Food obviously played a key role in Pushpesh Pant’s childhood. In his introduction to The Indian Vegetarian Cookbook (2018), he writes that he was raised by an extended family in Mukteshwar, “a small, sleepy town, practically a village in the Himalayas, which was inaccessible by car until the mid-1950s. One had to depend on local and seasonal produce almost all year round – except in the summer when fruits and vegetables from the plains were imported more easily.”
“Food at home was an amalgam of regional cuisines and reflected the resplendence of a pan-Indian culinary repertoire. My parents’ families, though Brahmins, had no inhibitions about eating meat, but my mother herself was vegetarian by choice. She cooked a wide variety of kebabs and meaty curries that we loved, but we never treated these as superior to the vegetarian delicacies dear to her [...]
“My mother excelled at transforming the quotidian into the exotic by improvising on what she had tasted in her life’s journeys. One day it could be sambar (lentil-based stew) from the south of India, the next day the same lentil might don the Awadhi garb. Bengali cholar daal (spiced lentil and cardamom dal) would be followed the next week by its Punjabi rendering.”
It’s obvious that the food Pant knows is a far cry from the generic Indian food familiar to the rest of the world. “India is a country and also a sprawling subcontinent, whose name is associated with an ancient civilisation. Except peninsular India, the subcontinent experiences six seasons – spring, summer, monsoon, fall, beginning of winter and end of winter – and traditional wisdom prescribes specific foods to be consumed in harmony with the seasons [...]
“Different regions in India can be easily marked out on a map as distinct food zones. They can be identified by their preference for a particular cereal as a staple, and by their preference for a certain type of souring agent or spicing. Each food zone treats the same vegetable differently: one may deep-fry it with or without batter, while elsewhere this would be considered sacrilegious, as steaming with minimal spicing is the norm [...] Depending on where they are situated, Indians even use vastly different cooking oils for the subtleties of flavour they impart. In Punjab and other northern regions including Bengal, mustard oil is prized for its pepperiness. In Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Karnataka peanut and sesame oil are popular, while in Kerala, coconut oil reigns supreme.”
The recipes in the book reflect the diversity of cuisines in the country. They include lotus root salad; morel pilaf; tangy stuffed okra; pea and potato samosa; mustard-spiced eggplant; lentil and vegetable stew; Himachali kidney beans; green jackfruit curry; okra with two kinds of onions; banana stem curry; lotus seed raita; and Indian bread pudding.