A SPICY STORY by Leah Rovner
Modern Spice: Inspired Indian Flavors for the Contemporary Kitchen
by Monica Bhide
Simon & Shuster, April 2009
Hardcover 288 pp., ISBN: 9781416566595
Like all home-cooks, I have a few rules when it comes to finding a new cookbook: accessible ingredients, clear recipes, and a passionate story. If I’ve picked up your cookbook, I’m expecting to learn something, especially something about you: its author.
More and more authors now intertwine personal stories with the food inside their pages. Their culinary history is just as powerful to tell as the dishes themselves; it can inspire cooks to play with their own recipe ideas. It can also teach them that it’s okay to fail in the process, and that sometimes, baking the perfect apple muffin takes more than one try. It seems that people forget to look at cookbooks for what they truly are—books about cooking, not just a collection of recipes.
Monica Bhide’s newest cookbook, Modern Spice, is a cookbook that should be read from beginning to end. From a love affair with chaat masala to using peapods to teach her son how to read Hindi, Bhide shows us that the cookbook is not confined to recipes and instructions. For her, food is a kind of literary device that has the power to deepen your senses both on and off the plate.
Bhide has found what many may consider impossible—a medium between traditional Indian cooking and contemporary immediacy. Although it’s no secret that today’s home-cooks want recipes that are quick and affordable, she assures us that sometimes, taking a step back can be the difference between being a good cook and a great one.
All great cooks have one secret: diversity. Defined in culinary terms, this is the ability to take dishes from other countries and make them your own (check out page 114 for an Indian spin on the classic American hamburger). Bhide is committed to adding Indian food to your repertoire, whether you are an experienced chef or not.
Equipped with a complete set of personal cooking rules and kitchen notes, Bhide believes that the ethics of Indian cuisine can be interpreted in different ways. Whether it’s a two-hour recipe like curry leaf bread or a five-minute guava fool, it is possible to be loyal to age-old tradition while enjoying yourself at the same time.
Like most ethnic cookbooks, the tricky part of Indian cooking is locating ingredients. Yet many of the spices Bhide uses—like red chili flakes—are probably already in your pantry. Though Bhide offers several substitutes that you can use for some of the more obscure ingredients, I suggest using the correct spices if possible.
Modern Spice is a cookbook where the little things count. Garnishes become a crucial finishing touch on basmati rice with pine nuts, fresh mint and pomegranate seeds. Yellow turmeric and black specs of onion seed make caramelized shallots with turnips smoky, sweet and spicy—all at the same time.
And you’ll find new ways of cooking common ingredients. Dishes like tamarind chicken spice up boneless chicken tenders with Serrano chilies, red pepper flakes and red chili powder. Ginger tea perfectly compliments a long day at work. As long as you are comfortable with a bit of spice and heat, these recipes will not only make your diners very happy, but encourage you to experiment with new flavors and textures in the kitchen.
Perhaps the most wonderful aspect of Modern Spice is the writing. Mostly about her travels through India (as a child, and then later as an adult with her family), Bhide tells us about her personal connection to food, and how it has shaped her life. She reminds us that it can also take on a literary—and at times, transcendental—dimension.
People want to know the origin of their food, they’re curious about what’s lingering behind the dinner plate. Modern Spice gives us that bigger picture: recipes that inspire, and a great story or two along the way.