Pushpesh Pant, a kindly looking man with a white beard and large glasses, poses in front of a large map of India in the opening-page spread of Phaidon’s India Cookbook.
It is an attempt to give some kind of scale to the country, which stretches from the Himalayas in the north, where wheat and bread are eaten, to Kerala and Tamil Nadu in the south, where coconut is often used.
As Madhur Jaffrey, another famous Indian cook and writer, puts it, India is larger than Europe (excluding the Russian Federation) and encompasses at least five faiths and 1?500 languages and dialects.
Pant has identified 10 major culinary regions and says, although each area has its gastronomic traditions, these boundaries are blurred by shared techniques and tastes. Some of the regions cover a greater area than the India of today and include parts of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.
The British, to a limited extent, have also had a hand in shaping the region’s cuisine and Anglo-Indian recipes—kedgeree, for instance—are still cooked today.
The tome comes in a thin cotton cover and looks like a bag of basmati rice.
Underneath the title it states “The only book on Indian food you’ll ever need” and, although this kind of self-promotional text is usually to be taken with a pinch of salt, in this case it’s true. I have tried only a fraction of the 1?000 recipes, but some of them have become firm favourites, such as the sweet and tangy yellow dhal.
In the grand tradition of Indian cookbooks everything starts with garam masala, for which there are two recipes. One is fairly straightforward, with cumin, dhania, green and black cardamom, pepper and ginger; the other adds fennel, cloves, cinnamon, mace, a bay leaf, nutmeg and dried rose petals.
There are sections on pickles, chutneys and raitas, breads, pulses, main dishes and drinks, one of which is a sweet basil-seed sherbet. There is also a section for “guest chefs”—which Phaidon also did in The Silver Spoon, a book on Italian cuisine—and serves to show a wider repertoire of menus from other chefs.
I liked the simple yet sophisticated recipe from Anil Ashokan, who owns the highly regarded Qmin restaurant in Sydney, for lemon rice. After the basmati rice is cooked, fry mustard seeds, chillies, yellow dhal, curry leaves, turmeric, ginger and peanuts and then stir in the juice from a lemon or two. Pour this over the rice.