Book Review: India’s Vegetarian Cooking

Reading cookbooks brings no small amount of pleasure to me; the best, however, broaden my knowledge not only of food and culinary arts, but also of culture, geography and humanity.

Monisha Bharadwaj’s Indian Vegetarian Cooking: A Regional Guide is one such book. Curling up to read it is not only a second-hand gustatory joy, it is also extremely informative in the best possible way. Filled with cultural background for every region and state of India, the book gives what is often missing from other cookbooks when they present ethnic foods: context.

Already familiar with Bharadwaj’s friendly and unassuming yet authoritative prose from her first book, The Indian Spice Kitchen, (an exceptional reference work on the ingredients used in Indian cooking) I was thrilled to see that she had applied her considerable talents to illuminating the vast array of vegetarian recipes from every corner of India.

This book does not disappoint; Bharadwaj displays the breadth and depth of her knowledge of Indian food without either overwhelming or boring the reader. Instead, she gives the perfect amount of detail to pull the imaginative reader into her narrative and the curious cook into the kitchen.

And if her delectable prose fails to entice the cook into recreating the flavorful recipes contained therein, the myriad sensual photographs will do the job. This volume is lavishly illustrated with photographs of ingredients and finished dishes of course, but also features breathtaking landscapes and portraits of the people of India. Temples, kitchens, jungles, gardens, open-air marketplaces and rice fields all come to life, capturing the vivid colors and textures of each of the states that Bharadwaj highlights.

Let me put it to you this way: the photographs in this book are so lovely that Kat insisted upon looking through the book with me. Literally–she saw the book sitting on the table next to us, and leaned toward it, reaching out a hand and vocalizing intently. When I picked it up and set it in front of her, she put both hands on the cover, which features tindora gourds with garlic, mustard seeds and cumin, and murmured wordlessly to me and it. She sat with me, and patiently, and with great excitement, went through the entire book, gazing rapturously at each photograph, and showing a great deal of interest, not only in the food photographs, but also the pictures that featured people going about their daily lives or cooking. Considering that the book is 173 pages long and Kat is just now about six months old–that tells you how colorful and interesting the photographs are.

But how are the recipes?

So far, the one I have cooked has turned out very well. Grouped together by general region, starting with the north, moving to the west, then the south and the east, the recipes covered include grain dishes, breads and pastries, yogurt and milk-based dishes, bean and lentil dishes, vegetables of all sorts, and sweets. The ingredients include a few native Indian vegetables, but most of the veggies are easily found in the typical American grocery store, greengrocer or farmer’s market. Bharadwaj includes suggested substitutes and variations with some recipes, which I think most Americans appreciate, even though most of the ingredients are available at any well-stocked Indian or Asian market.

I marked about twenty dishes that I really must cook in the near future, but I expect to make more. Look for reports on them as I work through the book; I really like to share recipes from the cookbooks I review so that readers really can get a feel for how practical each book really is.

Based on my experience of the book thus far, however, I have to say that it is a valuable resource for those interested in gaining an insight into the varied traditions of vegetarian cookery that exist in India. I hope that it helps banish the idea that vegetarian food has to be bland, boring or somehow lacking; this is simply not the case. Bharadwaj shows us that vegetarian food can be as beautiful, exciting and fulfilling as a meat-based diet, and her cookbook is deeply inspiring to me.

I cannot wait for the local vegetables of spring, summer and fall to start flooding the farmer’s market now, so I can start cooking up a storm from this book!

8 Comments

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  1. Question for you – there’s adish my roomie tried at our local Indian eatery – but she cannot for the life of her remember the name of it, other than “It started with a B”. It involved chicken, thin apple slices, grapes all treated as savory aspects as opposed to dessert – a creamy sauce with perhaps a touch of oranges in it. Any ideas what it could have been?

    Comment by Bastlynn — March 16, 2007 #

  2. Kat is not only learning to appreciate good food from other cultures, she’s also learning about the beauty of art and books. Plus, she’s just about the cutest little person on the Internet. I love reading about you, your family and your adventures in cooking. I love Indian food and your posts have inspired me.

    Comment by Nancy — March 17, 2007 #

  3. Bastlynn–”Bhuna” starts with a “B,” but it refers to a dry curry dish without any liquid. So….I don’t know. If she could remember the name, I might be able to help her, though I can say this–with the use of fruit and cream, it sounds northern Indian, probably Moghul in style, which means it is likely Persian-inspired. The other possibility is that it is actually Anglo-Indian.

    Sorry I can’t help more.

    Nancy, thank you–I am glad that the antics of the family are keeping you entertained, and I am very thrilled to have inspired you. If I can learn to cook Indian, so can anyone else.

    And yes–Kat is learning a great deal from looking at cookbooks with me. Morganna was the same way–she looked at cookbooks -and- some of her earliest television memories is watching Madeline Kamman, or as she called her “That Little French Lady” cooking on PBS. Morganna was about three when Madeline was last on TV, and she -adored- her. She also loved Martin Yan, whom she called “Happy Yan!” But she would watch those two happily when she was a toddler, and would ask me questions as they cooked, like, “What is that, and why,” and all those other toddler questions.

    It should come as no surprise now that she does so well in French class, I suppose….and she loves to cook.

    Comment by Barbara — March 17, 2007 #

  4. Indian cooking is great – if you learn even one Indian recipe, it will give you a whole new way of thinking about cooking and food!

    Comment by Wheat Free — March 17, 2007 #

  5. Indian Food starting with a “B.” Do you suppose that it could have been an Anglo-Indian version of biryani? I’m reading this fascinating book by Lizzie Collingham titled “Curry, A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors.” She writes about the various waves of invaders and how they changed was Indian cooking. For instance, cauliflower and certain types of apples introduced by the British and were originall looked upon with suspicion. Chilis came from the New World as did squash, corn, potatoes and pumpkins. Anyway, given how multi-layered Indian cooking is, I suspect that the mysterious dish beginning with a “B” is some Anglo or British variation on biryani.

    Comment by Nancy — March 17, 2007 #

  6. Please forgive the typos; I would type everything out in word before I inflict it upon the Internet.

    Comment by Nancy — March 17, 2007 #

  7. It could be a creamy biryani, that is true. Did it have rice in it, Bastlynn?

    Comment by Barbara — March 20, 2007 #

  8. Nancy–I reviewed the Collingham book quite a while ago. It was fun to read and interesting, though very Anglocentric.

    Still interesting, though, because I hadn’t realized how much impact Indian food had on English food.

    Comment by Barbara — March 24, 2007 #

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