2 November 2022 · Regional cooking
By Susan Low
“India lives in several centuries at the same time,” wrote author Arundhati Roy, and those words aptly capture the essence of India’s cooking.
The country is so vast, so varied, so complex and multi-layered that it makes little sense to talk about a single ‘Indian cuisine.’ ‘Indian cuisines’ would be more fitting.
The country’s cooking styles are deeply regional, overlaid with cultural, religious, and spiritual differences, all of which change with the seasons – which, in a way, makes investigating India’s regional dishes and cooking styles all the more rewarding.
We have 17 books on our Indian bookshelf, from countrywide compendiums to books that investigate a single cooking style. Come along on a taste tour through our collection…
The food of Bengal, in the east of India, is strongly influenced by its history as part of the Mughal Islamic empire. Kolkata-born Chitrita Banerji’s Bengali Cooking: Seasons & Festivals provides an thorough guide to the cooking of the region, organized by the calendar. Banerji, who has a master’s degree in English from Harvard University and now lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts writes authoritatively on the food of her home. Her writing draws the reader into the seasons and festivals that define Bengali food as much as its ingredients and cooking techniques.
Taking Bengali food in a different direction and a totally different context – contemporary London – is Chilli & Mint by Torie True, published in 2021. True married into a Bengali-British family, fell in love with the food, and has spent decades learning all she can about it – and teaching others how to make it as well. The 106 recipes are from Bengal and beyond, from Sikkim to Sri Lanka. Try her Chicken Methi Malai or Squid Coconut Fry.
Two books in our collection examine the roots of East African Asian cooking. During the days of British Imperial expansion, there was a mass movement of people from Gujarat in India to British-administered East Africa (primarily Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya). In another mass movement of people in the early 1970s, families left East Africa, many to begin a new life in the UK.
These diaspora stories are brilliantly told by journalist Yasmin Brown, author of The Settler’s Cookbook and by Urvashi Roe. Roe, who first showed off her cooking skills as a contestant on the ‘Great British Bake Off,’ devotes her debut cookbook, Biting Biting, to “the joys of snacking Gujurati-style.” Brown’s book, meanwhile, subtitled ‘A Memoir Of Love, Migration And Food,’ follows her path from Uganda to London exploring family relationships and the sense of ‘belonging,’ all emphasizing the importance of food as a common bond. The book includes recipes such as Chilli Matoke and Mari Mogo, which offer a taste of the influence of Asia on the cooking of East Africa.
The city of Mumbai is a crossroads of cultures. Just about every community in the country has a toehold – large or small – in this megacity with a population of some 17 million. Although its roots lie in Persia/Iran, the Parsi community, says Mumbai-born Niloufer Ichiporia King, “is concentrated in Bombay [Mumbai] with large clumps in North America and Australia.” Parsis have a distinct cooking style that’s enjoyed at home, and in the ‘Irani cafés’ of Mumbai.
Ichiporia King’s My Bombay Kitchen is the book to turn to for a taste of Parsi home-cooking, traditional and modern. In this James Beard Award-winning title, the author paints a flavor portrait of the Parsi kitchen (including a love of eggs of all kinds) in recipes such as One Hundred Almond Curry and Dhansak.
The cooking and history of the dwindling number of Irani cafés is explored in glorious detail in Dishoom: From Bombay with Love (the number of these cafés has been falling since the 1960s). This cult book by Shamil Thakrar, Kavi Thakrar, and Naved Nasir, who run this hugely popular London-based restaurant mini-chain, has been described as “a love letter to Bombay told through food and stories.” It is one of the titles recently added to ckbk as optional à la carte additions.
As well as books that focus in on a single region, ckbk’s Indian cookbooks include several that take a more comprehensive approach, covering the wide range of local Indian cooking styles and regional approaches in a single volume. These include titles which take a chef-led approach, and others which are more focused on home cooking.
Prashad: Cooking with Indian Masters is in the former category — each chapter is devoted to a different region and features a number of high-end chefs who each share local specialities and signature dishes. Author J Inder Singh Kalra has been called ‘the czar of Indian cuisine’ and spent decades bringing together this book, which includes recipes and detailed histories of India’s regional cuisines. This is one of the most authoritative guides to Indian cooking and is a favorite of Cinnamon Club founder Vivek Singh and Mumbai-born UK celebrity chef Cyrus Todiwala. Try your hand at the Punjabi Erha Curry made with prawns or the Goan Galina Xacutti (a Portuguese-influenced curry).
