June 12, 2005

It is a muggy Sunday here at Chez PTMYB. The air conditioner is cranked, the strategically-placed fans are creating a dull roar all over the apartment, and I am going to facilitate all of this madcap energy consumption by turning on the oven and baking a pie with some of the sour cherries I froze last summer and thawed over the weekend. There is a pound of wild asparagus from the market in the fridge, waiting to be turned into penne with asparagus, creme fraiche and lemon zest, just because I think it will all go nicely together. Usually my ideas for improvised pasta sauces end fall short of the mark I'm trying to hit, but I have a good feeling about this particular sauce. If I'm not sick of running the oven, I might make a little batch of biscuits, whip the rest of the creme fraiche, and make strawberry shortcake with the strawberries I have sitting in a bowl, dressed with sugar and lemon thyme. I might even take a bash at making more stovies, although, frankly, the thought of eating stovies on a day like today makes me wilt. In short, it is a day for home cooking, for puttering, for cutting the roots off fresh coriander and pounding it to a paste with garlic and chiles and salt (and cursing myself for not investing in a mortar and pestle, relying instead on a big bowl and a potato masher, which is not really a good substitute), for making roasted salt-and-pepper condiments. It should also be a day for ending my egg book research hiatus, although the jury is still out on that. (I put the research on hold about four weeks before I left for Scotland, but now I've been back for three weeks, and it's really time to hoink myself up by the scruff of my neck and get back to the damn library already.) What it definitely is, though, is a day for me to engage in barefaced, naked, unashamed endorsement. Dear friends, consider yourself warned.

In the past, I have recommended books that I enjoy, explaining why I enjoy them, recommending that you check them out if you are interested, offering to loan them to you if you are within loaning distance of me. This time, though, I am not going to apply any finesse. I apologize in advance if my enthusiasm feels like a cudgel; it's just that yes, I really am that enthusiastic. The book in question is Cooking Like Mummyji: Real British Asian Cooking by Vicky Bhogal, and it is a prize.

Of course, even unfettered enthusiasm needs a bit of qualifying. If you absolutely, positively can't abide Indian food of any variety, you'll want to give this a miss. (If, on the other hand, you're a fence-sitter, not really sure whether you like it or not, please do read on.) If you live in the UK, you should have no problem finding this book at your local bookshop, but US-based friends will have a harder time finding it. Amazon.com in the U.S. lists three copies, and I have urged my pals at Kitchen Arts and Letters (212-876-5550) to carry it. If you do decide to order it, keep in mind that duty on imported cookbooks is high, and you will end up paying more than you would normally pay for a trade paperback cookbook. But if you do decide to go through the time and expense of ordering it, you will be rewarded richly.

If you come over to my house and look at my cookbooks, you might come to the understandable conclusion that the last thing I need is another Indian cookbook. I have a shelf full of "key texts" by Madhur Jaffrey and Julie Sahni; I have my well-used, oft-cited, dearly-loved copy of Sudha Koul's Curries Without Worries; I have user-friendly "this is the way we cook today" books by Manju Mahli and Padma Lakshmi; and I have a particularly nifty find, Rotis and Naans of India by Purobi Babbar, a book of beautiful bread recipes that also includes the savory stews and sauces that go so well with them. I have more than enough to satisfy my spice cravings, but I can never resist browsing through just one more, and this was the frame of mind I found myself in when Lloyd and I paid a visit to Blackwells in Edinburgh.

I'll confess that I almost gave this book a miss. Ever since I took a wrong turn around a book celebrating home food that just rubbed my fur the wrong way, I've been leery of books that wear their home cooking hearts on their sleeve. In addition, the short bio of Vicky Bhogal on the back cover identified her as "a bright new star in the cookery world" who "wrote the first-ever academic study of British Asian Youth Culture and Slang and has worked for fashion and lifestyle magazines." Even as I knew I was being shallow, I began forming the snap judgment in my head: here was another cookbook by another posh young thing, written to entice the takeaway generation into picking up a nosegay of coriander and a sharp knife. Did we not have enough of this already on Food Network? Did this cookbook really need to be written? It's a good thing that I untwisted my knickers enough to get past my own bad attitude and actually open the book. By the time I got to page 20, I knew that this book would be coming home with me.

Vicky Bhogal is indeed a bright young woman, a stone-cold pro as a writer, and a real beauty, inside and out. (She bears a striking resemblance to my sister-in-law, Lori; they both have smiles that could run small cities.) She is also funny, intrepid, thoughtful and has a terrific palate. We can all appreciate a beautiful cluster of cherry tomatoes, but when she appreciates a cluster of cherry tomatoes, she turns them into baked tomatoes, bathed in olive oil, cardamom, cloves, pinches of sugar and salt, garam masala and saffron. Since I've been home, I've made this about four times, turning it into a topping for baked potatoes, mixing it into Greek yogurt and eating it with flatbread for breakfast, and just eating them right out of the fridge. While she is skilled at creating her own dishes, she is also skilled at sharing the dishes she learned from her mother, her father, her friends and various aunties. There are recipes for creamy chicken, old-fashioned saag, quick saag, samosas, pakore and carrot halva and the gorgeous rice pudding known as kheer. There are traditional Punjabi recipes such as peas in creamy cheese, and newfangled comfort foods such as Pasta with Yogurt and Chilli Drizzle (which Lloyd and I ate for three nights running last week).

