Thursday, October 12, 2006

Cookbook Review: Indian Essence by Atul Kochhar

A Contemporary Twist to Indian Cooking

Indian Essence by Atul Kochar

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.

photograph of food cooked from Indian Essence by Atul Kochar
Deccan Fish Curry

Even more disappointing was the look-to-result ratio of the Chettiar Eggplant Curry.

photograph of food cooked from Indian Essence by Atul Kochar photograph of food cooked from Indian Essence by Atul Kochar
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.

photograph of food cooked from Indian Essence by Atul Kochar
Murg Makhan Masala, Chicken in a Spicy Tomato & Onion Sauce

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.

photograph of food cooked from Indian Essence by Atul Kochar
Surti Santara Na Chaal Ma Bathka, Duck curry with Orange

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.

photograph of food cooked from Indian Essence by Atul Kochar
Dhaniyae aur pyaz ki Khumbi, mushrooms with coriander

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.

2004 | Frisson
2005 | Encounters LAX

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Cookbook Review: Indian Essence by Atul Kochhar


  • At 13/10/06 00:16, Blogger Beccy said…

    Joules and Dillon would have loved trying out those dishes!

  • At 13/10/06 01:32, Blogger Pepper said…

    Just blogged my first Indian recipe, which turned out pretty well - Indian cooking has always been the toughest for me to get my head around, due to the different techniques and ingredients. I am really thankful for the many fantastic food bloggers like Indira of Mahanandi who are busy interpreting this fantastic cuisine for us.

  • At 13/10/06 04:49, Blogger The Culinary Chase said…

    Wow! Hats off to you for cooking so many must have been very busy in the kitchen! I, too, have this book & have tried only a few of his recipes namely; Rogan Josh, Lamb cooked with rice & Chettiar aubergine curry.

    A favorite Indian cookbook I use is 'The Food of India' (isbn#9625930116). This book talks about Indian ingredients with photos (good for the novice Indian cook) while introducing food history of India. A section also describes how spices are used for their medicinal properties (Ayurveda). I enjoy eating most Indian dishes & especially like trying vegetarian Indian restaurants. Cheers! Heather

  • At 13/10/06 06:47, Blogger Kalyn Denny said…

    Sam, it looks like a fantastic dinner. Even the dish where you were not happy with the resulting photo sounds like it would taste wonderful. I have to admit, I'm quite intimidated by trying to make my own curry blends, although I have the proper spices and a good mortar and pestle too. Maybe I just don't have the right cookbook? This one sounds like a winner.

  • At 13/10/06 07:38, Blogger Julie said…

    Very helpful review, Sam. I have yet to find an Indian cookbook I really like (that is clear, relatively straightforward and accurately written and photographed). The last one I bought was this:
    I read two good reviews of it in reputable publications, but when I tried a recipe, the directions where very vague and the dish did not turn out at all. Indian Essence sounds good, but still a bit risky with the photo discrepancies. I will check out you favorite, Healthy Indian cooking.

  • At 13/10/06 08:22, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Thanks for the review, Sam. I think that even Indians have difficulty sometimes getting the spices "just right". There are regional differences in the ratio of spice mixes across the different states. So for me, I can cook Gujarati food almost instinctively as I have been cooking that type of food since I was 10. I usually have to refer to a recipe when I want to cook something from another region. Right now, I tend to refer to 3 books on my shelf - Madur Jaffrey's "An Invitation to Indian Cooking" & "Indian Cooking"; as well as Saran's "Indian Home Cooking". Jaffrey does a decent job of explaining techniques (i.e., how to make ghee and a good, basic garam masala recipe - I like it spicier though so add more heat to it). As for Saran, I tend to use his book to get ideas of how I can use different ingredients. Again, I find myself adding a bit more heat to his recipes as well. The food that you made looked delicious! And I can imagine the amount of time you put into it :)

  • At 13/10/06 09:37, Blogger cookiecrumb said…

    You're a braver lass than I am, Gunga Sam!

