Appetite for Books
Indian Home Cooking

by Suvir Saran
Clarkson Potter, 2004
$32.50 , cloth
262 pages

Because Suvir Saran grew up hanging around the kitchen, he knows Indian home cooking. He credits his recipes to learning at the elbow of Panditji, the family cook and to translating these recipes for Americans, guiding them through the basics and allowing them to improvise.

It's hard to be too complementary about this book. The recipes vibrate with flavor, and the cook who shares them is friendly to a fault. Somehow he translates a mysterious cuisine into American kitchens with no diminution in flavor. We ate from the book for a week straight, one dish better than the next, and I am torn between these new favorites and wanting to discover even newer favorites. His substitutions are sensible, his instructions are meticulous, and his enthusiasm is infectious. You will want to cook every recipe.

If you've been to an Indian grocery or restaurant you will recognize the aromas that seem to miraculously be coming from your stovetop. Ah, so that's what fenugreek tastes like. Cauliflower with ginger and tomatoes? Of course, tangy and sweet up against the vegetable's mellowed bitter. Even a slurry-like stew of ground beef and spinach hums with fresh mint, chile, cardamom and ginger.

Some of these dishes may be familiar from restaurant menus, but Saran emphasizes that this is Indian home cooking, simple, not fancy. And once you make them at home, building and modulating flavors, you'll begin to internalize them.

Kitcheree is classic Indian home cooking, the equivalent of chicken soup. An Indian friend told me it is often served to old people and children; a gentle, yet nourishing food, and comfort food from another culture can be a transcendent experience. This porridge stew (keep reading, I know it sounds unappetizing, but trust me) of rice and and soft yellow split peas (which cook in no time) is spiced with cumin, bay, cloves, peppercorns, turmeric and pepper. The spices, as in many of the recipes, begin the dish. They're sautéed to release their flavor and then simmered with the rice and dal.

Even the extraordinary Indian breads like Parathas Stuffed with Potato, Chiles, and Cilantro become approachable. Follow Saran's clear directions and pictures, and again the house smells wonderful and you're eating more than you should.

And if you pantry is at all reasonably stocked, drinks and chutneys can come together to round out the meal. Apple chutney with cayenne and cloves, requires nothing more than opening a few spice jars, chopping an apple and letting them simmer. Pineapple chutney sparked with cayenne is an elegant and sweet counterpoint to spicy dishes.
Lassis range from plain and sweet to poetic concoctions of pistachio, mango and saffron-cardamom. Chai is a homey simmer of milk, tea, sugar and spices that should banish any thought of a Starbucks caramel abomination.

Desserts take a decidedly Western turn with a Blueberry Lemon Pie, Lemon Pavlova with Fresh Berries, and most charmingly, a banana bread from his neighbor, Susan, in which Saran recognizes the Indian spices, ginger, cinnamon, and mace.

This is the best kind of cooking, challenging and satisfying, but achievable and with the universal appeal of good home cooking.

© 2005 Claudia Kousoulas
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