Saturday, 15 September 2012

Indian food revisited

Anjum's Indian Vegetarian Feast

Anjum Anand

The publishers' info sheet for this appetising book says that it 'will teach us all how to eat vegetarian for life'. I'm all in favour of that. It begs the question, though, why the author isn't a vegetarian. The intro is quite careful to point this out and, very weirdly, the full page photo facing the intro shows Anjum tucking into what looks like a chicken curry. Unlikely to be Quorn, but I suppose I might be surprised. The fact that her mother was a vegetarian, that her husband is a vegetarian and that her children are vegetarians just puzzles me more. You'd have to be very attached to meat to hold on to it in a family like that. She must be a very committed meat eater and this makes me think that she is taking advantage of her experience of vegetarians by writing this book. The publishers' info sheet goes on to say that by virtue of the fact that her husband and his family are strict vegetarians, this makes her 'truly an expert vegetarian cook'. Good, I'm really looking forward to working my way through this book, but I'm so disappointed that she doesn't practice what she preaches, or enjoy her own vegetarian food sufficiently to wrench herself away from eating animals. Putting that picture of her eating meat right at the front of her vegetarian cookbook is really weird. Maybe it's bread. Tell me it's bread. 

Anyway, we start with the traditional speil about there being an awful lot of vegetarians in India. (Could one of them write a book, at all? So we could have some vegetarian recipes written by somebody who genuinely buys into the ethics? OK, I'll drop it now. Sorry, Anjum, I'm sure you are lovely.)
The first section covers breakfast and brunch, and I'm already enthralled. Why have I never considered eating Indian food for breakfast? The Blackberry-Violet Compote catches my eye, at last a good reason to buy at least one of those dinky little bottles of concentrated flavour from the Lakeland catalogue - but then I read the intro, which says this dish isn't Indian. Oh well, looks good regardless. On the facing page is a very versatile little recipe for 'Spicy, crisp chickpea pancakes' which I'm tempted to leap up and make immediately. Serve with spicy ketchup - now you're talking. Might be a good move for a food writer who doesn't want to be caught eating tomato sauce on toast. (Actually, I don't care, it's yummy and who needs bacon?) I check the ingredients and run up against Carom seeds. Never heard of 'em.  I check the back of the book to see if there is some kind of glossary - no. Interesting, I shall rock up to the Indian supermarket next door to Lily's Indian Vegetarian place in Ashton and have a root about.
One thing I absolutely love about this book is the way they've pasted in lots of extra little recipes - the pancakes come with an extra recipe for 'Coastal coconut chutney'. It's a lovely new design idea, it adds so much to the book, as if we've been let in on some extra secrets for free, as if the author just couldn't resist grabbing your arm and saying, listen, if you're going to make these, you've just gotta try them with this... It feels as if Anjum's enthusiasm is spilling out and almost imploring the publishers: oh please, can't we just squeeze this one in? Like it.
I can't get much further without mentioning the typeface used for the recipe headings and intros. It's quirky and curly, I suppose it was chosen to remind us of Indian writing, but I find it awkward and distracting. I don't like the way the ooos are stuck together like infinity signs, or the way the cs and ks, cs and hs, and random other pairs loop up and then stick together. I don't like the weird ks or the way one f is set lower than the other when there is a double f. I expect other people will think I am laughably pedantic and boring because I don't like them. But they distract me from imagining the food and that's indisputably a bad thing.
Small section of drinks, good moment to mention that I'm loving the photos and styling on this project. Really gorgeous.
Ah! This is just what I wanted, a bhel poori recipe. I've been trawling the internet for one of these, and I've bought a bag of puffed rice from the wholefood shop in readiness for the day when I can work it out. All the recipes either say 'first buy your ready-made bhel poori kit', which I find ridiculous and aggravating, because I want to know how to make it, not just how to assemble it, or they get bogged down in incomprehensible detail and masses of ingredients I've never heard of. Is this the solution? Ach, no. Look, the first thing on the list of ingredients is a bag of bhel poori mix! I read the recipe and feel better. Apparently buying a bag of bhel poori mix is the way to do it after all, but if I prefer, I can buy puffed rice, sev and papri (all of which are explained) separately. Now I understand what's in a bhel poori mix, why would I want to buy them separately? I think I thought the mix would contain all the requisite flavours and spices, and that all I would need to do would be to add some bits of chopped tomato, or a tablespoon of water, or something. OK, I can countenance this. The interesting bit seems to be the making of the two chutneys that are essential to the dish, and there are recipes for both of them here. This looks really good. I can't wait to try it. Anjum suggests optional pomegranate kernels. Not convinced, so often these seem to end up in dishes purely because they look pretty in the photo. They look pretty in this photo. Hmm.
Now I am flummoxed and about to reveal astonishing ignorance and make a right tit of myself. Here's a recipe for caper berry chutney. I've got a jar of capers in the fridge and I never use them for anything apart from putting into paella. Here's an opportunity to use them. But wait. The method says, blend coriander, mint, chillies, pistachios, water and caper berries. Then stir in some capers. What's the difference between a caper berry and a caper, or are they the same thing? I check Google images. They look like the same thing. I check the jar in the fridge, it is labelled 'baby capers'. I recall a recent conversation with Gwil which I picked up a green knobbly thing that had fallen off a nasturtium plant and told him it was edible - are they capers? We interrupt this blog to bounce over to Wikipedia.
Now I understand! Capers are buds from a plant called Capparis spinoza. Caper berries look quite different, they're proper green berries with little stalks, and they are what happens if you let the caper buds turn into flowers and then fruit. Both capers (the buds) and caper berries are pickled but capers are what's generally used in cookery whereas caper berries are served as they are, as part of a mezze, a bit like olives. And those green things that fall off nasturtiums in September are not buds, they are unripe nasturtium seeds and yes, they can be used as a substitute for capers and pickled in the same way. Oh, pardon my ignorance but at least it prompted me to fix the hole in my knowledge!
I am absurdly excited by the mini beetroot cakes even though I've explored something not dissimilar in the past. They look great but I'm not sure how Indian they are. Does that matter really? They'd fit in well with other Indian dishes, so what's the fuss? Also couldn't help thinking the Indianed up cheese on toast was a bit silly, but you know, I'd eat it, it's probably very nice.
Arriving at the steamed lentil cakes in sweet, spicy, sour rasam, I felt I had found something a bit more authentic and interesting. It looks like a bit of a faff, but I'm glad it's there. Started to get worried again when I got to the Scotch Eggs, now come on, this isn't really Indian food, is it? Or is it Indian as long as you chuck in some coriander and cumin? Hush my mouth as I read the intro and learn that Scotch Eggs were introduced (obviously) by the British, specifically to Kolkata during the Raj, and they became popular amongst the locals and still crop up on restaurant menus in that area. Fair enough then.

