Classic Indian Cooking by Julie Sahni

Paul R. Potts

I wrote the original version of this this review for The original title of the review itself was “Wonderfully Detailed, Challenging, Delicious.”

I suppose it is a bit odd to include it in a collection which seems to feature, mostly, writing about works of science fiction and fantasy. Consider it aspirational “food fantasy.” I long to live in a magical realm in which I actually can cook delicious food for my family every week.

I did some Indian cooking twenty years ago in college, but am long out of practice. I wanted to introduce my 12-year-old son to this cooking style, and this is the book I chose. It is highly readable — by that I mean you might really enjoy sitting down and reading it cover-to-cover, without even getting out a pot or a pan. (But have a snack ready — it will make you drool with hunger!) It has a lot of great background material and cultural context about how different foods are used in India (for example, we learn why it was historically difficult to produce drinkable wines in India). But the author is not entirely a traditionalist — she makes practical recommendations about wines that will pair well with Indian food (hint: the strong spicing makes it pointless to use expensive reds with complex flavors; depending on the dishes you might consider sweet whites or fruity sparkling wines that you would certainly not pair with, say, French cuisine).

I had my son pick out a set of four dishes to cook, write out a list of ingredients, and set aside a whole Saturday to cook them. We are fortunate to have a local Indian grocery and the staff there was very helpful, so we came home with a heap of wonderful aromatic fresh spices. So how did it go?

Well, it gradually became apparent that trying to produce four dishes at once would overwhelm our small apartment kitchen. This brings me to my first cautionary note about the text: the recipes are for large quantities! Make sure you understand just how much food you are making before you start. For example, the meat curry we made calls for three pounds of beef or lamb! This one dish would probably feed eight to ten people when served with rice or bread. We had lots of leftovers.

The first thing we did was to make garam masala. This involved roasting a number of spices in a dry cast-iron pan, and then grinding up the resulting mixture with a mortar and pestle. (A $20 coffee grinder would have helped here, but we didn’t have one available and this was a lesson in traditional cooking techniques). This is time-consuming, but the result is fantastically fragrant and delicious. But this leads us to my first cautionary note about the text. It took my son and I much longer to grind up the spice mixture than I anticipated, cutting into our remaining cooking time. This was just the first slowdown, but there were to be many more. It takes time to chop 3 cups of onions, even if you just prep them for the food processor, and you’ll be in tears when they hit the hot pan; then you have to cook them slowly. You’ll have to set aside sauces and prepare spice mixes; you’ll dirty a lot of dishes. Many of the recipes require a considerable number of steps, some of which must be done rapid-fire to avoid ruining delicate flavors.

Note that I don’t say any of this to criticize this cookbook — all this attention to detail on the part of the author, and her unwillingness to take too many modern shortcuts, is what makes these recipes so authentic and special!

This cookbook is written for someone who is willing to take an whole morning or afternoon with the dishes, and prepare them slowly, enjoying the process rather than trying to jump to the finished product. Don’t try these dishes for the first time when you have guests coming for dinner, like we did! And I highly recommend trying one new dish at a time.

After the garam masala was made we put together the meat curry (that’s the dish that involves three cups of onions, as well as an unbelievable amount of turmeric). But the onions cook down considerably when you “brown-fry” them, and lose their pungency, and in Indian cooking the spices are often not just for flavor — they also contribute to the texture and body of the sauces. In this case the result is a very pretty, satisfying sauce for slow-cooked beef or lamb. Which brings me to another cautionary note: when the author recommends that you let the meat cook longer, or rest to absorb flavors, do so! We cooked our meat dish for the minimum recommended amount of time. It was thoroughly cooked, but still somewhat chewy, and the flavors had not blended all that well. We found, though, that after a couple of days in the refrigerator and a re-heating, the meat fibers had continued to break down and the dish had a wonderful tenderness and flavor.

I also learned the hard way that these dishes really require the right tools. I had a very large non-stick pan with a thick metal base, which worked very well for brown-frying the onions and searing the mat. But it did not have a tight-fitting lid. Without it, the dish doesn’t cook as quickly and evenly as it should, and the steam escapes, drying out the sauce somewhat. It would have been better made in a big Le Creuset casserole with a tight-fitting lid. Take a close look at the quantities and think “big!” (or cut the recipes in half).

Because our guests were due soon, we had to make some last-minute changes in the plans. We did not have time left to make the labor-intensive baby eggplant, so I made a pot of plain basmati rice and concentrated on the dessert, which was a traditional Indian pudding made from boiled-down milk with almonds and pistachios. For this I had acquired some expensive organic whole milk (I would consider this pretty much a necessity for any of the milk-based dishes!). This dish also took longer than I expected — and required a vigil at the stove. Basically, you bring the milk briefly to a boil and then just simmer, constantly scraping and stirring, until it is only a fraction of its original volume. You must be careful not to burn it! For this process you want a heavy steel saucepan without a non-stick coating (or something like an Indian wok), and a metal spatula or turner to scrape it with. Then you add honey and the nuts (optionally, decorative silver foil) and chill it, and it is done. It is really quite a simple dish and it was wonderfully delicious; everyone raved about it.

So, let me sum up.

If you want to take on this challenge, I would suggest that you:

T take advantage of the author’s suggestions for cooking in stages, cooking a day or two ahead, etc., and always use the extra recommended simmering or resting time for best results.

I am taking away one star because this cookbook would benefit a lot from some photographs. As it is, it has none, only a few line drawings. For example, what does it really mean to “brown-fry” onions? What does the author mean by “caramel colored?” A picture would be worth a thousand words. A new edition with some photos would be most welcome.

We are going to dive into this cookbook again, but a little more cautiously. I am planning to make a combination of a meat dish and rice dish — a biryani! But next time I will be better prepared, and I’ll take more time, and have more fun!

Ann Arbor, Michigan
February 14, 2007

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