While we have close to 50 cookbooks in our collection, those featuring Indian food are surprisingly few. Most of the ones we do have are devoted to Indian regional cuisines. What we didn’t have was one comprehensive “Indian cookbook”.

Think about it. Is it even possible to capture, in one book, the complexity and nuances of a culinary tradition that goes back a few thousand years and spans a subcontinent where regional identities, cooking styles and ingredients vary every hundred miles?

Madhur Jaffrey and Yamuna Devi have been brave enough to attempt this task and pull it off with panache (The latter’s work is confined to Indian vegetarian cuisine).

Three weeks ago, we found Raghavan Iyer’s 660 Curries: The Gateway to Indian Cooking in the bookstore. It’s a labour of love – over 800 pages thick, with recipes collected by visiting home kitchens across the length and breadth of India, as well as several expat kitchens in the U.S. and his own ‘laboratory’ in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Raghavan Iyer majored in chemistry at Bombay University before moving to the U.S. 26 years ago. He went on to get a masters in Hotel, and Restaurant Management (Michigan State University) and has achieved acclaim as a cookbook author, culinary educator, and a co-founder of the Asian Culinary Arts Institutes.

He has numerous feathers in his cap; two other critically acclaimed cookbooks, Betty Crocker’s Indian Home Cooking and The Turmeric Trail: Recipes and Memories from an Indian Childhood; as a culinary educator, he received the coveted 2004 International Association of Culinary Professionals’ Award of Excellence for Cooking Teacher of the Year, and was a Finalist for a 2005 James Beard Journalism Award. His work has featured in several leading publications.

His latest book, 660 Curries is a veritable encyclopedia. As the name suggests, it has a wide range of curries (wet and dry) from the Indian subcontinent, plus a section on “Spices and Curry Pastes”. About a third of the book is devoted to things not usually associated with the term “curry”.

There’s a chapter on popular street food (chaat), snacks and dips (“Appetizer Curries”), another on scrumptious one-pot rice based meals (“Biryani Curries”), and forty-one “curry cohorts” with pulaos, breads and desserts.

Geographically, it covers most of the Indian subcontinent, including the oft-neglected North-East, Pakistan, Tibet, Nepal and Sri Lanka. About 25% of the recipes in the book are non-vegetarian, ranging from favourites like Lucknowi Gosht Korma (Aromatic Lamb with Pounded Spices) to the unusual Sengdana Lassoon Jhinga (Shrimp with a Peanut-Garlic Sauce).

This book traces, in enchanting detail, the origin and evolution of “curry” as we know it, through the various immigrant populations that settled in the Indian subcontinent.  It presents recipes of curries handed down through generations.

Some of them, like Patara Poda from Orissa (Leaf-Wrapped Cod and Mushrooms) or Chilgozae Waale Palak aur Methi Saag from the Himalayan foothills (Pine Nut-studded Creamy Spinach and Fenugreek) may have never appeared in print before.

There’s a section called “Contemporary Curries”, which features Indo-Chinese favourites (like Hakka noodles and Gobhi Manchurian), and unusual pairings of Indian flavours with “foreign” ingredients such as Ziti with Arugula and Jaggery, Asparagus with Tomato and Crumbled Paneer, Potato-Stuffed Peppers in Guajillo Chile Sauce.

See a sampling of Raghavan’s recipes at HIS BLOG.

Here are some we tried.

Eating India: North South East West

Featured, anti-clockwise: Zarda Chaawal (Saffron-laced Basmati Rice, page 716), Rasa Vadai (Lentil Dumplings in a Spicy Tamarind-Lentil Broth, page 75), Sorshe Bata Diye Bhindi (Sweet-hot Okra in a Mustard-Poppy Sauce, page 529) Makkai Nu Shaak (Sweet Corn with Cumin, Curry Leaves and Chillies, page 486).

Little wonder he claims getting this book to print was like “giving birth to a horse”. It was a four-year process where he channelled his inner chemist to deconstruct the techniques, ingredients, spices and herbs that give “curry” its form, texture and body.

In an era when any recipe is available for free on the internet at your fingertips, why bother with another cookbook?

For starters, we were impressed by the sheer size of the compilation. Seven hundred recipes – each one well-researched and explained in painstaking detail.

This book is for the novice as well as the vocational cook. It takes absolutely nothing for granted.
There’s a glossary at the end that explains what various ingredients are called in different parts of India, what they are used for, and where to find them in the U.S.

