Made in India: Recipes from an Indian Family Kitchen by Meera Sodha, photography by David Loftus, design by Fig Tree. Flatiron Books, 2015. 9781250071019.
Vegetarian India: A Journey Through the Best of Indian Home Cooking by Madhur Jaffrey, photography by Jonathan Gregson and Sanford Allen. Alfred A. Knopf, 2015. 9781101874868.
Sarah: A couple of years ago, I decided to try to eat better and one of the ways I did that was to follow the USDA food plan. You know the thing you learned in elementary school, the food pyramid? They still have that, but now it’s called My Plate. You can look up by your age and height and weight and see how much of what kind of foods you should be eating. And I liked it because the plan is revised every ten years by a panel of people who look at current research on diet and health. The website had some cool free tools to track your food intake and exercise. I liked that it was based on scientific consensus and only changed every decade. It wasn’t based on whatever was on Oprah or whatever diet fad book is a bestseller.
Gene: I feel like everybody disbelieves science now, including educated folks, especially about what to eat.
S: Yeah, it’s really frustrating. And if you’re a total nerd, they have the scientific basis available in a long report where you can look up what the research says, all the citations, this is why we recommended this. And then you get to tease people on high protein diets. “Look how much bread I get to eat! Mmmm, yummy!” But if you’re on the 2000 calorie a day plan, you eat two and a half cups of vegetables a day, plus two cups of fruit.
G: That’s a lot.
S: It is. Compared to the usual American diet, that is a crap-ton of vegetables. I was having a hard time finding ways to eat enough vegetables. (Because salad is not very dense, so you have to eat twice as much as other vegetables.) It was becoming hard for me to do this.
G: But kale counts three times as much, right?
S: (laughs) Nope, kale counts the same as anything else, because this is not a fad diet. So I started looking at vegetarian cookbooks at the library, because I thought “Who eats a lot of vegetables? Vegetarians!” No, turns out the books were full of recipes for grains and other things. I had a hard time finding vegetable dishes in vegetarian cookbooks. So then I wondered where else I could try. I figured: India. I ended up reading through a lot of Indian cookbooks and, after discarding many, I ended up with two that I really like to use to cook. One is Vegetarian India by Madhur Jaffrey, who has been writing awesome cookbooks for 30 or 40 years. The other one is Made in India by Meera Sodha, I think this is her first cookbook.
G: It looks old, but it isn’t.
S: The cover is kinda cool, because it looks like a label you’d get on a bag of rice or something.
G: Because the cover has a matte finish, without a dust jacket — I assume it was issued like that? — it feels like a classic cookbook. The other is more glossy.
S: Part of why I chose India, besides it having a really established vegetarian culture, I felt like a lot of the other vegetarian books were approaching it like, “You grew up eating meat, so here’s something like meat that you can eat instead.” These recipes assumed you grew up eating vegetables, so here’s some tasty vegetables. Though Made in India has meat dishes as well as vegetable dishes.
G: I like it already, because I flipped to “A Simple Goat Curry” which sounds great.
S: The other reason I chose India is because my neighborhood has at least four different Indian grocery stores, so if I’m looking at an Indian recipe book, I have no excuse to not buy all the ingredients on the list.
S: So I went out and bought a bunch of spices, bought a bunch of dry legumes, bought a bunch of vegetables and gave it a shot. I tried it for a year, and it was really good. The authors bring their own stories into the books.
Madhur Jaffrey has travelled widely and tells stories about the people she met and the food she ate. So let’s take a look at her book, Vegetarian India. She doesn’t assume you have a background in this sort of cooking. (Both cookbook’s authors are British, and they know their audience members come from a wide variety of cultures.) But they don’t cut corners or compromise — I ran across a recipe in another book for Saag Paneer that said if you can’t get paneer, substitute feta or tofu. Gross!
G: I love paneer. But every time I can, I eat too much and get a stomachache.
S: Paneer is so good. If you live where I live, it’s easy to buy, and if you don’t it’s actually easy to make. Jaffrey’s assuming you want to taste the real deal. She’ll have stories about how she got a recipe, or how best to serve it, and tons of great vegetable-heavy recipes. I feel like if you picked this up and cooked a bunch of these recipes and served it to people who eat meat, they wouldn’t even notice.
G: I agree.
S: They wouldn’t feel deprived, like if you were serving them a plate of raw kale.
G: The flavor’s great in all of these, right?
S: Yeah, and that made a huge difference for me in helping me stick to my plan to eat a lot of vegetables. It all tastes delicious. There are several recipes that are otherwise very simple, but spiced in a way that you enjoy it more, you look forward to it.
G: In the other book, there’s a recipe for how to make paneer!
S: It requires milk and lemon juice.
G: That’s it?
S: That’s it.
G: I don’t have to put in that stuff from a calf’s stomach, what’s it called, rennet?
S: Exactly, because it’s from India. (laughs)
G: Wait, this only takes three hours?
S: That’s time it’s draining. You hang it up over your sink.
G: You could make it in the morning and eat it for dinner.
S: Yeah. I felt like I ate a lot better using these books. At first, I was looking for recipes that I liked in restaurants, but it turns out those taste good because they’re full of cream and butter. So because I didn’t want to feel like a ball of grease, I liked that these call for peanut oil or olive oil, and aren’t heavy and oily. The dishes are more homestyle. The recipes are drawn from all over India, which is nice, because like the US the food isn’t the same everywhere in the country.
G: I like the look of Made in India, it’s a mix of old style designs and cool poster art looking illustrations.
S: I think they’re all original graphic designs, but based on bright product labels.
G: Good photos, too.
S: I think that’s important, because you can have a book of the best recipes in the world, but if you’re flipping through it and you don’t see something that makes you say, “Yum!,” then you’re not going to make it. You’re not going to take that extra time.
G: Everything in here looks like something I would eat in a heartbeat.
S: There are cookbooks where I get partway into them and realize they require more equipment and expertise than I have — these were not like that.
G: These look great, and I’m not even a cookbook guy.