Classic Cookbooks: An Invitation to Indian Cooking


When I learned, in my teens, that curry powder is not an Indian ingredient, I was almost devastated. Until that moment I would have told you enthusiastically how much I liked Indian food based solely on my fondness for the aromatic, yellow powder I associated with it. Recently, reading about Madhur Jaffrey’s childhood in her memoir, Climbing the Mango Trees, I was reminded of my ignorance as I identified with some of hers at a similarly young age—although Ms. Jaffrey’s was certainly not on the subject of Indian food. I was also drawn back to her first cookbook, An Invitation to Indian Cooking, published in 1973, which invited and seduced me to delve into a cuisine I had never yet tasted.

The first recipe I tried was her sweet tomato chutney, chosen because it did not require a long list of spices, even though thirty years ago buying fresh ginger required a visit to Chinatown. (Cilantro, though not in the chutney recipe, was then called Chinese parsley and could only be found in Latin or Chinese markets—even in New York City.) The chutney was such a success that I’ve been making it ever since. Perfectly balanced between acid and sweet, it has a low, savory, bass note from a head of garlic and, after a moment, a nice kick from cayenne. I always think wistfully that this is what ketchup would taste like in a more perfect world. Jaffrey notes of the chutney, “... I always spoon out a small bowl of it for all my dinner parties. It goes with almost all foods and is very popular.” I can vouch for that. Making this simple condiment emboldened me to try other recipes with a more complicated ingredient list, and it was in shopping for green cardamom pods, ground coriander, and garam masala that I fell head over heels. The aroma of Indian spices is as comforting to me as a paisley shawl; it is very, very hard for me to leave a spice shop once I’ve entered. Ms. Jaffrey’s graceful writing and fascinating content led me to trust her early and even to enjoy her sometimes-authoritarian tone. I was grateful that she had taken the time to tell me so much about her culture, even at times when she seemed somewhat dismissive of mine. But ever since that curry powder epiphany, I knew I had a lot to learn.

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