Beyond its traditional and tasteful cover, Anjali Pathak’s cookbook is a bit of a mess…in a good way.
True: I love the stylish photographs that often appear in cookbooks, with the serving ware colourful and bold and the table linens complementary and coordinated.
But, also true: this kind of food photography make my own efforts to reproduce the recipes captured therein seem faded and unremarkable in my kitchen, on my table.
The photographs in The Indian Family Kitchen capture the process of creating the meal, culminating in service on plain porcelain, with the emphasis on food that is meant to be devoured and enjoyed.
It is accessible and inviting, and still delectible and inspiring.
On a spread featuring spices commonly used in the recipes, some of the spices are outside the containers (just as they are in my spice drawer, despite regular efforts to restore order).
On a plain baking sheet, the ingredients are scattered between the items almost as often as not (the art of sprinkling is imperfection incarnate). Seeds, chili bits, slivers of onion: everywhere!
Sometimes the food is even shown with servings missing from it (as though the photographer really did intend to snap the shot with the dish complete, but couldn’t resist eating some first).
This doesn’t seem to be as much of a marketing decision as a decision made to suit the author’s philosophy about food and cookbooks. (Or, perhaps a bit of both, as the family has been very successful in business in recent decades.)
“I have always believed that good cookbooks should be covered in splashes from the prepartion of meals gone by, and full of hte cook’s own scribbled substitutions and suggestions. They should look dog-eared and crinkled from being well read and frequently cooked from. That’s what I hope for my cookbook…a book that is loved and used for many years to come.”
The pages in The Indian Family Kitchen are thicker than some, so it would take some hefty splashes to soak through them, but I could see it getting good and marred over time. Especially if one made use of the recipes which call for pan-frying or deep-frying!
(The two messiest cookbooks on our shelves? John Robbins’ May All Be Fed and an old PETA cookbook – which were not even slightly pretty when new, not even one colour photograph and now yellowed and worn, stained and scribbled and sticky-noted to excess.)
There is a surprising amount of personality which comes through this cookbook’s pages too. Not only are there family photographs interspersed (fun, for sure), but there are page-spreads titled “Secret Essentials” which offer basic and straightforward advice and information, but calling them ‘secrets’ suggests one cook whispering into the ear of another. (These include: Everyday spice bx, Pantry must-haves, Magical chile, Kitchen gadgets, Fridge favorites, Kitchen shortcuts, and Wine & spice.)
And as if that wasn’t enough secrecy, there are little tips and suggestions offered alongside some of the recipes, “My Secret”, inside a medallion. (For instance, alongside the “Spicy Smoked Potatoes” recipe, “My Secret” states: “Fenugreek seeds, also known as methi seeds, are usually bitter and incredibly hard, but once cooked they soften and add a nutty flavor to dishes.Sprouted methi leaves are milderand are a great substitute for spinach.” The potatoes, BTW, are likely to become a staple dish on our family’s plain porcelain plates – a big hit!)
Though only one chapter appears to cater to vegetarian families (“Veggies Galore”), five chapters of the remaining seven are veggie-stuffed too. Only “Big Bites” and “BBQ Indian Summer” are meat-soaked.
Even these two chapters contain some vegetarian and vegan options, but the others (“Light Bites”, “Feel-Good Factor”, “Those Little Extras”, “Sugar & Spice” and “Cocktail Time”) contain a multitude, and for those accustomed to cooking with tofu, the marinades in the meat recipes can be readily adapted too.
The author relies heavily on Greek-style yogourt, but a favourite vegan substitute would work just fine (say, “Mayo from the Heavens” in Miriam Sorrell’s Mouthwatering Vegan).
Although the author does not offer these suggestions (fair enough: it is her cookbook!), she is careful to differentiate where some substitutions are welcomed (e.g. suggesting dried fruit and lime juice to replace some tamarind in the Roast Eggplant Salad with Chickpeas and Tamarind) and where they are not (e.g. one cannot use European Bay Leaves in place of Indian Bay Leaves).
She also indicates when there is even more room to play, for instance in the Crunchy Cauliflower and Broccoli recipe, which she says is just as good with Brussels sprouts or another robust green rather than the broccoli).
The ingredients are, in fact, not at the heart of a page in this cookbook; rather, the instructions take centre-stage. This might make you squint a little making your shopping list (well, that’s just me: I read too much, right?) but it’s ideal for the actual cooking.
Some cooks might prefer that the instructions be numbered, but a narrative approach seems to make sense for this cookbook.
The binding seems solid and inviting; it was possible to lay the book flat on the counter for its first use (Cumin Roast Potatoes, for this family: yes, we love potatoes).
In short, Anjali Pathak’s The Indian Family Kitchen is a welcome addition to our kitchen: a much-used and much-loved room that is often in rather a mess.