Friday, 9 September 2011

660 Curries and other wonders

Within the past couple of years, I picked up the cookbook 660 Curries at WalMart. It was not long after the movie Julie and Julia came out and I thought how cool that would be to work my way through this cookbook in a year and blog about my experiences. Approximately 2 curries a day, plus extras (biryanis, breads, pickles, relishes, raitas, and more, according to the front cover) and I could accomplish that. Saner thoughts prevailed, however, as I considered how limited I am for time, considering full-time work and part-time schooling. When would I have time to do all that cooking? And then there's the fact that I live alone, so would have to have company very often to eat all that food. And, while it was fine for Julia, living in New York City, to be able to find all those specialty ingredients, I live in rural Alberta, where East Indians are a rarity and it's even rarer to find nigella seeds or black chickpeas. And just because I like East Indian cooking doesn't mean I would be happy eating it every day for a whole year, though I could probably handle that more than certain other cuisines. 
The nice thing about East Indian cuisine is that it's very veg-friendly. There are a lot of vegetarian and vegan recipes. For most of the recipes in this book, Raghavan Iyer, the author, offers the option of using ghee or canola oil. There is a good-sized section on legume curries and a large section on vegetable curries. In the section on paneer (the only cheese endemic to India) curries, Iyer introduces the topic by saying that you could substitute extra-firm tofu for paneer.
Curry cuisine varies from one region of India to another and Iyer explains the background of many of the recipes, along with other interesting tidbits and tips, as well as the Indian (Hindi?) name of the dish. This makes for an enjoyable read. Included in the back is a glossary of ingredients to direct the uninitiated and uninformed, like me. It also has a Shopping Cheat Sheet which lists both English and Hindi names for ingredients and whether or not it would need to be purchased at an Indian store. 
The directions for each recipe give enough detail to guide those not familiar with Indian cooking in accomplishing a task (e.g. cook until the mustard seeds stop popping). The ingredients are listed in the order of their use in the instructions. The long list of seasonings for most recipes can be intimidating, especially since most of them are unfamiliar to the average North American. And the techniques for use are also often unfamiliar. While we are used to measuring a dried seasoning or chopping a fresh one, in this cookbook, you could roast, grind, cook in oil, all done to the same spice in different recipes. Iyer also includes a section on spice blends and pastes in the beginning of the book, so you can make your own fresh masala, which means "blend." However, I have discovered that premixed masalas can frequently be found in the Indian specialty stores, saving one the time and trouble of making it. When I used a recipe calling for Sambhar masala, I was able to find it premixed, but more recently, I was unable to find a Balti masala and had to make my own, following the directions in the book. This required roasting the whole spices in a dry frying pan, allowing them to cool, grinding them and then adding the already ground ones. If you choose to do this, a spice/coffee grinder is practically a necessity as the average blender cannot manage the fine grinding of spices efficiently. I was able to find garlic paste and ginger paste in one of the Indian stores, but they had vinegar in them and I wasn't sure how this would affect the taste and the end product, so I made mine from scratch. As I become more adventurous, I will probably experiment with the pre-made pastes as well. 
My personal recommendation for using this cookbook is to read the recipe thoroughly prior to starting and have all your ingredients ready beforehand: spices measured, produce chopped, etc. When you are cooking spices in a skillet, you don't have any time to be chopping up the next ingredient, so having everything all ready keeps things running smoothly and prevents burning the seasonings while you were getting the next item prepared. 
I will be writing more on my experience with individual recipes, including how I will be veganizing the meat ones (which will necessitate another cookbook review or two). 
Find the cookbook here: 660 Curries