If you don’t find it, he suggest substitutes. (e.g. “tamarind paste dissolved in water with a drop or two of natural smoke flavor” in lieu of Kudampuli)

There’s a list of mail order sources, a shopping cheat sheet, and the teacher’s voice of quiet authority as he guides you through every step.

Most recipes come with tips: e.g. in the footnotes to Dhansak: “Canned pumpkin is not a good substitute (for fresh) because it is way overcooked and mushy. Use sweet potatoes instead.”

.. and very precise instructions: “8 minutes for an electric burner or 10 for a gas burner”.

What we really dig are the narratives surrounding each dish – its history, and whose kitchen it came from.

“Jyotsana Rayadurgh handed me a piece of paper in the parking lot of our children’s school one nippy day. “My mother used to make this all the time when we had a cold back in Karnataka,” she said, as she chased after her beautiful daughters … “

prefaces the recipe for Menalina Saru (Peppery Pigeon Peas with Garlic and Cumin)

His Aloo Tikki Chaat (Stuffed Potato Shells) comes from his childhood neighbour in Bombay.

“Mrs. Chandwani, whose ancestral roots were embedded in Sindh (now Pakistan), purchased her aloo tikkis from the same woman, also a Sindhi, every week for fifteen years. It was her way of showing support for the hardworking widowed mother of two. It was also her opportunity to complain, in Sindhi, about the growing cost of vegetables, and about not being able to see her children and grandchildren often enough.

Years later, those patties made it into my American kitchen …”

And his Bolly Cauli (Aloo Gobhi) is inspired by the movie Bend It Like Beckham,

“where the hockey-stick wielding tomboy heroine is forced to learn how to make this Punjabi delicacy to prove her capability as a dutiful housewife to her Indian husband.”

He focuses on what works in an American home kitchen. So how does he get idli batter to ferment in the frigid Minnesota weather?

Ha!!! He doesn’t. He uses yogurt and Eno fruit salt. His recipe sure works for us way better than “put the batter in an oven with the light on and say a prayer”. (Read Bee’s idli rant HERE). It’s nice to encounter a cookbook author who values practicality above concerns about tsk tsking purists.

Raghavan Iyer is eloquent. And darn funny.

On eating, Indian style:

“We Indians wash our hands, sit at the table, tear off pieces of bread (with one hand only, and yes, it’s the right one because the left is considered “unclean”, best reserved for other body functions – no need to go further), wrap them around morsels of curry, and in it goes. We repeat this until we are done with “breaking bread”.

Then we mix the leftover curry with rice and, using the fingers of the right hand, we scoop up little mouthfuls and devour until we can eat no more.

If you’re left-handed “Oy veh, you are so out of luck!” as my friend the cookbook author Judy Kancigor would say. Or you’ll just have to resort to the pardesi (foreign) manner. And yes, the foreign way would be to use fork, knife, and spoon to transport your curry meal. Of course, I say eating with silverware is like making love through an interpreter; something is lost in the translation, n’est-ce pas?”

This book is a real joy to read, and to cook from.

In the three weeks since we bought it, we’ve tried ten recipes – with outstanding results.

We particularly love his lentil (dal) and bean creations. We’ve tried three so far and really enjoy the way he combines them – brown and white chickpeas, urad and mung dal, chickpeas and kidney beans – to create a medley of perfectly balanced flavours.

There’s a doodhi/lauki (bottle gourd) languishing in our crisper. What should it be for dinner tomorrow?

Raghavan has FIFTEEN recipes to jazz up this rather lacklustre vegetable. Browsing through them, one is transported from Kerala to Bengal to Kashmir. And there’s his own creation: Lauki Patra nu Shaak (Squash with Taro leaf Roulade).

Suddenly, we’re excited about lauki.

Anything to complain about? There are a few gorgeous pictures by the brilliant Ben Fink and some others taken in India, but there could have been more. We have a weakness for bright, shiny distractions to break up the text.

But then, this book would have cost 50 dollars instead of 22. And it’s already huge. Adding more pages would mean having to rent a U-Haul to bring it home.

Watch this space for some recipes from this inspiring book.

Raghavan Iyer’s Website
His blog
Media reviews of 660 Curries.

If you would like to purchase this book, you can support Jugalbandi by buying it through our Amazon Store at no extra cost to you.

Hardcover
Paperback

- Bee and Jai

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40 Comments

  1. Raaga says:

    I saw this book 2 weeks ago but feared being thrown out of the house if I take back even 1 more cookbook! :-)

  2. Srivalli says:

    Nice review…and your pictures are breathtaking as usual!

