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In an age when the charm of browsing, buying, and using cookbooks is increasingly being replaced by watching and learning from YouTube videos, a cookbook must be more than just a collection of recipes.
Nobel prize winner for Economics in 2019, Abhijit Banerjee, proves that his first cookbook Cooking to Save Your Life is more than that in compelling ways – the pages contain insightful information for both the novice and experienced cook (I found measures such as size of a golf ball, and the phalanges of your fingers convenient) and are peppered with a good dose of thought-provoking nuggets on larger political and social issues pertinent to all of us. I have long been fond of reading cookbooks in addition to cooking from them and the author’s language – direct, humorous and at times reprimanding – makes this book a good read. There are suggestions on what to serve your enemy and what to serve dear friends when you have forgotten that they are about to visit you and you have very little time to whip something up to impress them!
Another compelling reason is the recipes themselves which are feast friendly and many are unique. Useful strategies to assemble them abound – it is obvious the author is a passionate, competent, and clever cook. Every so often Abhijit clarifies that the book is not a healthy one contrary to its amusing title, although, many recipes qualify as healthy by accident. He is also clear that many recipes use expensive ingredients as he does not skimp on quality. Rather he suggests how we can make the best of limited but high-quality resources (advice such as begin the recipe again from scratch if you have bungled up before the expensive ingredients go in are reflective of a skilled economist with a vulnerability rare in a person of his stature). However, there are plenty of recipes that make the most of the cheapest ingredients, the point being in the author’s words “not to save money but to underscore the pleasure of getting something wonderful from (almost) nothing”.
I enjoyed reading the book and was buoyed by the thought of trying out some exciting new things. Juggling work from home alongside the painful snags of prolonged online school for my young kids, my life has become a series of interruptions punched with snatches of productive time leaving me little time or energy to cook. I am not one of those who gains energy from cooking. Thankfully, the near forgotten pleasures of having people over is being renewed and this motivated me to put the recipes to test. The first was a fruit chaat to enjoy with tea while watching the recent heavy rains. The recipe (page 10) calls for Nectarine/Peach/Plum and I made it with plums. Wonderfully tart and beautiful to look at, this is one of the few recipes in the book that takes very little work with good results.
When a friend said she was in town after years I made something else from the book. I had just bought avocados and set about making the Charred Avocado (page 8) for a promised visually pleasing starter and Chicken with Almonds and Raisins (page 152 ) for the main course.
Disaster struck when the avocado that looked perfectly ripe on the outside was raw and bitter on the inside, so I had to make it with brinjal and zucchini strips in the last minute. It came out very well – the intersection of pomegranate molasses and tahini is what makes this recipe great. The Chicken with Almonds and Raisins is subtle and delicious especially for those like me who dislike their Indian food spicy, and masala tinged. I served it with Jowar roti, and it was very satisfying.
I love rice, although I have come to regard white rice as a treat rather than a staple, preferring to eat black/brown rice or millets. I shy away from making complex rice dishes such as Biryani that come out best with white long grained rice, but the book offers such a delicious array of rice recipes that I did not want to miss out on trying them. For those who aren’t shunning “carbs”, there is also an entire chapter dedicated to Pasta. I chose the Yakhni pulao (page 232) and enlisted my cook to make it. He toiled at preparing, chopping, and cooking while I waited hungrily. The result was a sublime, fragrant beautiful looking meal well worth the time it took. Too bad that on that day it was just my husband and I – this is a dish to prepare and share with friends.
There are plenty of other good memories from this book and more to come – stir fried Brussels Sprouts, South Indian style (page 93) was a hit, as was the Sesame Crusted Potato.
(Page 28) in our potato loving home. The Masur Dal with carrots (page 110) is fantastic, the sweetness of the carrots bringing a welcoming complexity to a simple dal. I know this will become a household staple.
A word on the illustrations – sometimes cookbook photographs do not match up to the version made at home which can make the cook feel disappointed. This book circumvents that problem with colourful, geometrically inspired illustrations by Cheyenne Olivier. The illustrations are worth looking at for themselves rather than as impossible benchmarks for the recipes they are set to reflect.
Abhijit has created a collection from the heart. What began as a Christmas gift idea for a relative has culminated in a wonderful book – a thoughtful gift for a friend or for oneself. The holiday season is here, and a window for entertaining remains open – I for one, look forward to working my way through the desserts chapter and sharing them over conversation and laughter.
Shvetha Jaishankar is a model, businesswoman and author of Gorgeous: Eat Well, Look Great.