i’ve been a chef for over three decades now! i trained in chennai and started off with the taj hotel group. i’ve owned nilgiri’s indian restaurant in sydney for over 15 years. i’m on a mission to dispel the myth that indian food is no more than a ‘curry in a hurry’! come with me as i try and educate. indian food is my passion (alongside cricket!) and i’m enjoying exploring the new social media to fulfil this passion! i’ve also published cookery books, been on tv, the radio, won awards! now i’m also moving into making cookery videos. these are simple and easy to follow and don’t go on for hours like some Bollywood movies!
For a chef anywhere in the world, two books that would fall under the umbrella term of inspiration would be Larousse Gastronomique and Herring’s Dictionary of Classical and Modern Cookery. These two books are the ‘supreme’ commandments when it comes to French Cooking.
But for me, as an Indian cook looking for inspiration, the two books I would choose would have to be Spices and Condiments  and the second Indian Food – A Historical Companion . These two books are my supreme authorities.
One book covers the use of spices and herbs and the other gives a historical background on the evolution of Indian food over the centuries.
These are not cookbooks, there are no recipes and no, they are not written by chefs. The authors are scientists who have dedicated their entire life in trying to make the cook in me (and in all of us) gain an understanding of the role of spices and herbs in Indian food, the how and why and when of spices. The other book (Indian Food – A Historical Companion) makes me realise that Indian food is more about the process, the step-by-step method, of cooking rather than the quantities. How I wish I had read them when I was in catering school I would have. . .well, you know, the sky’s the limit!
So who are these authors?
The first book I mentioned, Spices and Condiments was written by Dr J.S. Pruthi and first published in 1976. And here is the man himself!
I am very fortunate to have met this gentleman, more out of force of circumstance than from a burning desire to meet him.
It was in 1989 and I was asked to work on recipes from the Malabar coast when we were setting up the Karavalli Restaurant at the Gateway Hotel in Bangalore. My instructions were to get as much information about the ingredients as possible as the recipes had to be authentic!
So I had to find out what, for example, badige chilli was and where it grows. I had to find out why we use pepper from Kerala and what garbled black pepper is, and so on.
A true dish belongs to the people and the people belong to a place. Yes, we know all this, but what’s important about it is that for a recipe to be authentic the produce used in a particular recipe has to be from that local region and nowhere else!
So, I meet Dr J.S. Pruthi in Mysore on my way to Ooty and I start my question thus, “Dr Pruthi, pleased to meet you. Sir, I am here to learn about the use of chilli in the coastal food of Western India. . .” and I ask my question about what chillies should be used.
No sooner has the question been asked, Dr Pruthi tells me, without stalling, that in Coondapur cooking one must use only badige chillies as they impart a unique colour besides their unique taste. And he continues in this vein about coconuts and about black pepper and how it is graded based on its size and he mentions garbling and he carries on and on with supreme knowledge about all these spices!!
All of this wealth of information and knowledge, and so much more besides, comes pouring forth from a man who is not even a cook!!
This man turbocharged my understanding of Indian cuisine. He showed me that Indian food is about spices and that the sooner I gain real knowledge about such spices the better it will be for me (and those of you who eat my food!).
When I met Dr Pruthi I had been cooking for nearly 10 years and all I had learnt was ‘when’ to add the spices but never ‘how’ and certainly never ‘why’!!
This gentleman got me started on my quest for learning about spices and I am here, to this day, still learning!! Thanks Dr Pruthi.
So let’s return to his book. And here it is, in case you’re lucky enough to stumble across a copy as it’s now, unfortunately, out of print. Let me know if you find one!
Basically, his book describes nearly 90 different spices in detail, from, for example, the Botanical Name: Coriandrum sativum Linn., followed by the Family Name: Umbelliferae, followed by the local Indian names in our different languages such as Bengali: Dhane, Gujarati: Kothmiri, Punjabi: Dhania, and so on. He then describes this spice (called coriander if you haven’t already guessed!), and informs us where it is produced (which tells me why it is used more in one particular region rather than another), followed by its uses in food and in medicine (especially Ayurvedic medicine). Did you also know that coriander is native to, well, yes, of course India but Hungary, Poland, Guatemala and etc.?! This book abounds in interesting facts.
The second book Indian Food, is authored by Dr K.T. Achaya. He is also a scientist and I had the privilege of meeting him in Hyderabad in 1990. And here he is, too!
After my marriage in Bangalore we headed off to Hyderabad. Mum and Dad lived there and it is customary for newly weds to visit the bridegroom’s parents soon after the wedding. We spent five days in Hyderabad jam-packed with activities, another reception followed by visits to close family and friends.
