“The highest demonstration of love in India is to feed someone.”
I don’t often draw attention to the price of cookbooks. This can vary so much – even day to day online – and often the pricing just doesn’t seem to make sense.
I also sometimes feel guilty about buying them at crazy discounts – like Simply Nigella early this year – and now Monisha Bharadwaj’s The Indian Cookery Course. Right now, today, on Amazon, this incredible piece of work is available for £7.99.
Yep, £7.99. Yesterday I spent slightly more on two pints of lager. My own copy, I’m ashamed to say cost less: £6.99. That’s less than a Chicken Pathia from the takeaway down the road. It somehow just seems that after all the work that goes into some cookbooks – clearly labours of love – they’re being given away.
The Indian Cookery Course is no small book either – it is nearly 500 pages long. Full colour throughout. If you are interested in learning to cook Indian food, it really must be the bargain of the year. I’m amazed. Not complaining, but amazed.
Indian Cookery Course is an incredibly comprehensive work – and actually reminds me quite a bit of Monika Linton’s excellent Brindisa, in that it aims to capture the food of a nation, its cultural place, regional variance. Like Brindisa, this is a complex, hugely researched work. Where it differs partly from Brindisa – which is beautifully produced in its own right – is in the visual direction. Indian Cookery Course is glossy, almost National Geographic-like in places, with technique step-by-step sequences that remind me – in a good way – of the kind of Marshall Cavendish collections my Mum had in the 70s. And none of this is a criticism whatsoever – I love the look of The Indian Cookery Course. It is old-fashioned in some senses, perhaps, but all the more successful for it.
Of course, cookbooks are neither one thing or another if you can’t cook from them. I don’t dismiss difficult cookbooks out of hand, because some are just so beautifully put together and/or inspiring that you love them whatever – but a cookbook that resists everything you throw at it really does stand out. The Indian Cookery Course is just such a thing – this book is remarkable in its precision, and in the success of the gentle coaching that goes on.
I love Indian food, but historically I’m pretty poor at cooking it. This book – I have to admit it – has helped me make some of the best tasting Indian food I have ever managed to put on a table. I have learned new ways of creating spice and herb pastes – sometimes surprising. Added to which, in the generous and fascinating sections on regional cooking, I have learned more about the complexity of a cuisine labelled ‘Indian’ here, but which is as far ranging, varied and exciting as any in the world. I have picked up this trail before – in Lizzie Collingham’s Curry: A Biography for example, or more recently Rick Stein’s excellent India book and TV Series. But I think Monisha Bharadwaj’s book surpasses anything I have encountered before. After two days, I had ordered a copy for my sister’s Christmas present (don’t tell her btw). It’s that sort of book. The price, you feel, must shurely be some mishtake.
I have never cooked Goan food before, although I have tasted it in restaurants. For some reason, it never occurred to me I would ever make it. Until now. Let’s just say that The Indian Cookery Course encourages you to try everything. It’s that sort of book too. An enabling book. So Goan food it was to begin with and – although I hate to say so myself again – I think it tasted better than anything else I’ve made all year. Well, maybe not the Chelsea Market pork belly, but really, really good.
I made the Goan Pork Curry (Pork Vindaloo, on which Bharadwaj is excellent on the origins) and I made the Goan Green Chicken. Both of these were straightforward to make – not easy, but straightforward, which is all good. I made the Goan Fish Curry, also straightforward. All were fresh, different, flavourful, delicious. In the way that cookery still retains its magic for me, there is something addictive, heartwarming, affirming about being able just to put a plate of something excellent – what you have made all yourself – on the table. By the time I had made these three dishes, I had an instinct that The Indian Cookery Course was most likely stuffed with such food, cover to cover.
So, I made the Karahi Murgh Kofte (Chicken Meatballs in Tomato Sauce), the Kerala Fish Molee (Creamy Fish Curry). I made the Chapatti. The Rogan Josh, the Buttery Chicken Curry. I think I’ve even made some I’ve forgotten here. They all cooked fine. I’m not sure how many dishes are featured in this book – hundreds – but I really do get the impression that you could cook your way through the whole lot, and they’d all be just as practical, just as superb. At each step of the way you’d learn new skills, new ways of looking at Indian food. I had been struggling away with Jessica Koslow’s admittedly wonderful Everything I Want to Eat when I started on this one, and The Indian Cookery Course just seemed to be from an entirely different philosophy. That’s no criticism of either of these incredible chefs – or both brilliant books – just an observation on the types of book here.
And the food in The Indian Cookery Course is only the beginning. Referring back to those cherished old Marshall Cavendish memories – in a good way, remember – I learned lots from this book, and will learn more. I learned from every one of the information sections – about the complexity of India as a country, about the Regions, about the imports into this vast and varied cuisine, from Portugal, for example. I learned about Ayurveda, and how “the basis of all Indian cookery is the ancient science of Ayurveda, the system of holistic healing which is the oldest known form of medicine.”
I learned about the six tastes of Ayurveda, of Indian food. About Vegetarianism. Religion. Home cooking and restaurant cooking. The building blocks of every curry. I was as amazed at the photographs of vistas like vast areas of red chillies drying in Rajasthan as I was reassured by the clear stage photographs of breads, or Khoya. Hats off to photographer Gareth Morgans: this is great stuff.
We only review cookbooks we like on North Sea Scullery. There are plenty of reasons for this. For example, it can be expensive to cook for days from them, so liking the book is pretty essential. Some we like more than others, but if we’re reviewing it here, we like it. Which is all tedious preamble & qualification to say that if we then go on to single one out, it’s really heartfelt. If you haven’t bought it, rush out and get it now before someone spots the price: Monisha Bharadwaj’s The Indian Cookery Course is very likely the best book I’ve bought all year.
If ‘cuisine cookbooks’ are about awakening a greater sense of the food and culture of a country, about a writer’s pride & love, their generosity and sense of sharing & introduction for cooks at all levels – then for me this book is right at the top of such art.
The Indian Cookery Course by Monisha Bharadwaj
Published by Kyle Books, £30