Friday 25 October 2013

Indian Cooking Unfolded & Uncomplicated By Raghavan Iyer | Recipes & Book Review

While I write this post, I must confess my heart is humming with joy. It is not always that you are sent a copy of your favourite cookbook author for a review and for that I need to thank John from Workman Publishing, New York, who are the publishers of the book.
I have been a proud owner of 660 Curries by Raghavan Iyer and ever since then I’ve been an ardent fan of his cooking and teaching style. He is a pro at what he does and his new book is all about that.
Let me first begin with the appearance of the book. The appearance is quite unassuming. It does not have the customary glossy lushness but the book attracts you because of the smiling picture of the mentor, creator of the book Mr Raghavan Iyer, who is seen cooking on the cover page.

The book opens with an acknowledgment from the author where he has expressed gratitude by naming all the people who were involved in the making of this book and how their contribution had helped him. Next comes the contents, giving you a fair idea what the book comprises of and how the book has been split.
The book takes you through a culinary voyage of  recipes which are compartmentalized into ten chapters, of which eight are completely devoted to the recipes. The Indian Cooking Unfolded presents Raghavan’s system for learning to cook Indian food through one hundred basic recipes made using ten ingredients or less. Each chapter can be taken as a course of a meal where each recipe teaches a technique; which could be a cooking technique or a way to combine ingredients for exceptional flavours.
This book has been created keeping in mind the people living in USA, who are interested in learning about Indian food. But after trying recipes from the book I realized that it’s a book for anyone who would like to try their hands on Indian Cooking. The highlighted factor of this book is the fact that the author has tried to break the fallacy, that the Indian cooking needs a whole lot of ingredients, spices and condiments. He has created recipes in such a manner that for no ingredient in the book one needs to visit a specialised Indian grocery store and all recipes need, ten or less ingredients.
Each chapter opens with a lesson plan giving a small description of each dish in the chapter. The recipes have been arranged from easiest to complex ones. Each dish starts with an introduction from the author explaining why he likes that particular dish and where he tasted it first.
When I read the book, I realized, there are no major / complex recipes and those which are a bit tricky, the author has expounded them in great details that they appear to be easy. It also seemed that there’s simply no pruning on the illustration of recipes. There are no short cuts taken!!
Even if you do not cook, the book is informative and provides a thoughtful and insightful read. If you are fond of reading in details, this is the book to have. Meticulous research has been done on the history of spices and the extra credits added in each recipe provides a whole lot of information and knowledge; for example one of the extra credits mentions that ‘refined sugar is not vegan, as charcoal is used in the processing, which is derived from bone ash’. The extra credits also provides substitutes for ingredients where ever possible. One can find cooking tips for creating the recipe in this section. Also, in which section of the grocery store one can locate a certain ingredient, has been helpfully mentioned in the extra credits, which also indicates careful observation of the author.
There are seven step by step fold outs in the book. Other than that a few more recipes are explained step by step. Many recipes have pictures and I was happy to see them. Being a visual person, I definitely comprehend  better when a picture is associated with a recipe and if there are step by step pictures…you have won me!!
I decided to try a few recipes to resolve that my observations about the book are correct and I particularly wanted to crosscheck that the explanations are as much flawless, as they appear to be while reading... I decided to try a flatbread, a curry and a sweet.
Since, in India it’s peak festive season, I decided to try the Funnel cake or Jalebis as I’ve been wanting to try them for quite sometime and the recipe’s step by step foldout encouraged me to do so!! I also decided to try the Naan, which is an Indian flatbread. I’ve made Naan many times earlier and posted here too but I had never tried using an egg. The third recipe which intrigued me was the tamatar chana daal aloo, which is a fatless recipe and makes use of only three spices. I was curious to know how a fatless recipe would taste with minimum use of spices..
I decided to follow all the recipes verbatim. I wanted to see how well the directions were given and how precise the measurements are. If anything goes wrong with the recipe using the directions and measurements provided in the book, then I would use my experience and culinary knowledge to set it right..This would give me a fair idea how a novice in Indian cooking, would learn from the cookbook and also where one could go wrong..
Vegan | Dairy Free
The first thing I decided to try was the Jalebi or Funnel Cake in saffron Syrup, as the recipe asked for a resting time of 1-2hrs for the batter to ferment. I followed the procedure verbatim. On mixing the batter using the amount of water mentioned in the book, the batter appeared watery but I overlooked my doubt at that point of time, thinking that the batter might thicken after fermenting and it did but not as much. I was extremely doubtful of how to squeeze out a perfect shaped funnel cake using such a watery batter…
At that point, where I felt that the measurements provided in the book failed, I used presence of mind and added more APF to the mix and kept it aside for ten more minutes and then used it..I had seen the halwai’s in India piping out hot jalebis many times and had also noticed that the batter was thick, that observation helped me solve my problem but I did realize that the book needs to mention the consistency of batter and also to indicate that the water needs to be added gradually to get a thick consistency, as the absorption capacity varies from flour to flour..

