Indian cooking – or to be precise, good Indian cooking – is a wonderfully complex blend of spices and flavours. Much of what the average restaurant serves is not good Indian cooking: all the dishes taste the same, as if the cooks have three sauces simmering in pots, to which they add paneer, chicken, vegetables or fish, according to what the customer orders.
In Classic Indian Cooking, Julie Sahni tries to make preparing Indian food sound easy. She writes: “There is no mystical secret behind Indian cooking. It is, in fact, the easiest of all international cuisines; the utensils needed are few and simple and the cooking techniques, except for several that are exclusively Indian, are similar to those familiar to Americans and Europeans.”
But then she continues: “Knowledge of how to use spices and herbs is the key that will unlock the secrets of the seductive flavors and tantalizing aromas in Indian cooking. Knowing the quantities required is only the first step. As you start preparing Indian dishes, you will begin to develop a sense of how the spices and herbs behave with the other ingredients in the dish. Some herbs and spices are used as aromatics, some lend coloring, while others function as souring agents. There are spices that give a hot taste to the food and others that thicken or tenderize a dish. Once you understand the different proportions of the various spices and herbs, gain a sense of how they interact, and master the techniques in using them, the classic dishes of India will neither seem a mystery nor be difficult to create.”
Doesn’t sound very easy to me.
Sahni, who runs an Indian cooking school in New York, and worked previously as an executive chef, knows the importance of preparation, and to that end, it’s close to 100 pages before she starts giving recipes in the cookbook, which was first published in 1980. The previous pages are devoted to explaining spices, herbs, special ingredients, equipment, cooking techniques and how to plan and serve Indian meals. The book doesn’t have photos, which will disappoint those who want to know what the finished dish should look like.
Recipes include samosas (two versions, one with spicy potato filling, another with meat); mulligatawny soup; ground meat in cashew nut sauce with chickpeas; Cornish hens braised in fragrant apricot sauce; whole eggs in spicy tomato sauce; shrimp poached in coconut milk with fresh herbs; glazed beets with black mustard seeds; stuffed okra; lentils with garlic butter; deep-fried bread with spicy stuffing; whole wheat flaky bread; and cheese dumplings in pistachio-flecked cream sauce.