Broadly speaking I think there are three ways of treating a cookbook, perhaps reflecting the reader’s confidence on the subject. The first way is to do everything the book tells you, to the letter — no substitutions or guesswork allowed. The second way is to treat it as a loose guide, tweaking recipes to suit your needs — if something calls for lamb but you only have chicken, what’s the worst that could happen if you make the switch? The third way is to simply read through the book, find inspiration and supplement your existing knowledge, but without setting the book down on the kitchen counter. Meera Sodha’s debut cookbook Made in India, Cooked in Britain: Recipes from an Indian Family Kitchen (and from here on, simply Made in India for ease) manages to cater for all three kinds of reader. That it’s regularly made lists of the top cookbooks of 2014 is no surprise.
This eye-catching and vibrant tome takes a new perspective on Indian cookery. It doesn’t try and recreate “takeaway favourites”, it’s not a travelogue and nor does it seek to be encyclopaedic about a vast cuisine (thought more accurately, perhaps we should think of it as a family of cuisines to reflect the scope of variety across the sub-continent). Simply put, Made in India is a collection of recipes, principally family ones, that the author has grown up eating. And while recipes are rooted in Gujarat (with a little Ugandan influence mixed in), Sodha’s memories of them start in exotic Lincolnshire. So instead of unfamiliar spices and vegetables that so often are found in the “home cooking” of faraway lands, beetroot, asparagus and cabbage make as many appearances as amchoor, plantain and mooli. While recipes aren’t exclusively drawn from childhood memories, whatever the method of acquisition, you get the feeling that every recipe is something author really does eat for dinner; they are not just plucked out of the imagination for the sake of filling a book.
For “by the book” and “happy to substitute” readers, the recipes are simple to follow, well laid out and clearly presented. The photography is modern, making the food look homemade and achievable (but still delicious!); for the more complex processes like getting the flakiness into a paratha or folding a samosa, there are step-by-step images too. There are plenty of basic recipes like cooking perfect rice and simple dips and sides to build your confidence (including my favourite, the lime pickled onions), and also lots of extra information too about different spices, how to serve an authentic Indian meal, right up to some notes on wine pairings written by Sunaina Sethi.
For the “inspiration finders”, the book is engagingly written and bursting at the spine with the author’s personality. Made in India is a book full of fun too and recipes feel like they’ve been shared by friend — the author’s obsession with garlic becomes a running joke throughout the book — and I’d be keen to lap up any future books by the author. The dishes being written about are engaging too, with more innovative uses of spices like black pepper ice cream and fennel seed shortbread. The book doesn’t stop either at mains and desserts. Breads, sides, raitas, salads and snacks all get equal treatment, rather than being reduced to an appendix. If they were, no-one would give the spicy roasted chickpeas a second glance and you’d definitely miss out because of it.
If I can find fault with the book, it’s that many of the “curry” recipes all look the same and rely on a gravy made from tomatoes and finished with yoghurt. Of course varied spicing means they certainly taste different, but as someone who personally isn’t that keen on very tomato-heavy curries, I often felt like I was cooking the same recipe over and over while testing things out for this review. My assumption is that this is a feature of Gujarati dishes, the core of the book, though I don’t know enough about the real differences between the cuisines of India’s many regions to say for certain. Perhaps to criticise this is much like saying of an Italian cookbook that it had too much garlic and parmesan and I’m just showing my ignorance. Either way, it’s a minor nitpick, and something you’re unlikely to notice without trying to experience as many recipes as you can in a month like I’ve done. Were it not for the sake of balance, I probably wouldn’t mention it at all.
Meera Sodha has done a wonderful job in writing Made in India. It’s a vibrant and exciting book, inside and out, and no matter what your experience with cooking Indian food, I definitely recommend it. And if you still aren’t convinced, I’ll leave you with my favourite sentence in the book, that best sums up its relaxed and friendly style: “Chickpeas don’t judge.”