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Five Cookbooks for a Taste of Regional Indian Cuisines

It seems a little ironic to me that one of the most popular cuisines in the world is also one of the most misunderstood. As an Indian, I'm not sure what bothers me the most. Perhaps it's the fact that everyone associates Indian cuisine with fragrant curries and roasted meats and breads fresh off a tandoor, without realising that there is so much more to one of the greatest cuisines of the world than a few stereotypes (delicious as they may be). Perhaps it's the fact that nobody seems to understand that Indian cuisine is so vast and varied that it differs greatly between regions within India itself. Perhaps it's because everyone chooses to overlook the fact that Indian cuisine has been vastly influenced by various external factors such as invasions, colonialism, and ancient trading routes between India and the rest of the world.

It is only by familiarising oneself with Indian cuisine that one can truly learn about the subtle and the overt differences from region to region. This is not a journey that one can undertake as a consumer alone; of course, one may become mildly acquainted with a culture simply by paying for it in supermarkets or restaurants, but to truly understand you need to pick up a book or two, or a series of books, and you need to know which spices go into what; you need to know how to make basic pastes for the curries you are so fond of eating; you need to feel the smooth dough in the palm of your hands before you roll out your naan, paratha, thepla, or chapathi.

If you've never cooked mildly spiced Kashmiri saag, or gently but firmly hand stretched rumaali roti, holding your breath so it doesn't tear; if you've never made spicy mango pickles like they make in the desert state of Gujarat, or cooked macher jhol, the fish in mustard sauce recipe from the eastern state of Bengal; if you've never stirred moong dal ka halwa, the lentil pudding that hails from central India, over a low flame until your arms ached, or made the spiced zingy tamarind rice from south India, with the slow heat permeating your taste buds as you eat it with cooling yoghurt, the following books are great places to start.

An Invitation to Indian Cooking

This is one of the first cookbooks I ever owned, and it came to me via my mother; she was buying a new copy and she gave me her dog-eared version, complete with stains and spills. I think I was almost fourteen when I got it, and it was my first cookbook; it was also the first cookbook I read at night before I went to bed, like it was a novel. And well it may have been; Jaffrey's writing style is delightful, and I may credit her with being one of the first people to influence me to consider food writing. The book begins with a heady introduction to Indian cuisine, where she talks about the variety of Indian cuisine and how vast a subject it is. She also reminisces about her life, and the personal anecdotes, along with the imagined scenarios, are an amazing introduction to the book and to the author. The recipes themselves are packed into twelve lengthy chapters, and each chapter is preceded by more delightful essays. 

Classic Indian Cooking

First published in 1980, this book is more or less a complete course in Indian cuisine, and remains one of the most comprehensive. Sahni demystifies Indian cuisine and makes it accessible by explaining the preparation and techniques behind each dish, and her book details both vegetarian and non-vegetarian recipes from across the length and breadth of India. Sometimes referred to as the Bible of Indian cooking, the book is packed with information from cover to cover, and there are no photographs as space fillers. The book is primarily designed for North American kitchens and uses ingredients that are readily available. Having said that, I find it equally useful and relevant in my Indian kitchen.

The Complete Asian Cookbook (New edition)

Charmaine Solomon has been hailed as “the queen of Asian cooking in Australia” and it is with good reason; The Complete Asian Cookbook is one of the most iconic and authoritative cookbooks in publishing history, and has a wide following around the world. The book has now been divided into six sections, each section representing an Asian cuisine. The India & Pakistan cookbook is packed with authentic Indian and Pakistani recipes, and in many cases the labour-intensive preparations have been scaled back and simplified, making it easier and more accessible to home cooks the world over. From a variety of flatbreads to kormas to spicy snacks like pakoras and samosas to delicate sweet treats, this is a cookbook that absolutely belongs on this list.

660 Curries

If you're not interested in knowing how to make your own spice mixes and pastes for various gravies and sauces, and if you don't own a spice grinder (I use a coffee grinder helpfully marked 'spices' for the purpose), then this book probably isn't for you. Yes, it is a little preparation-heavy, and yes, it does ask some time of you to devote yourself to food preparation, so unless you do some things ahead of time, this book is not one you want to turn to for week night dinners. Having said that, if you've got the time and the inclination, you can't go wrong. Iyer focuses on curries across both the vegetarian and non-vegetarian spectrum, and doesn't play fast and loose with the flavour profiles. All the recipes are authentic (and he even includes a history of the recipe, along with a little tale of how he came by it), and I have to confess that even I hadn't heard of some of the dhals that are featured in this beautiful book. It's one of the newer Indian cookbooks on my shelf, but it was one of those rare things: a good buy.

Prashad Cookbook

Vegetarianism in India is whole and absolute and a way of life; as a vegetarian who grew up in India and then travelled around the world, I can attest to the fact that in India there is no obsession about how to 'make up for not eating meat'. I know from personal experience that vegetarian food can be delicious, wholesome, sophisticated, and nutritious, all at the same time, and that's why I'm glad that cookbooks like this exist. I think it's a good reminder to everyone that vegetarianism is an accessible lifestyle, and that there's nothing missing from one's diet when one embraces it. The Prashad Cookbook features over 100 recipes that star amazing fresh produce and spices that are both delicate and flavourful. The recipes are from Prashad restaurant, which was voted Ramsay's Best Restaurant runner-up. First published in 2012, the authenticity of this book is unmistakable, and the recipes are delectable, relying heavily on fresh ingredients that are now readily available in most supermarkets.

I've come to the end of my list, and I realise there's so much more I want to include, so this list may just be the first in a list of lists. What's your favourite Indian cookbook? Let me know in the comments!


Awanthi Vardaraj is a freelance writer who is obsessed with food and books. She is a tumbleweed who belongs everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Current location: India


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