Many of my non-Indian friends (who have eaten home-cooked Indian meals at my house) and my cooking students have asked, “How can I find a good vegan Indian cookbook? Most of the time, when I try to cook Indian at home (except for the recipes you taught me) it doesn’t turn out well!”
So! On this Well-Read Wednesday, I will be giving you some advice on selecting good Indian cookbooks/recipes (and also giving you a few book suggestions).
One: This may be difficult, but forget about the term “vegan” when choosing Indian cookbooks. To my knowledge, there’s only a few vegan Indian cookbooks out there (several of which are not very good). There’s a larger selection of “vegetarian” Indian cookbooks. But I mean it when I say Indian food is probably the easiest food in the world to veganize. Any decent Indian cookbook should already be at least 50% vegetarian. In most cases you can simply substitute oil for butter or ghee, extra-firm tofu for paneer, non-dairy milk for milk, soy or coconut milk creamer for cream, and vegan yogurt for yogurt. And, if you’re into faux meats – well, just substitute some Gardein for the chicken and you can make your own vegan chicken curries and vindaloos!
Two: Decide what kind of Indian food you like. India is a big, big country, and there are significant differences in cooking styles and spices from region to region. North Indian food, for example, is very different from South Indian food. If you don’t know what kind of Indian food you like, ask your favorite Indian restaurant what regional cooking style they feature – or where your favorite Indian dishes are from. Then pick a cookbook that specializes in that style of cooking.
Three: Look at the bio of the cookbook author. Is he/she Indian? If not, do they truly have a strong connection or love for Indian food? Perhaps they lived in India for a few years, worked in an Indian restaurant, learned to cook from an Indian friend or mentor, or married an Indian. If it seems they truly have a passion for the food, that’s a good sign. If it appears they are just writing an Indian cookbook because they have written previous cookbooks and decided to add an Indian cookbook to their repertoire – that’s a bad sign.
Four: Pick a book with pictures. If you are not very familiar with Indian food (I certainly wasn’t at first!) pictures of the finished product definitely help A LOT.
Five: Avoid “Barnes & Nobles” type bargain books, such as 101 Great Indian Recipes! These always seem quickly compiled to appeal to Americans … lots of meat, minimal spice.
Warning Signs Of A Bad Cookbook or Recipe:
A good Indian recipe should encourage you to use dried beans, not canned (even though it may list canned beans as an alternate option).
Good Indian recipes will only rarely, if ever, encourage the use of curry powder. Curry powder is not Indian at all but actually a rather brilliant British invention that makes bland English (or American) food taste a bit more exotic and vaguely Indian. (Think of “curried” Chicken Divan – you know, that dish your mom used to make with chicken, broccoli, Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup and curry powder?)
Sadly, somehow curry powder has the opposite effect on Indian food, making it taste less like Indian food – possibly because it is never used in traditional Indian cooking! (Raghavan Iyer insists curry powder does not exist in any home kitchen in India!). Additionally, anything more than a pinch of curry powder has the unfortunate effect of making all your recipes taste exactly the same, so beware of any recipe that calls for more than a teaspoon – and most of the time I’d recommend less.
Good Indian recipes will only rarely, if ever, encourage the use of vegetable broth – especially in dals! In particular, I’ve seen many recipes for red lentil soup or dal calling for vegetable broth! Let’s examine this a moment. When preparing red lentils, you might use onions, garlic, ginger, turmeric, cumin, coriander, tomatoes, chili peppers, and possibly some garam masala. Maybe a few other spices. In other words, it’s gonna be pretty darn flavorful. So why on earth do you think you would need a flavor “boost” of canned or boxed broth – especially when some of the main ingredients in that broth are things like celery or parsley, which you would not normally find in traditional Indian cooking? Back awaaaay from the broth!
So what are my cookbook suggestions? Here’s a few … I’ll try to post fuller reviews of these books on some future Wednesday.
Vegan Indian Cooking, by Anupy Singla. A truly excellent and authentic vegan Indian cookbook. North Indian/Punjabi recipes. Lots of full-color pictures and a super-friendly attitude. Highly recommended.
Anything by the inimitable and highly entertaining Raghavan Iyer. Betty Crocker’s Indian Home Cooking is probably the place to start, with lots of photos and vegetarian/vegan recipes. Then there’s 660 Curries (plenty of veg options among them) and Indian Cooking Unfolded, a really great Indian “fusion” book with step-by-step fold-out instructions. None of his books are all veg but there are still plenty of useful recipes, plus invaluable instructions and advice – and of course, entertainment value.
From Mom with Love … Complete Guide to Indian Cooking and Entertaining by Pushpa Bhargava. Not vegetarian or vegan but lots of meatless recipes that are naturally vegan or could be modified to be so. Easy instructions and pictures of every recipe, as well as pictures identifying the different beans, lentils, and spices used in Indian cooking. There’s also a list of common ingredients used in Indian cooking with both their Hindi and English names. Extremely helpful if you are new to Indian cooking.