The temperature mentioned for frying in the book is apt and yields crisp Jalebis. I made the first batch exactly following Raghavan’s instruction and in the second batch I followed how the halwai’s do, so fried the Jalebis first on a low flame till half done and then increased the flame to a medium high and fried till done. I realised the second batch tasted better than the first.
Squeezing out perfect jalebis is an art which comes out of practice, fortunately after one or two wrong shapes I managed decently later on. Another thing that one should take care while making jalebi and is not mentioned in the book, is to keep mixing the batter after every batch. On resting, the batter froths up and air pockets are formed, which needs to be removed before squeezing out the jalebi. If one squeezes out without removing the trapped air, the jalebis will have small air holes on it.

Recipe for Funnel Cake in Saffron Syrup (Jalebi)

For Funnel Cake

1/2cup APF/ maida
1tsp chickpea flour/besan
1/2tsp active dry yeast
1tsp warm water
1/2tsp sugar
1/2tsp refined oil
1/4cup– 1/2 cup water

For Saffron Syrup

1cup refined sugar
1/2cup water
1tbsp lemon juice
1/2tsp cardamom powder
1/2tsp saffron threads
Oil for deep frying
Special equipment required
a squirt bottle/ ketch up bottle
flat fry pan

Method  For Jalebi

Activate the yeast using warm water and sugar and add it to APF and chickpea flour mix. Add water gradually to make a thick, lump free batter, if required add more water. Let the batter rest for 1-2hrs and then mix again. Fill in the squirt bottle or a disposable plastic bag cone (cut it at the end).
Using all the ingredients of the syrup make a one string consistency syrup. A drop of syrup when pressed between thumb and finger should produce a string. At this stage remove it from fire. Warm the syrup just before adding fried jalebi.
Heat the oil in a flat pan (2inches of depth) to a temperature such that if a drop of batter is added it should gradually float to the top. Reduce the flame to the lowest mark and squeeze out jalebis, 3-4 at a time. Fry on a medium-low flame till half done and then fry on medium-high flame till done.(the book mentions to fry at 275F). Remove them using slotted spoon and transfer them in saffron syrup.
Completely coat them with the syrup and then transfer them to a cooling rack. Keep a plate under the rack to collect the extra syrup.
The jalebi can also be fried in clarified butter/ ghee but then it will not be dairy free or vegan.
Serve hot.
Naan –Tamatar Chana Daal
The chana daal aloo curry turned out awesome and I never missed the fat in it. The aroma of the roasted spices gives  a nice smoky flavour to the curry. My only input to the curry when I cook it the next time will be, to soak the lentils for an hour before cooking,  as it fastens the cooking procedure and reduces consumption of LPG. I was surprised that the book doesn’t ask for soaking the lentils in fact it says that does not require pre soaking..
I made the Naan in the tandoor and slightly overdid my first Naan as I was removing the jalebis that time. Anyhow, the Naan turned out flawless and was soft, the only flaw was in the procedure. The procedure asks to divide the dough into 4 parts. The pictures in the cookbook show small sized naan, whereas if the dough is divided into 4 parts, it makes 4 big naan of about 12”-15” size. Also, the book says roll naan to 3”-5” diameter but does not speak about the thickness of the flatbread. For a novice, it is very important to know the thickness of the flatbread as on cooking it can turn chewy, if it’s too thin. And if it’s too thick, it takes longer time to cook and doesn’t look like a Naan.
I would suggest to divide dough into 8-10 parts and then roll out 3-5 inch diameter naan of 3-4mm thickness.

