Tuesday, January 26, 2010

My First Vegetarian Cookbook

In 1985 or so, I bought a cookbook by Madhur Jaffrey, titled "World of the East Vegetarian Cooking." It was the first cookbook I ever bought. I was enticed by the lovely drawing on the front -- an Indian woman in a green sari, with a long, thick braid, sprinkling spices into a karhai (i.e., a wok-like dish commonly used in North India). Madhur Jaffrey, who has written numerous cookbooks, veg and non-veg, grew up in India and therefore has a different perspective on vegetarian food and cooking than many Westerners. To her, it is not about sacrificing anything. It's not about "I can't/don't eat x, y, and z."

It's about the wide variety of food that IS available to you. The introduction itself is wonderful to read. Jaffrey talks about how she and her friends are baffled by people who ask what vegetarians eat -- there is so much wonderful food out there. -- and goes on to describe dishes that will make your mouth water. One of the best aspects of the book is that it brings together vegetarian recipes from different parts of Asia, where vegetarianism is not viewed with any sort of skepticism, or really with any sort of opinion at all. I saw this myself on a recent trip to Southeast Asia, where most people are non-vegetarians, and fish is commonly eaten. When I informed people that I don't eat meat or fish, but egg was OK, everyone was immediately understanding and prepared vegetables and noodles or rice, sometimes with tofu or egg mixed in, without comment or attitude or judgment. This is probably because many Buddhists are strict vegetarians -- although many are not as well -- and the people in Southeast Asia are used to the idea.

One thing about Madhur Jaffrey's book is that many recipes have ingredients that can be difficult to find, especially if you don't have access to an Asian grocery store -- like blocks of tamarind, or chickpea flour (both of which are easily found in Indian grocery stores, or hard-t0-find lentil varieties. But in spite of that, there are some terrific recipes that I have turned to again and again. The best has got to be the Delicious Spicy Chickpeas, which Jaffrey modeled after the chickpea dishes sold by street vendors in Old Delhi. Another is, surprisingly, the Ginger Limeade, made with fresh grated ginger. She also has a lovely Indian-style tomato soup (she correctly notes that Indians love tomato soup and have adopted it as their own).

Overall, this is not the cookbook I turn to most often. But Jaffrey's writing is wonderful, and it's worth reading some of the introductory paragraphs before her chapters and many of the individual recipes. She talks about friends and relatives who make the particular dish, and where and when she has eaten it. But for a more generally useful vegetarian cookbook, I have others I prefer, like Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone or Crescent Dragonwagon's Passionate Vegetarian.

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