As I've mentioned before, the regional cuisines of the Indian subcontinent are both varied and wonderful, but for someone like me who's grounded in different principles, it's sometimes difficult to execute their techniques properly. I've spent a lot of time discussing the differences in approach and appeal with Indian chefs, and I'm a frequent hunter for cookbooks that try to not only bring out the flavor of the region, but do it with relative simplicity and elegance.
Enter Curried Favors, written by Maya Kaimal MacMillan. It gave me pause when I picked it up for two reasons. First being the gorgeous cover photography, which continues with artful discretion all the way through the book. Second, the award sticker on the front cover, which marked it as a winner of the Julia Child First Book Award.
That might not seem like much, but like the Caldecott medals on my childhood picture books, it tells you that someone with a lot of knowledge and a lot of clout decided to give this book their subtle blessing. I say subtle because, for example, there are a great many terrible pieces of cookwear on the market brazenly branded with household names of celebrity chefs. They're a little more... eph-emeril, if you catch my drift.
But reading through Curried Favors, I find it serves to challenge the stereotypes that Indian curries are full of obscure ingredients and hard to make. Deftly adapting southern Indian recipes for the home kitchen, the book helps acquaint the readers with the light, often tropical flavors of south India, using accessible ingredients and simple methods. In addition, it sprinkles in a healthy handful of popular northern dishes and common favorites.
Now there are a few caution points. When I say it challenges the 'obscure ingredient' stereotype, I say it carefully. The severe exotics are stripped away, but the fundamentals may still be exotica to a lot of home cooks. The early pages of the book are rightly devoted to those fundamentals, giving descriptions, uses, and places the ingredients can be found, as well as a short list of kitchen equipment. The best thing about the specialty ingredients is that they're mostly dried or preserved, so you only need to buy them once and they'll keep for as long as you need.
The recipes themselves have been fantastic. However, it's extremely important to read the recipes thoroughly before starting. Sometimes the same ingredient will show up two or three times in different amounts, each needing to go in at different points in the process.
The recipes are well-written, but their structures are sometimes complex and intricate, requiring careful attention. While that kind of attention really ought to be paid to everything you cook, it pleases me to have the directions be just complex enough to remind the reader of its necessity.
As far as my own recommendations, the Kerala Fried Fish (p.103) is quite tasty, possibly paired with the Tomato and Cucumber Salad (p.56). I also made it a point to dig up delicious vegetarian dishes, something Indian cuisine is colloquially known for. Among my favorites from this book are the Potato Stew (p.87), Sambar (pp.68/170) and the author's own Peas Thoren (p.76).
The book was printed in 2000, so the odds of finding it in commercial bookstores are iffy. However, it's readily available on Amazon, and I spotted it for the first time at my local library, at 641.5954-M.