The recipes alone are enough to recommend the book, but what puts it over the top for me is Ms. Bhogal's openminded and openhearted philosophy of cookery. In the introduction, she explains that once upon a time, girls learned to cook at their mothers' and aunties' sides, making the same dishes over and over until they got them right. For the generation of Indians that moved to Britain to find their fortunes, though, the priorities for their daughters began to shift. Girls were still expected to know how to cook, but they were also expected to excel at their studies and to move into prestigious, well-paying careers. Add to this the desire of young women to enjoy the trappings of Western society (e.g. listening to music in their rooms, going to the cinema with their friends, honing their videogaming skills), and suddenly these young women found the traditional way of learning to cook frustrating and more trouble than it was worth. At the same time, though, they recognized that they were losing something potent and wonderful in not being able to replicate the cookery of their mothers. Ms. Bhogal was one of those women, not wanting to spend weekend after weekend in a kitchen trying to determine just what the level of salt should be in a dish, but also not wanting to live on leftover pizza at university. Cooking Like Mummyji is her way of finding a middle ground, an easy reference guide that still pays homage to a magnificent cuisine, and recognizes its both its complexity and its simplicity.

Although in general I don't like to lift wholescale passages of text, I'm going to do it here, with two of Ms. Bhogal's headnotes, simply because to me, they encapsulate what makes her book such a joy to read and cook from. Any suspicions that she is a culinary lightweight are zapped into oblivion by this beautiful, mindful essay on the dish called khadhi:

I have to admit that I have a real problem with the word 'curry'. Neither Indians nor British Asians use this word. This word instinctively makes me think of the days of the British Raj in India. A time when any English dish that had a bit of chilli added to it was passed off as Indian food and anything, be it fish, vegetable, meat, was all curry. These concoctions were about as authentically Indian as Coronation Chicken. And curry powder? What is that all about? It was invented by the Colonials in Madras to export to England and is certainly not a blend I have ever tasted in authentic Indian food.

I also grew up very confused about curry sauce in chip shops. I am still not sure what it is made of, have not uncovered the tenuous link to Indian food and am not quite sure why it is there amongst the haddock and pickled eggs of such an English establishment, but I like it. Its soft sweetness and velvety texture was always comforting on my walk home from school. Therefore, there is a real use of the word 'curry' in this country and still no one really knows where the word originates from. There are many theories, one of them being that it comes from the name of this dish. The very idea breaks my heart as this, out of all the recipes in this book, is my ultimate favourite. Its seductive, thick, tangy, bright yellow, gram flour, yogurt, lemon and fenugreek sauce with chunks of soft potato and onion couldn't be further away from the pale brown curry in freezer compartments in the local supermarket. I am so enamoured with this Punjabi dish par excellence that I refrained from learning how to make it until very recently. I wanted to retain the mystery of it all. My Mum is the only person who makes it just how I like it and I love seeing it appear on the table. Because it takes a lot of time and constant attention, I am only treated to it occasionally (sometimes I have to bribe my Mum, like, clean the whole house in return, or sometimes I just get it as a treat when she is in a good mood). The recipe is a very old one and is one of those dishes that the younger generation are not cooking as much. That is a shame as this original vegetarian specialty should not be lost.

I was still drinking these words in when I found this essay on the making of traditional Indian cardamom milky tea, elaichi chaa. This made me laugh out loud, loudly enough to garner dirty looks from my fellow subway commuters:

This is the one thing that most British-Asian girls get asked to make but they either don't know how or have forgotten how to. Picture the scene if you will, see if it sounds familiar. Imagine...you're at a relative's house and your Mum has popped to the shops with some distant twice-removed Massiji (aunt) to pick up some coriander from the Indian grocers next to the gold shop -- they'll be at least four hours. You're left minding all the snotty-nosed little brat children and suddenly an elderly Auntyji turns to you, pulls your left cheek and with a toothless grin asks you to make her some Indian tea like a good little girl.

You have been spending more time listening to garage than being in the kitchen, despite your mother's desperate pleas. You have often thought that to spend a Saturday afternoon in a kitchen being taught how to make aloo gobi is a pastime only reserved for the truly socially hopeless pindhus. You have friends to meet, essays to complete, clothes to buy, hair to highlight, ring-tones to download and texting techniques to be perfected. Exasperated as your parents may be, you are happy with a life that is filled with bhangra not bhajis, daytimers not dhal, Moschino not mooli and diamante tikkas not chicken tikkas.

Yet here you are, stuck in this semi-detached in Bradford on a Sunday evening confronted by a slightly cross-eyed creature in a pale green floral Indian suit and brown cardigan with tennis socks poking from leather toe-thong sandals asking for elaichi tea, and there's nowhere to run. You are going to have to somehow make this damn tea and your Mum has left her mobile in her bag tucked beside the sofa. You also know fully well that if you fail, not only will your Mummyji give you a front and backhanded slap when she returns but the Auntyji will wail to the entire Indian community (India and Canada included along with the UK) that you are an absolute disgrace of an Indian girl and a shame to your mother. So here's how to make it just as they like it so this doesn't happen to you again. Sweet and milky, just remember to serve with a plate of assorted biscuits.

Ms. Bhogal says that her family are "the real Dons of the cooking after decades of experience and I am just the humble messenger who loves the results."  It's a beautiful statement, but she is far too modest.  In an industry full of bluffers, "instant experts" and corner-cutters, she is the real thing:  a real cook, a real writer, a real teacher.  Dear friends, this may not be the book for everyone, but if this is the book for you, please, please snap it up. Let me know if you're having trouble ordering it and I'll try to help you get one. And if the powers that be in the food-television industry ever find fit to give Vicky Bhogal her own television show, please do reward them for their good sense by tuning in. I know I will.

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