Mrs Balbir Singh (1912–1994), born in the Punjab, was a chef and cookery teacher as well as a popular author whose books sold in vast numbers across many decades – she is perhaps comparable to an Indian Delia Smith or Ina Garten. Her book Mrs Balbir Singh’s Indian Cookery, first published in 1961, has been called “an enduring legacy to India’s culinary heritage.” And, according to research by food historians, she may just be the creator chicken tikka masala, often described as the ‘national dish’ in the UK. Try Mrs Singh’s recipe for Makhani Murgh and decide for yourself…
Mridula Baljekar, author of The Complete Indian Regional Cookbook, was born in Assam and made her name in the UK, where she became a restaurateur, cooking teacher, television presenter, and cookbook author of note. Baljekar investigates Indian food region by region, from Assam in the north (try Mizo Chicken Stew from Mizoram) to Kerala in the south (try Green Beans with Mustard, Curry Leaf and Coconut).
As well as giving detail on regional history and cooking styles, her recipes include helpful step-by-step instructions with photographs which make this book a great introduction for those who may be new to the cuisine.
In How to Cook Indian, Sanjeev Kapoor takes things back to basics, explaining everything from which commonly used Indian ingredients to stock in your pantry to the kitchen tools you will need. Kapoor’s roots are in the north of India but he moved around the country as he was growing up, so the 500-plus recipes cover the length and breadth of the country.
Kapoor sets out to disprove the idea that Indian food is necessarily complicated and time-consuming to prepare. Recipes for dishes such as the curiously named Chicken 65 from Andhra Pradesh and Bengali Aloo Posto are concise but not oversimplified, and give a real taste of Indian home cooking.
Priya Wickramsinghe, author of The Food of India: A Journey for Food Lovers, was born in Sri Lanka and writes about India’s complex history with clarity and authority. The section on the key influences on India’s food, from Buddhism to colonialism, is well worth a read for context. The 173 recipes include well-known dishes such as Butter Chicken and Kali (Black) Dal.
Available as an à la carte offering on ckbk, 660 Curries by Mumbai-born, US-based Raghavan Iyer is an approachable, readable guide to Indian cooking. Iyer answers the vexed question, What is a curry? and tells readers how to balance flavors – bitter, sour, salty, sweet, umami, pungent, and astringent – in Indian cooking. Recipes cover everything from Mumbai street food such as Bhel Poori Chaat to Hyderabadi-style Kaachi Biryani made with yogurt-marinated lamb and saffron. They’re easy to follow, too.
The late, great British food writer Keith Floyd may not have been born in India, but he was an enthusiastic fan of Indian cooking. Floyd’s writing in Floyd’s India is more impressionistic than some of the other books covered here but delivers Floyd’s trademark combination of great entertainment value along with a solid introduction to the country’s cooking.
Indian cooking has had centuries to evolve, to make way for new ingredients and react to religious and cultural influences. But no cuisine ever stops evolving, and cooks, regardless of where they live, will never stop experimenting and pushing boundaries.
Nik Sharma, a molecular biologist-turned-award-winning food writer, originally from Mumbai and now based in Los Angeles, describes Season: Big Flavors, Beautiful Food as “a guide to bringing new flavors from different culinary traditions into your own kitchen, and making them work for you.” Sharma combines the cooking styles of India and the US, seasoning them in his own inimitable style in recipes such as Cajun-influenced Broiled Herbed Oysters, a take on oysters Rockefeller, and Pulled Pork Tacos with Apple and Serrano Slaw, in which Mexican ingredients mingle with Indian spices.
In Instant Indian, Kolkata-born Rinku Bhattacharya, who now lives in Westchester, New York brings Indian cooking up to date and up to speed using the Instant Pot Multicooker. Yes, the recipes are fast, but they stay true to their roots. Bhattacharya divides the country’s recipes into four broad regional classifications, and gives plenty of background information in recipes such as Benarasi Alu Dum and Kozhi Chettinad – both of which are ready in half an hour or less.
UK-based Nisha Katona was a barrister before she left law behind to launch successful restaurant chain Mowgli and becoming a regular on television cooking shows on the BBC and Channel 4. Katona’s recipes are a mixture of Anglo-Indian recipes and the kind of home-style cooking she grew up with, and that she now feeds her own family. From Mowgli Street Food, try Cardamom Custard Tart and Indian Fish and Chips.
Reza Mahammad, who was head chef at the Star of India in London in its celeb-magnet heyday, is known for his eclectic, modern approach to cooking, which combines elements of Indian, French, and British cuisines. All of these influences come together in Reza’s Indian Spice. “There is classic Indian cooking, French influences from the time spent at my home in France, but also dishes taken from here, there and everywhere and given a little twist,” he says.