook, meat doesn't make much of an appearance, and I promise to write more about fall-off-the-bone, slow-roasted or smoked barbeque in the future. It hardly matters, though, since the book overflows with everything from Indian breads (e.g. chapati, naan, roti), soups, chutneys, salads, pastries, sweets, and even beverages.
Although the volume can be a bit overwhelming at times, I recommend picking a section and exploring the variety of preparatory techniques presented. My first foray into Indian cooking was simple panir (also paneer, see above), the subtly-flavored, unripened farmer cheese that is to Indian cooking what tofu is to many Asian vegetarian dishes (i.e. a hearty substitute for meat that can be prepared quickly and holds the flavor of its surrounding spices and sauce remarkably well). The process is pretty simple - heat milk and add some sort of acid reagent like lemon juice, then follow a couple of steps and boom, panir! The instructions on technique and accompanying drawings were invaluable, as were Ms. Devi's recommendations on ingredients.
I could go on for pages about the things I love about this book, but I recommend you find out for yourself. I realize I'll never be competing in Iron Chef: Bollywood, but as far as expanding my horizons in the kitchen, this is an invaluable resource.