Cookbook Review: Indian Essence by Atul Kochhar
A Contemporary Twist to Indian Cooking
I love cooking Indian food. But although I have the cutural reference of having eaten many English-style Indian meals throughout my adult life, I am pretty clueless about creating the right spice combinations without having a book to guide me. Unlike other cuisines with which I am familiar, like Italian, or French, which I am able to cook almost instinctively, I find it nigh on impossible to remember which combination of how much spice creates a curry that tastes just so.
One thing I am emphatically clear about is that I do not like to use pre-blended curry powders (with the exception of garam masala when I am having an incredibly lazy day). I grew up in a household with a few pots of Sharwood's Curry powders in the spice cupboard and I certainly did not enjoy the results of their usage, perhaps because they usually only came out just after Christmas to make yet another meal of the dreaded turkey leftovers that involved an attempt to disguise it, this time under a snot-green coloured curry sauce bejewelled with plump juicy raisins, a dried fruit I still can not stomach to this day.
In those days, as I recall, the Sharwood blends at least had specific curries in mind, like Madras. But today, according to their website, they sell a simple choice of mild, medium and hot. To me that suggests a dumbing down of Indian home-cooking in the UK inspired, perhaps, by the sentiments of lagered-up patrons of Indian restaurants who can only assess the virtues of a curry according to how spicy it is, or not. I am not a fan of Sharwood's new direction, but neither was I a fan of their old one, so they probably needn't care about what I think.
Instead, I like to grind and make my own spice combinations, under the guidance of a good cookbook. Since living in the US, and until recently, I relied solely on Healthy Indian Cooking for making Indian food. You can tell by how well-thumbed it now is, from the tears in the cover and the curry stains that spot the most well-used pages that this is a book I love. I really do. So when it came to purchasing a second collection of Indian recipes I elected to go fancy and try a more high-end approach to this flavoursome cuisine with Atul Kochhar as my guide.
"Atul Kochhar presents an enticingly modern collection of recipes based in the rich culinary tradition of the subcontinent. Using as his source material restaurant dishes as well as home cooking and the exciting array of Indian street foods, he has created 140 flavourful dishes made from healthy fresh ingredients and prepared in the quickest, easiest way."
As regular readers will recall, I recently hosted an Indian-themed dinner party and I put Kochhar's book, Indian Essence to the test.
Although the dinner party was certainly successful, I thought that Kochhar's book was a mixed bag of successes and things that could possiby have been better. First off he describes the book as simple and, it's true, I didn't have too much trouble with it, but I don't believe it is a book for the kitchen novice, it certainly requires some deftness in the kitchen. Indian cooking needs a great deal of organisation beforehand. Kochhar insists on the use of Kashmiri red Chili powder, for example, not something I've specifically seen listed in my local Indian supply store, Bombay Bazar. Another unusual ingredients listed are Anchur (Mango powder) and Nigella Seeds. If you are going to go town and prepare an Indian feast it will pay to do your spice shopping well in advance and make sure you can get hold of these less usual ingredients before you commit to recipes that use them. For readers in the Bay Area who are wondering, I discovered that Boulette's Larder filled in the gaps left by Bombay Bazar. It is good to note that Bombay Bazar sell fresh curry leaves and that they freeze pretty well. If you have difficulty finding these ingredients in your area, then simply go online to order.
Kochhar's book is full of beautiful photography by David Loftus which makes the recipes extremely alluring. The problem is that in most cases there is only one photograph per two recipes and no notation to tell you which dish is being illustrated. I don't really buy any design arguments for neglecting this information in the layout. Perhaps the beauty of the design would have been slightly marred by some indication, but balancing the form with a little function would certainly help readers have more of a clue about the visual appearance of exactly what they are intending to cook. Then I would have known what the tasty Deccan Fish Curry I made was meant to look like. I am pretty sure it was photographed in the book, although my version didn't look quite like theirs.
Even more disappointing was the look-to-result ratio of the Chettiar Eggplant Curry.
