Carrot Cake with Fig Jam
Brinjal Pasty Vegetable- Vankaya Muddha Koora

Poor People's cooking


New cook books are still not easily available in Pune and one has to rely on the kindness of friends to lug a book back in already overloaded bags from the UK or elsewhere. In the two large bookstores here we get dozens of books on Indian cuisine, classified by States, (Punjab, Bengal Gujarat, ) or ingredients,( dals, pulaos, vegetables,mutton, salads etc) all written by a couple of writers who regurgitate the same recipes and are wildly popular and successful. After books with Indian recipes , Italian cook books are big. Pasta books sell well. Chinese food, Cakes and Pastries,Food decoration and Vegetable Carving are high on the list too.I do not recognise the names of any of the authors. If there are any names given at all. The fact is that most book distributors buy container loads of remainders and overstocks from big printing houses. This at deep discount prices at bargain book fairs held every year in different countries, which are then imported and sent to every possible outlet in India. You sometimes find the same pictures and recipes in two completely different books. For example "Hot and Spicy" written by no one in particular carries the same stuff as "Curries from South Asia". Then you notice the publisher is the same. The recipes are suspect and the photographs mouth wateringly good, and the two do not always match.
I do manage to get some books on food by ordering them through Ajay of 'The Word' bookshop. He tries his best to stock some good ones. I have found Jamie Oliver, Nigel Slater and several other great cook books on his shelves . He also imports some books from Wiley and Sons who bring out some of the best books on professional cooking, catering and the culinary arts. The only thing one has to have is patience, and thats tough. We get hold of very few cookbooks about cuisines from other countries. Middle Eastern, Japanese or African are hardly represented at all.
When I heard that Marcus Samuelsson , the darling of New York chefs, winner of the 2003 James Beard award for the best chef in New York City and several other awards, in a distinguished career, was bringing out a book on African food I felt severely deprived . His book 'Aquavit' based on the menu's at his famous restaurant of that name, introduced the best of Scandinavian cooking to the world and made good reading even though I have never eaten at the famed place ( well one can always dream)


Now "The Soul of a New Cuisine"  is out and I had to have it. It was finally delivered by a complex series of courier posts last week and I have been with my nose in it ever since.
Samuelsson, was adopted by Swedish parents and left Ethiopia when he was three years old. His own life is interwoven with the history and politics of the land of his birth in this outstandingly beautifully illustrated book. One thing I particularly identified with is the term he often uses ...'poor peoples cooking" something I felt was so much part of our cuisine, not the Persian or Mughal influenced Indian food which is rich, creamy and full of expensive spices, but the day to day cooking of rural people in places like Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra and other states. Our reliance on grain , central to every meal be it rice or wheat, ragi or jowar is echoed in the Ethiopian use of miniscule grain teff and the bread injera. The inventive ways in which oils and clarified butter are infused with spices( Nitr Kebeh for example) to make them go further and to inject flavour into every meal is so much like our use of ghee or chutney to lift a simple dish into something absolutely mouthwatering .The manner in which injera is eaten has the same ritualistic /stylistic taboos that we have when eating chapathies. There were so many times when I felt like exclaiming ..."oh that is just like the way we do things here!"
Other chefs in Ethiopia like Demeke Girma do not celebrate injera quite so much as they feel it has led to malnutrition but these are issues which peoples of most underdeveloped nations will be familiar with. The lack of variety in the daily diet and the limited availability of fresh fruit and vegetables. To that extent I am unsure how authentic Samuelssons representative dishes are and I suspect many of them are interpretations of basic African recipes. Nevertheless it makes for a nice change to read about the cuisine of a continent rarely covered in the culinary world and this is a book I will savour and use for some time to come.

PS. This was written some time ago and the availability of cooks books in Pune has improved comsiderably.