Anyway, in one of the visits to Meera’s maternal grand-uncle’s house in Hyderabad I was introduced to a gentleman who was due to release a book on Indian food and its history over the past 1000 years. That’s no mean feat!
The oldest book I knew of back then on the history of Indian food was written by Abul Fazal (the book is called A’in-I Akbari) who was one of the nine ministers (9 jewels) in the emperor Akbar’s court. He was a historian and had documented recipes for the royal highness!! A royal dish had been created in their honour called navrattan khorma. Now, how do I know all this?
It was Dr Achaya who passed it on. Dr Achaya was a deep mine of information about the history of Indian food, its origins from the early days in Harappa to the arrival of the foreigners (the Arabs, the Dutch, the Portuguese, the Moguls and the British).
Dr Achaya’s book was still a few years away from being published but he was kind enough to tell me something about the dosai (tosai) which, according to Dr Achaya, was made with only rice and makes its appearance as early as the 6th Century A.D. He also spoke about the word ‘curry’, saying that it was a corruption of the Tamil word kari, meaning a pepper flavoured sauce!!
Again, I am pretty shocked that all this information is given by a man who has nothing to do with cooking food! He is not a chef, he is not even a cook but it is his love for this cuisine that made him get involved with a project on the history of science in India. The book deals with the history and culture of food practices of our Indian sub-continent.
He describes so beautifully the process of making a kheer (rice pudding). He starts off by talking about kaccha and pucca foods. Literally, kaccha foods mean food that has been imperfectly cooked and pucca (pukka) means the opposite (for those Jamie Oliver fans out there you’ll notice that he uses this word to express something that he’s cooked that has come out well or tastes great!), but according to Dr Achaya the ritual usage goes beyond this. Both are, of course, fully cooked in the modern sense of cooking. Please join me in reading an excerpt from his book and relish the slow style, the detail and knowledge:
Kaccha foods are basically foods cooked in water, like rice, khichdī and dhãl. These items of food are considered both exclusive and pure, and the rules governing their preparation are designed to ensure this. Boiling with water tends to render any anna or its flour pure, and when this is done within the restricted cooking area and in a ritual cooking pot, the sthãli, a kaccha product results. Once the cooking of a kaccha food starts, usually by setting the rice or dhal to boil, the cook cannot leave the food area till the meal has been prepared, served and eaten following ritual rules. Should he do so, he will have lost his own purity, and another bath, fresh clothes and fresh cooking will be called for. A kaccha food item can be cheap or expensive, plain or festive, of average or superior nutritive quality. Even a marriage feast could consist entirely of kaccha foods like sweet rice, pallão, chana dhãl, urad dhãl and dahi-vadã. Wheat breads like roti and chapati were not in vogue in Vedic times, and therefore escaped ritual classifications; since they do not involve boiling, such items would not therefore strictly qualify as kaccha foods, even though eaten now at every meal. Kaccha food had to be cooked afresh for every meal; left-over or stale food, termed basi or jutha, was likely to have become polluted.
Pucca foods are essentially those cooked with fat, meaning of course ghee. They are destined, primarily, for use outside the domestic food area. A pucca food is one in which the first contact is with ghee. Thus in preparing halwa, the ghee must first be added to the pan and only then should the anna or the phala follow. Sometimes use of the same ingredients in a different sequence will determine the ritual classification. Thus to make kshīrikã (kheer), a pucca food, the rice must first come into contact with ghee, before milk, fire and sugar enter the picture. If this sequence is not followed, and the rice is added say to boiling milk, with ghee and sugar added later, the dish will be called doodhbãth, and is a restrictive kaccha food. Common daily dishes are most affected by such sequences. Pucca foods suffer less restrictions, are less liable to pollution, and can be shared outside the family by those of either lower or higher levels of purity.
Wow! Doesn’t that just blow your mind away? Savour that knowledge!
Dr K.T. Achaya’s book was first published in 1994.
So, just as Larousse and Herrings will always remain the ‘Bibles’ of French Food, I have no doubt that the book on spices and condiments and the history of Indian food will some day gain their rightful place and become the Bhagavad Gita of Indian food and be an essential part of the curriculum in catering schools all over India!!
I promise you I will be around to see that happen. Until then . . . Shubh Chintan, but of course: Anah Daata Sukhi Bhaava!!
The two books mentioned here are : J.S. Pruthi, Spices and Condiments from the series India – The Land and the People, National Book Trust, India, 1976.
 K.T. Achaya, Indian Food – A Historical Companion, Oxford University Press, 1994 (Oxford India Paperbacks, 1998).
Other fascinating books by K.T. Achaya you might want to look at are: The Story of Our Food, Universities Press (India) Limited, 2000 which is here:
and a fascinating, useful resource is his: A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food, Oxford University Press, 1998.