  • At 13/10/06 10:21, Blogger Owen said…

    Nice post, Sam - made me think a LOT. I too am a huge fan of Indian cooking and by far prefer cooking it at home to eating it out (except for Tandoori which you can't really do at home - and no - don't tell me you can - I've tried all the techniques - and have made a LOT of very good chicken - but it still isn't tandoori - that will have to wait until Biggles and I get our act together and build a tandoor at his house)

    Anyway - for all the beginner Indian cooks out there - I HIGHLY recommend Maddhur Jaffrey's Quick and Easy Indian cooking - it isn't the absolute best Indian food but it is still very good, extremely easy, highly repeateable and reliable and I have yet to make a bad dish from it. My kids can both make the tarka dahl from it and the grilled peppered chicken is incredibly easy (once you have the ingredients you can make it in half an hour) and very very good.

    I too HATE the bait and switch of how food looks versus what I end up making.

    I have yet to find a more advanced Indian cookbook that I really truly like through and through.

    I'll follow your search...maybe one of us can find one...

    and thanks for the wonderful descriptions Sam. I'm sure the meal was a LOT better than any of the Indian restaurants in town.

  • At 13/10/06 11:05, Blogger Dive said…

    It's been a while since I've been to Bombay Bizarre and it's great to know they sell the fresh curry leaves. I've been using dried, but so many recipes call for fresh and usually I'm at a loss.

    I have to be the contrarian here and admit that I do like using pre-packaged curry powder for flavoring and quick "curries". I've made my own as well, but I do like the convenience factor of the canned powders, especially the Madras powder. I've found that curry powders bought at South Asian groceries (or sometimes Middle Eastern grocery stores) tend to be pretty good, as opposed to what you'd find in Safeway.

    By the way, one of my favorite books on South Asian cuisine recently is called Mangoes & Curry Leaves by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid. It's part cookbook, part travel guide, and mostly a beautiful coffeetable book.

    They have a recipe for a green tomato curry that, while not very attractive (looks kinda like fake vomit), blew my socks off. I've cooked it for guests and they loved it as well. There's also a great recipe I've tried for bittermelon curry, which I'm sure all of you were dying to know about...

    (Seriously, while still bitter, it's not half bad.)


  • At 13/10/06 11:27, Blogger Anne said…

    YUM. I agree- how can the eggplant dish possibly look so red? It actually looks more like an Italian dish.

  • At 13/10/06 12:47, Blogger Beccy said…

    Hey Sam, just wanted to let you know Dillon had done some stuff to his blog and included some animation stuff you might be interested in seeing.

  • At 13/10/06 13:52, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Indian spices have always seemd so complicated so I've never bothered. You may have just converted me Sam.

  • At 13/10/06 17:17, Blogger Dagny said…

    I am with you on not using pre-blended curry spices. Of course now I am spoiled. A couple of my coworkers are Indian and periodically bring wonderful homemade dishes. And now I'm off to sample the dish that the parents of one of my students brought me today after school. They're from Sri Lanka and it looks like some kind of curry.

  • At 14/10/06 05:03, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Hi Sam,
    I am impressed with the awesomeness of the dishes you created. I loved that, the recent dinner party was "spiced up" with Indian cuisine..I hope it spiced things up between the couple ! :) Love visiting your blog.

  • At 14/10/06 12:26, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    You were very fair-minded, Sam. I received a review copy of the book and showed it to an Indian friend who kept exclaiming (like "Ha!" and "No way!") as she read the recipes. Most expressive was, "This would never work." She resented the tampering with traditional methods and seasonings. I haven't tried any of them, but I appreciate your running the tests for us. And I will wait until long dark winter days to do Indian cooking.

