On the Indian restaurant circuit, it’s mainly generic Indian fare on the menu, with a heavy northern bias. To experience the diversity of India’s culinary landscape, your best bet is to be invited to someone’s home. Happily, recent cookbooks such as “The Calcutta Kitchen,” by London-based writer Simon Parkes and restaurateur-chef Udit Sarkhel, and “My Bombay Kitchen: Traditional and Modern Parsi Home Cooking,” by anthropologist-chef Niloufer Ichaporia King of San Francisco, are now bringing regional Indian cuisines home for all of us.
“Calcutta Kitchen” rounds up recipes for dishes bequeathed to Calcutta (now Kolkata) by its many rulers. Despite forays into the city’s British Raj (Anglo Indian), Muslim and Sino-Tibetan kitchens, the book works best as an introduction to Bengali cuisine. The authentic, inviting and unintimidating recipes, excellent commentary and photography reminiscent of movie stills helped me finally get my hands around what hitherto seemed an enigmatic and formal cuisine.
The title of “My Bombay Kitchen” also refers to a city, but the book is an in-depth plunge into the tiny community of Persian Zoroastrians who fled Arab invaders and settled in and around Bombay (now Mumbai). Nonvegetarian Persian ancestry and Raj influences marry deliciously under a vegetarian Gujarati regional canopy to form Parsi cuisine. “My Bombay Kitchen” has a foreword by Alice Waters, at whose Chez Panisse the author oversees an annual Parsi New Year feast. King, a ceaseless raconteur, offers an encyclopedic cookbook with detailed recipes.
I invited unsuspecting friends to a dinner culled from both books.
The recipe for the first course, a tomato ginger infusion from “Bombay Kitchen,” called for 3 pounds of ripe tomatoes infused with half a cup of grated ginger, which, even when strained, was a bit harsh. But with the addition of tangerine juice and a dollop of creme fraiche topped with a basil leaf, it proved to be just right as a summer soup, soothing even.
From “Calcutta Kitchen,” I selected a quintessential Bengali fish dish, maacher jhol: fish curry with eggplant, cauliflower and potato. Bengal, situated in the fertile Ganges Delta, had a prosperous past and the leisure to perfect its cuisine. “Calcutta Kitchen” brings out the hallmarks of Bengali dining -- the use of mustard, a thorough preoccupation with freshness, a course-by-course approach to the meal (alone among Indian cuisines) and, most of all, a love of fish.
Romancing the fish
Bengalis passionately romance fish: They prepare it steamed, fried, stewed, any way they can have it, each and every part of it. The recipe suggests catfish as a substitute for the fish called grass carp. It calls for nigella seeds, available at the Indian market, but also mustard oil, the main cooking medium in Bengali dishes, which is imported into the U.S. for external use only; apparently it does not meet federal requirements for internal consumption. A Bengali friend advised me to substitute canola oil and add a teaspoon of mustard powder as a final garnish in dishes requiring a strong mustardy edge. Canola it was, and it was fine.
A loose approach to adapting English weights and measures has resulted in some odd amounts in this book’s ingredient lists: 14 ounces of fish for the jhol, for example, though even the pound or so I used was a bit lost among the vegetables and spices. And six slit chiles imparted a stronger kick than I liked; three would have been more than enough. But on steamed rice, the jhol was delicious. The same book’s recipe for khashundi, a preserve made of ground seeds, spices and green mangos (prototype for Anglo Indian mango chutneys) made for a great condiment.
Turning seeds into paste is virtually impossible in a blender, which just grinds. Consider the difference between the texture of meatball and hot dog, and you will know what I mean. In “My Bombay Kitchen,” King recommends an Indian kitchen tool available in the U.S. through specialty stores, the Sumeet Multigrinder, but her delightful Kenya masala butter for corn is easily made with a mortar and pestle. It took some doing to get the butter to acknowledge the other ingredients, but finally it whipped up tastily.
That good kitchen staff was available during King’s formative years in Mumbai is obvious from such recipes as one for a chicken dish requiring 101 blanched almonds, or one deconstructing 1 1/2 pounds of Brussels sprouts, leaf by single leaf.
If Bengalis want fish in everything, Parsis want eggs on everything, but King’s endless repertoire includes not only eggs but also unusual ingredients such as borage blossoms, hyacinth beans and Hunza apricots. I went for something traditional, though, the fabled Parsi lentil potage, dhansak ni dar, in its vegetarian version.
Once I readied the two spice mixes (sambhar and dhansak) -- confusing information there -- the recipe, though famously time-consuming, was easy. An extremely rich puree of three lentils, vegetables, herbs and spices, the dhansak ni dar turned out deliciously aromatic with fenugreek overtones. Parsi burgers, a shortcut version of traditional kebabs, came together without a hitch; they’re flavorsome with cilantro, green chiles and ginger.
For bread I returned to “My Calcutta Kitchen” and a recipe for a biscuit-y Bengali incarnation of the soft bread called sheermal. I had to add more water and roll out the dough much thinner than the 2 inches called for in the recipe for the dough to hold together and then bake properly. But, in the end, barely touched with fennel and cardamom seed powder, kneaded with milk and cream, the sheermal, straight from the oven, was a great juxtaposition to the rich repast.
My dessert was also from Kolkata, a city obsessed with sweets. The ingredients list for malpoa, pancakes dipped in saffron-flavored syrup, included items available in the United Kingdom but not easily in the U.S: clotted cream (I used creme fraiche) and reduced nonhomogenized milk (I used evaporated milk).
Bringing a new cuisine to cooks who may never have sampled it requires user-friendly instructions. Both “The Calcutta Kitchen” and “My Bombay Kitchen,” though full of coveted recipes, could have used better editorial input. The editor of the former seems to have been somewhat somnambulant, leaving us with some doozies, such as an unfinished introduction to a chapter on Muslim cuisine -- the text stops mid-sentence -- while the latter begs for an editor to stem the tidal wave of instructions imparted by the author.