Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Recipes for Success

Fortunately or unfortunately, a cookbook is as good as its worst recipe. A high level of subjectivity creeps into judging food writing, partly because very few people have the time or inclination to try all the recipes in a particular book and everyone's taste is different. We generally end up sticking to a subset of familiar favourites.

While reading Chitrita Banerji's recently published food travelogue 'Eating India', I couldn't help thinking of how food writing has changed over the years.

The trend of Indian authors seems to be to try and cater to as many different kinds of people as possible. Thus we have books emphasizing low fat cooking, fusion food, simple and quick cooking, Indianized Western or Chinese cooking, simplified regional cooking... All this may sound commercially viable (and it probably is) but it does not cater to people who want to be able to turn out classic or just plain wholesome everyday food without cutting corners.

Non resident Indian authors have made a niche for themselves but the desire to write new books perhaps results in the later books not really living up to the standards of the initial ones. Chitrita Banerji's 'Eating India' is terribly disappointing - a superficial glimpse of culinary styles seen in different parts of the country and is a far cry from her original 'Life and food in Bengal' - which was full of detailed and accurate descriptions and recipes of Bengal. Madhur Jaffrey's book 'An Invitation to Indian Cooking' (published originally in 1973) was a commendable accomplishment that introduced ways of cooking the traditional, well loved recipes of Delhi to the Western world. However her later books, though skilfully written and handy, contain recipes from many other regions that she did not have detailed first hand information of. I think this is the reason that they do not contain the same level of insight or specialness.

India has an almost limitless repertoire of recipes, but a superficial listing of them (as seems to be the current approach) is not particularly useful. What then are my favourite cookbooks? Penguin has an extensive, almost state-wise break up of cookbooks, but I don't really fancy them. The most useful books I find are slender, low cost editions written by local women with the intention of recording traditional recipes for generations to come. These are generally not available outside of the state they are written in, though they are gradually becoming more accessible. I like books which have distinctive recipes that do not require too much tweaking. It's always nice to read books written by enthusiastic and talented cooks without excessive attitude and temperament thrown in. Books that describe general principles of culinary styles and methods are always interesting to me.

My favourite Asian cookbooks are
Cook and Entertain the Burmese Way, by Mi Mi Khaing
Thai Home-Cooking from Kamolamal's Kitchen, by William Crawford and Kamolamal Pootaraksa
The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking, by Barbara Tropp

and my favourite European cookbooks are
Mastering the Art of French Cooking, by Julia Child, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle and
The Art of Viennese Pastry by Marcia Colmon Morton

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