Book of the week: a classic of Indian home cooking

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Rijua Das on Gujarati Recipes Kiwi Cookbook

Indian home cooking is the art of watching and trusting your instincts. Most people learn to cook by watching others cook, and gaze is the preferred unit of measurement. I find in me an inexplicable, almost pathological inability to follow a recipe. I find my brain melting under the tyranny of measurements and cooking times. I would much rather make my own spice blends and eyeball measurements and judge by the color of the food what needs more time in the fire. There is a certain freedom and joy in inventing as you go but it is a trait that makes a bad baker.

But I love cookbooks. Their pleasures are many. They are beautiful, they are full of endless possibilities, they make life full, joyful and tasty. There are two types of Indian cookbooks – those that repackage a kind of pan-Indian cuisine for cleaner, faster contemporary kitchens and those that revive hyper-local, regional and traditional Indian recipes. A little of this, a little of that by Kiwi Indians Jayshri Ganda and her mother Laxmir is firmly in the second category. He is a revivalist at heart and wants to preserve family traditions.

After Laxmi and her husband Tahkor Ganda retired after selling their family dairy in Christchurch, Jayshri called her mother to ask for advice on cooking. It allowed them to spend eight months cooking and recording daily Gujrati recipes, and the result is A bit of that. A few beautiful photos of the Ganda grandchildren playing with rotis and poppadoms show that food traditions are alive and well in the Ganda household.

Growing up in West Bengal in the 90s and early 2000s, we didn’t know much about other regional cuisines. Restaurant meals for middle-class families were rare, and when we did there were three choices – Indian (which was shorthand for Mughlai cuisine, serving up the usual suspects like butter chicken and tikka masala), Chinese and South Indian. It doesn’t matter that South India is a vast region with multiple states, languages, ethnicities and food traditions, for us it was code for two things: dosas and idlis. All of India has a sporting disdain for the rest of Indian cuisine. Punjabis despise Bengali food, Bengalis despise “South Indian” food and so on. This may have been due to ignorance, or perhaps the narcissism of small differences, but the rise of region-specific food, especially of lesser-known food cultures, is a recent and welcome phenomenon. Books like A Little Bit also fill a gap in the market – you can’t find a Gujarati restaurant in New Zealand for love or money, so you better learn how to cook it.

The voice in A little is intimate and sweet. It’s a bit like being invited to the Ganda’s and discovering the food they have placed on the table. Photographs in cookbooks go a long way in positioning it, telling the reader what the essence of the book is. those in A little are all family, the hands that prepare the food, the hands that eat it and the little hands that play with it.

Dokra, a steamed spicy spice made from lentils, in A Little Bit of This.

The recipes and anecdotes of A little brings back a lot of memories. The chicken curry recipe, called Soupy Chicken and described as a Sunday tradition in the Ganda household, will be intimately familiar to many Indian families. Even though I was very small, I remember waiting outside our kitchen on Sundays for a snack before lunch. Vegetable dishes like sautéed okra, bitter melon, cauliflower and peas reminded me of the midweek dinners we grew up eating. Other recipes like stuffed peppers and aubergines, semolina shortbread cookies, khandvi, dokla and spicy fried bread were uniquely Gujrati. Interesting crossovers like Roast Chicken Masala, Baked Chicken Fingers, and BBQ Masala Chops are convenient recipes for quick dinners that are easy to put together but bursting with flavor.

Right after the dedication, the book begins with this epigraph: “Like many first generation Indian families, growing up in New Zealand, our love language was not in the verbal language of ‘I love you’, not in a physical language of hugs, but in a language that was shown to them by their parents, which they passed on to the next generation An Indian Language of Love: Food.

Like most other traditional community-based societies in the subcontinent, food is the language not only of love, but also of respect, wealth, well-being, hospitality and even of the social contract. Hindu wives all over India leave behind handfuls of rice when they leave their birthplace, a symbol of repaying their food debt to one’s parents. Food is a bet and a prize, a currency and a gift. Note that we do not have kai blessing rituals, we do not say grace before eating. But what we do is cross our hearts if we happen to step on a grain of rice. Food is a god, and you cannot bless a god, or deny it. This is perhaps not unexpected in a country where starvation and starvation are still either a reality or part of generational memory.

The recipes are remarkably short, with only a few requiring 10 or more ingredients. That sounds like a lot, but believe me, Indian spices can quickly add up when you write them down. But once you get the basics down (or if you already cook a curry once a week), you’ll appreciate the simple, short recipes for midweek dinners or a long WFH lunch. Because what good are these unprecedented times if you can’t take 15 more minutes for lunch.

The book contains a handy glossary of common Indian ingredients and spice blends and pastes. Recipes range from starters, rice and breads, vegetables, poultry and fish, meats and an extensive section of various Indian desserts. There are plenty of meat and veggie recipes that could become your go-tos, but I recommend cooking something (or a lot) from the desserts and sweets section, which is really extensive. Sweets are something you would be hard pressed to find in stores, even Indian stores. The cookbook also contains recipes for sides, condiments and even snacks. For the true Gujrati cuisine enthusiast, there is plenty to cook and throw a grand feast with poppadoms and ghee made from scratch!

A little is a self-published book but the production quality is excellent. From the photographs to the writing, this book is not so much a work of art as your Ottolenghi might be, but rather a family album. There is an undeniable nostalgic quality to the book, which feels both like Jayshri’s anthem to her childhood and Laxmi’s legacy – she emigrated to New Zealand at 17 from a small village in fishermen in western India. A little traces the journey of a family to put down new and deep roots in this “unusual land”. Really, it’s a food memoir.

A Bit of This, a Bit of That: A Gujarati Indian Cookbook from Aotearoa by Jayshri Ganda and Laxmi Ganda ($69) is available in bookstores nationwide.

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