New Delhi-born Suvir Saran is rocketing toward the top of the Indian food scene in the United States with his fresh take on Indian-style home cooking.
It’s what he taught in his popular cooking classes at NYU. It’s the theme he established at the New York restaurant Amma, where he and co-chef Hemant Mathur attracted critical praise and a serious following. It’s what he and Mathur cook now at the highly regarded restaurant Devi, which opened, also in New York, last year.
It’s the topic of his book “Indian Home Cooking,” coauthored by Stephanie Lyness (Clarkson Potter; $32.50). And this summer he’ll try it out on the toughest of audiences, Indians in India.
Saran, 32, and Mathur will open and be partners in a restaurant on Connaught Circle in New Delhi in July or August. Devi’s owner, Rakesh Aggarwal, is also behind this project, and the food will be similar.
“We are both excited and a little nervous,” Saran said in a phone interview. Except for tourists and students, Indians prefer to eat at home, and he worries that going out for home cooking may not appeal.
Saran’s home cooking is anything but mundane. This is the food he grew up with in New Delhi (as the son of a well-connected Indian bureaucrat), ate as he traveled through India, wrote down as recipes as he watched Panditji, the family cook. It’s embellished with choice dishes gleaned from grandmothers, mothers and aunts of friends.
It has made a hit at Devi, where, according to Saran, half of the customers are Indian. And in a twist on the usual process of cookbook creation in which a chef documents his or her best-known dishes and signature techniques after showcasing them at a restaurant, Saran’s recipes came first and Devi’s menu grew from them. About 80% of the restaurant’s menu came from the cookbook’s pages.
At Devi, says Saran, “We give the diner on one plate a meal like an Indian would eat at home.” For example, tandoori lamb chops would be accompanied by crispy potatoes with cumin, apple or quince chutney and grape raita -- a meal easy to duplicate with the book.
Saran’s creative, freewheeling style is flexible, never dogmatic. If recipes call for obscure ingredients such as black salt, he suggests easily obtainable alternatives. The taste may be affected, but minimally.
“I make sure other spices are used so that the dish is not robbed of its flavor,” he says. Indians, like all home cooks, adjust recipes according to what is on hand rather than following them exactly, Saran points out.
These days Indian ingredients are readily available in many metropolitan areas in the U.S. and also online, so anyone can stock up on black mustard seeds, black salt, urad dal (black lentils), kalonji (nigella, also known as onion seeds) and the like.
Indian fresh cheese, paneer, is harder to obtain. However, Saran has come up with a workable substitute: ricotta cheese baked in a loaf pan. Although I had trouble with this unorthodox procedure (the cheese burned in my oven), it turned out well in The Times test kitchen; one taster said that Saran’s saag paneer (called “Indian cheese in an herbed green sauce” in the book) was the best version of this dish that she had come across.
I had very good results with the recipe called “my sister’s favorite corn curry,” a creamy dish seasoned with ground green chiles, cumin, ginger, curry leaves and cilantro. The taste and texture are remarkable. Also wonderful is south Indian-style chicken with curry leaves and black peppercorns, Saran’s take on a Chettinad dish from Tamil Nadu state.
Degrees of difficulty
Some of Saran’s recipes are complex; others are super-easy. I would make potatoes braised in a fragrant yogurt sauce only if I had hours to spare, but peeling tiny potatoes, grinding spices and cooking in several stages pays off: The dish disappeared in a flash at an Indian vegetarian potluck.
Mangalore fried shrimp, on the other hand, couldn’t have been easier: They’re marinated with spices available in any well-stocked kitchen and cook in less than five minutes. The shrimp are colorful, and the flavor is bright and appealing.
Interestingly, Saran is a vegetarian, “but I do cheat and eat meat when I am traveling,” he says. And he cooks it beautifully, as in a lamb curry with coriander and garam masala, set apart from ordinary north Indian lamb curries by the addition of coconut and curry leaves.
Not everything is spelled out in the cookbook. The fenugreek leaves that Saran suggests adding to saag paneer aren’t listed in the ingredients, and I’m not sure what he means when he calls for a fresh hot green chile -- a fat jalapeno, a slim small serrano? The choice would make a difference. These quibbles aren’t stumbling blocks. As with all cookbooks, the recipes may require adjustments.
Saran’s book will appeal to experienced cooks as well as beginners who know little about the cuisine. It’s not another basic Indian cookbook that sets forth the dishes best known to Americans; rather, it presents ideas that are fresh and off the beaten track.
Warmly personal, it offers more than 150 recipes that, for the most part, are practical and easy to make, yet the flavors are complex and interesting.
Even if one has quite a few Indian cookbooks, this one is worth acquiring for its original and accessible approach.