  • At 15/10/06 04:20, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    This is a really in depth review Sam and very useful.I would be suspicious if the outcome of a recipe was so different in colour and texture from the photograph illustrating it.And it would be awfully misleading.( One could wait for hours for something to turn red when it is meant to be brown from the very start).But that may not have been in the hands of the writer.
    But a recipe called "Marathi whatever" is not accurate.You have Maratha, which is a caste/clan and you have Maharashtrian, which means of the region of Maharashtra. Marathi is a language.It is like calling a Hindu( religion) a Hindi(language). Something that would make everyone crack up.

  • At 15/10/06 07:18, Blogger Ulterior Epicure said…

    Thanks, Sam, for pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of this cookbook!! The duck curry sounds, well, interesting... I'll have to check it out.


  • At 16/10/06 14:01, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Hi Sam, I am frequent visitor but commenting for the first time. These dishes look great. The spices you are looking (Amchur, which is dried raw-mango powder; and nigella etc.) are easily available in the South Bay stores ( India Cash and Carry etc).

  • At 16/10/06 17:46, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Sam - everything looks extremely appetising, I'd really love to try all of them.

  • At 16/10/06 22:06, Blogger P said…

    I second the recommendation of either India cash and carry or New India Bazaar in the South Bay. They really do have every possible Indian grocery product known to MAN.

    Also, there's a market attached to Vik's Chaat House in Berkley thats quite decent, and there's a Pakistani Halal Butcher in Berkeley called Indus Foods that has North Indian staples like goat (mmm goat!).

    The best indian cookbooks in my opinion? Madhur Jaffrey's Invitation to Indian Cooking and Ismail Merchant's Passionate Meals are fantastic for most basic recipes.

    Also, there's an interesting fusion book called Raji Fusion Cooking that has some incredible recipes (I'm remembering in particular seared scallops on a corriander/ajwain sauce... not sure what ajwain is in english, but its a slightly spicy seed). Anyways, happy cooking!

  • At 17/10/06 11:57, Blogger Alysha said…

    It's been far too long since I've cooked Indian food at home. The masala looks divine - we love chicken tikka masala.

  • At 17/10/06 17:05, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Sam, have you been to India Food in San Bruno? While it's not in the city, it's fairly close. I believe they have a much better grocery selection than Bombay Bazaar. The address is 650 E. San Bruno Ave. The market at Vik's in Berkeley is pretty good.

    I also have a copy of Mangos and Curry Leaves. While it's great as a travelogue and has lots of interesting notes, beautiful pictures, and a great range of recipes, I'm disappointed with the amount of spices they give their recipes. I made their Mountain Dal recipe and it was so bland. I added 3x the amount of recommended spicing and only then did it taste like anything my mom used to make at home.
    As far as cookbooks go, I don't know if you can find it here, but last time I was in India, I picked up 'Delhi Khana' (Delhi Food) by Nita Mehta that had really amazing recipes culled from different sources (i.e. the Muslim sweet makers, a well-known paratha makers all local to Delhi.

  • At 10/4/07 00:57, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Good for you for trialling so many recipes in such a good book. I was interested in your eggplant results, as we had very much the same look to our dish after following the recipe. I have cooked, with some success, the Chicken in Fenugreek leaves - which is sensational and very much the easiest dish I have found. Also the Rogan Josh. I tried the lamb cutlet curry, which was a disaster as the green chillies I used were far too large and, thus, gave us a very hot and bright green sauce, rather than the attractive red sauce as photographed in the book. still, when they come off, the receipes in this book are fantastic.

  • At 17/12/07 09:16, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Just checked out your Indian cooking section. I read your blog often but strangely hadn't noticed this section. As an Indian student in the US, I find Indian cooking blogs really useful. A lot are written by expat Indians so easy to find the US substitutes etc for things. I think someone already mentioned Mahanandi which is one I regularly use and would recommend. About the spices my mother would usually make a huge batch at a go and store them (apparently the freezer keeps them fresh). But she also buys a lot pre-prepared, the key is to know the good ones I think. Good luck cooking :)


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