Ok, so the professional photography on the right is on an entirely higher level than mine I admit, but it doesn't matter how skilled with a camera, it is not possible to make a recipe that calls for a whole can of coconut milk but only one tomato result in a sauce that looks so rich and red. I was sorely disappointed by this recipe because it was the rich, oily red tomato sauce glistening on the dark skins of the aubergine that attracted me to it. It's hard not to enjoy food porn, but if the pictures themselves are untrustworthy then there is really absolutely no point to them in the real world and if I buy a recipe book it's because I want to cook from it as well as look at it. Still, this curry tasted good, and one of my guests even desribed it as "a standout".
Talking of favourites, the same guests, Fred and I really, really loved the Murg Makhan Masala which Kochhar describes as the dish which may have inspired Chicken Tikka Masala.
Full of fresh tomatoes and cream this dish is the whole reason I bought a 20lb box of tomatoes from Dirty Girl last week and froze several batches of tomato sauce. Now I'll be able to make it throughout the winter. The original recipe calls for a whole chicken, but I used just thighs instead. One of the reasons the flavours in this dish are so subtle and complex is that before you make the Masala, you actually have to cook the chicken using a separate recipe - that for Tandoori Murg or Tandoori Spice Roasted Chicken. It's really good and freezes well despite the fact it contains cream. We ate the leftovers for supper last night, so we should know. I would have no hesitation about making this one again.
Another recipe from Indian Essence that I am keen to repeat is the one for Karjikai or Coorgi Vegetable Puffs, a kind of samosa. I had intended to make these for the big dinner, but ran out of time so Fred and I had them for supper a few nights later instead, using some leftover Filo pastry in place of the specified dough. Apart from wishing the green beans were slightly more cooked, the spicy filling which also included potatoes, carrots and peas was a soft and comforting pillow in contrast to its crispy, deep-fried pastry shell.
I served the samosas with a sweet, sour, spicy and fragrant Tamator Chotni, Tomato Chutney, which is just about my favourite recipe in the whole book. I plan a couple of adaptions and hope to feature this in a separate post before the tomato season ends.
Back to the dinner, and another recipe I particularly liked was the Surti Santara Na Chaal Ma Bathka or Duck curry with Orange. I chose this pictureless recipe because I am fond of duck and have never had it served as part of an Indian meal before now.
It struck me as a little bit bizarre, and indeed Kochhar describes it as an "unusual Parsi-influenced recipe" which is why, I guess, I was intrigued. It turned out very well, and although the sauce was extremely thin, the pairing of the citrus and meat, which I think of more as a typically French combination, worked really well with the Indian spicing.
Less successful was the Marathi Nalli Gosht or Marathi-style lamb shank. This dish, which according to Kochhar, belonged to the Marathi Warriors, a priveleged clan who were allowed to eat meat, had a great flavour but I thought that Kochhar's cooking time of 45 minutes was underestimated for a lamb shank cut of meat. If I made this again I would try and cook it slowly for much longer so that the meat would be more meltingly tender. This time round it was a little bit on the tough side.
On the veggie side we had spicy lentils with mango, made with the Anchur powder, which I really didn't like although my guest made a point of mentioning it glowing terms in a thank you note. Personally, I am such a fan of Tarka Dhal, I find it hard to find love for any other kind of lentil dish in my heart. My friend Katya helped me out by arriving early and prepping the Dhaniyae aur pyaz ki Khumbi or mushrooms with coriander. This was another dish without a picture in the book, but Katya did a good job of making them both look and taste delicious.
It's my own fault that not everything was perfect - that is what becomes of trying out new recipes on a bunch of guests. At least they weren't unsuspecting - I warned them all in advanced that they would be the subjects of a certain amount of experimentation. The great thing is that when you cook such a wide range of different things, your guests are practically bound to like at least one of the things you have prepared.
I will definitely experiment with Indian Essence some more in the future, especially some of the other great-sounding lamb dishes, but I can't help but think it will never replace Healthy Indian Cooking as my favourite Indian recipe book to date.