For Smoky Yellow Split Peas/  Tamatar Chana daal aloo

1cup Yellow Split peas/ Bengal gram/ Chana daal
5 medium sized potatoes
1/4tsp turmeric powder
4dry red chillies
1tbsp coriander seeds
1tsp cumin seeds
1 medium sized tomato
salt to taste
1tbsp chopped cilantro

Method For tamatar Chana Daal

Wash the lentils 3-4 times and add 4cups of water to it. Transfer in a thick bottom pan, bring it to a boil, remove the froth. Add turmeric and potatoes and mix it thoroughly. Cook covered for 20-25mins (on a medium-low flame) or till the potatoes are done and lentils are cooked. Stir in between.
Meanwhile roast the red chillies, coriander seeds and cumin seeds in a fry pan on a low flame till it produces an aroma. Cool and grind them together. Now add tomatoes and grind to a paste.
Add the tomato melange and salt to taste, to the curry and mix. Cook for 10-12mins or till the sauce thickens. If required, one can crush a few potatoes by pressing the backside of the ladle. Mix the cilantro. Serve hot with rice or phulka. I served  it with naan.

For Naan

2tsp baking powder
1tsp salt
1 egg,  lightly beaten
oil, for brushing the dough
butter or ghee, for the finished naan
1 cup warm water

Method For NaaN

Take APF in a bowl and  add  salt and baking powder. Mix it thoroughly.
Make a well in the centre and put the egg and quickly mix it. You may feel the flour dry with a few wet spots.
Using the warm water knead a soft dough which might feel sticky but still manageable. Knead for a few minutes to make a smooth, soft ball.
If you want big Naan, then break the dough into 4parts and lightly grease them with oil. Keep covered with a damp cloth. Rest it for 30mins.
Lightly flour the work area and roll out the Naan and cook it in a tandoor or even on a griddle. Smear some butter or ghee and serve hot.
Smoky Yellow Split Peas- Vegan | Gluten Free | Dairy Free; Naan- Lacto-Ovo Vegetarian

After trying the recipes my opinion about the book swayed a bit, as I realized that the procedures and measurements had flaws here and there but the recipes are really good and worth trying. What matters is the flavour and that’s uncompromised.
I am still amazed at the meticulous and detailed work Mr Raghavan Iyer has put up. As a teacher he knows where the students go wrong and has explained procedures in great details to avoid complications and failures. But as the teacher would say, there’s always some scope of improvement..
After reading the book, I’ve become knowledgeable in terms of spices and their use. I can also proudly say now, that I’ve learnt the eight ways of using a spice. Yes, you heard it right, eight ways…read the book to believe it!!
I liked this book for one more reason. It is a book which has a plenty of vegetarian options to try and I’m so looking forward to try the Cardamom scented Cheese with Peppers, The Cashew-Pistachio Burfi and the Sweet scented Pilaf of the many recipes..
I loved the last section of the book as much. This section is devoted to Menus for Great Indian Meals. There are menus for various occasions for example, menu for picnic,  a winter menu, Indian soul food, Gluten Free gala or a Vegan table.
I appreciate the fact that each recipe has been categorised into Vegan/ Lacto-OvoVegetarian/ Gluten Free etc. This is a deciding factor for many to choose recipes.
All in all, I would just conclude that it is a good book to learn basic Indian cuisine. It will hold a special place in my heart for not only the recipes but also the immense knowledge that I attained by reading the book.
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cookingwithsapana said...

Wow wonderful review ..and both the dishes looks fabulous ! Mind blowing....

Shama Nagarajan said...

awesome review dear....yummy delights

kalyani said...


AparnaRajeshkumar said...

Nice review , i should try the channa dal curry !

Shoba said...

Seriously to be frank fantastic and the review is good.

Priya Suresh said...

Mindblowing review Pari, i will get this book while i'll come to India for the sure. Am in love with that naan and dal..both makes me hungry.

Anonymous said...

Hi Pari,

iu love Raghavan Iyer`s gravies. He has really travelled the length and breadth of India and accumulated the gravies.


Vegetable Korma said...

Thank you for your suggestion on this Indian Cook Book. Anyone trying to learn how to cook Indian food would probably want to give this book a read. Great post.

Gauri said...

Great review and the jalebis look so tempting... awesome colour

Unknown said...

Wow.. the jalebi luks very inviting.. but i am afraid i cannot make those swirls :( is there any tip for that ?

Pari Vasisht said...

Those swirls come only through practice. Before trying in the pan try doing them on a plastic sheet. Hope this helps you.


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