Salads and grills seems an awkward combo for a chapter. Not a lot of salad and quite a lot of cheese which is surprising to me and reminds me to point out that, as I am on a bit of a vegan kick at the moment, the fact that none of these recipes are labelled as vegan-friendly irks me. I have to read all the ingredients, jeez. That said, I'm slightly enticed by the info about making your own paneer, and making a PLT after marinating it and grilling it. Fig and pistachio chutney sounds like a very contemporary invention but looks absolutely perfect for the Christmas present chutney - you know, when you want to give people something they haven't already got, but you also want them to like it...
The Juhu Beach Pau Bhaji looks good - well, sounds good, no pic and I would have liked one for this. Do you really have to keep mashing the veg for 30 minutes?
Pleased to see a Dhansak recipe, and to get the chance to grind up my own spice blend rather than dash to the shop for yet another masala blend.
We are into the curries in earnest now, plenty of stuff that has the right balance of interesting and actually edible. Oh, that's a surprise - a cottage pie, with Quorn mince! Not my thing but I guess somebody will be pleased. Sunday Lunch Kidney Bean Curry looks great and it just goes to show that an imaginative recipe title can really capture your interest - probably wouldn't have looked at it twice if I hadn't been intrigued by the idea of curry for Sunday lunch. Seems like an excellent idea.
Into the grains section and I recognise that mushroom biriani from the dedication page at the front of the book. Is that what Anjum is tucking into on page 6? I think I owe her an apology, as if anybody would put a picture of her eating chicken in the front of a vegetarian cookbook. Must be mushrooms. Sorry Anjum, my mistake.

Pleased to find a recipe that uses flaked rice, I used mine up recently in an ill-judged attempt to make an interesting variation on rice pudding - ended up with an enormous amount of wallpaper paste. Now I see why - you only need to steam the rice a little. Lots of nice ricey things here. Bit surprised that breads have been lumped into the same chapter, 'Gorgeous Grains' - I would have given them a space of their own. I think making the breads from scratch lifts a home-made curry into a bit of an event. Looking forward to having a go at the paratha - really useful photos, hurrah.
Can't quite see how some of the veg didn't make it into the veg section and are in a section called 'On The Side'. To me, a vegetarian Indian meal doesn't necessarily have a middle and sides, it's just a collection of dishes that you can eat together. Just me? And yes, I am inclined to think that life is too short to stuff okra with bits of coconut and frankly I find it unlikely that the author genuinely does the stuffing whilst reading something on her computer. I wouldn't want to be throwing bits of coconut all over my keyboard, and I think I'd need to be looking at the okra while I stuffed it. Trying to do it without looking would be like something out of the Generation Game (I know I'm old).
Pleased to find that there is a desserts section - often missing from Indian cookbooks. Possibly desserts are not all that popular? If Indian restaurants are anything to go by, most Indian meals end with nasty cheap icecream encased in nasty chocolate-flavoured coating, possibly in the shape of a penguin. Kulfi if you are lucky. Note to the proprietors of Indian restaurants - you're missing a trick! Where are the sticky syrupy things and the amazing multicoloured sweets? Bring 'em on! The chapter opens with some individual souffles which I have to admit look great - pomegranate, raspberry and rose, how delightful and yes, probably fit for a Maharaja. Loving the ginger-poached pears with pomegranate and poppy seeds, and the apricots with orange blossom and pistachios. But Indian trifle, no. Surely that never happened. Pleased to see a kulfi recipe - it calls for violet syrup which was in a breakfast recipe earlier. Gotta get some, this really looks divine.
Egg-free pistachio cakes look good, perfect pud for guests... Oh, and that's the end! That was a bit sudden. Oh well. It was a very good-looking book, I rate the content pretty highly and it's carefully pitched to appeal to beginners and people looking for a bit more of a challenge. There are classics and some great new ideas. There are a few things here that intrigue me, so it's likely that we'll be eating Indian round here again sometime soon... Nice job, Anjum, sorry I doubted you. Of course you don't have to be a vegetarian to cook up some exceptional veggie-friendly dishes. But with food like this on the table, why would you eat anything else?

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