  3. Pelicano says:

    I’m intrigued! Especially so because I know next to nothing about the somewhat-cloistered northeast corner of India…and those vadas in rasam look so tempting; brilliant composition in your photo BTW.

  4. Arundathi says:

    Thanks for the information – I’ve seen it and been debating buying it.

  5. sushma says:

    Hey Bee thanks for such a wonderful info and i can add this book to my shelf.. as usual ur photos are awesome..

  6. Shyam says:

    Very nice review, J & B. I’ve been toying with the idea of buying “The Turmeric Trail” – now it looks like I’ll have to buy that as well as this book! :) Raghavan saar should thank you for raising the sales of his books by two!

  7. sia says:

    16 bottle gourd recipes in one book alone??? really??? wow…

  8. Aparna says:

    If the book can get anybody excited about lauki, then I’m sure its worth buying!

  9. Trupti says:

    I’m going to look for this one at Chapters…thanks.

  10. Asha says:

    Hey Jugs, top Wednesday to ya both.

    I have all 3 books of his and preordered his 3rd at Amazon 3 month’s before it’s release!:P

    Love the photos!:)

    We are celebrating a “old man’s” birthday this June who lives with us, he will be 70yrs old, will post at Aroma on Friday! ;D

  11. richa says:

    wow! the book has Chilgozae Waale Palak aur Methi Saag, sounds good :)

  12. Jyothsna says:

    The vada pictures make me hungry!! I recently cooked koftas with the boring doodhi…I’m curious…15 doodhi recipes????

  13. bhags says:

    The books seems to me as an encyclopedia for curries with such a huge and varied collection.
    The pics are awesome.

  14. sagari says:

    nice post bee,pics looks beautiful

  15. shankari says:

    Excellent review Bee. I saw this book at Costco. I have no space on my tiny shelf, but what the heck I have to get it now!

  16. Latha says:

    Lovely post. I am so intrigued by the book now. Very nice review. And OMG those pictures are to die for!

  17. This book alone will keep us busy for the next century! Thanks for the write up and we look getting a copy. Shankari said she saw it at Costco? Great!

  18. dee says:

    Bee , I read a few raving reviews and bought it last week. Im eager to try out the reviews! Looks like a wise buy!

  19. Cham says:

    Wow, great review and pict… I really want to give a glance on this heavy book…

  20. TC says:

    The book got you guys excited about lauki?
    Now that this book has the JB seal of approval, I have to check it out.

  21. Maninas says:

    WOW! I am mightily impressed by this tome! Thanks for the intro!

  22. Mansi says:

    That’s one of the best cookbook reviews I’ve read so far! great job guys, and 660 Curries surely sounds like a great buy! will surely check it out:)

  23. Uma says:

    Wow, wow, your review impressed me very much to buy this book at once. Thanks for such nice info. Great pics.

  24. Siri says:

    Great Review B&J..one question though – I checked out the book on Amazon.com – it costs 15.61$, but here its 21$.. just curious to know.. what cud be the reason..

    Siri

    one’s hardcover, the other is paperback. – b.

  25. What a lovely post. Now I am dying for curry! Great review, thanks and as always your photos are to die for. I hope my photography grows up to look like your some day!

  26. DK says:

    Oh this seems to be Amazing! I hav added it to my list..lets c..I hardly have any cookbooks..need to stock up..this one would be a great investment. ur pics luk mind blowing as always

  27. Rashmi says:

    Now that is such a stunning zen-like picture!
    You guys have left me with no option but to go hunt down that tome:)

  28. Laavanya says:

    What a comprehensive book and it seems to be presented in a fun way too … Thanks for the intro.

  29. Mamatha says:

    I love cookbooks that have anecdotes accompanying the recipes. Will look out for this books BJ. I can never tire of saying this – the NSEW picture is simply gorgeous and seeing it made me all warm inside.

  30. Suganya says:

    What a coincidence? I just purchased this book last week. I made eggplant and apple curry (Kashmiri baingan). The flavor combo was quite different.

  31. Namratha says:

    After reading your post and looking at the pics, I simply can’t wait to buy this book! I’m in the middle of a move, once I’m set will buy it from your store :) Thanks a bunch for showcasing the book.

  32. Miri says:

    Thanks for the indepth review, not sure if this is available here – would love to order it on this site from Amazon, but not sure they ship to India? and how much would shipping add? will come back and find out….if it is an ok amount my husband wouldnt have to scratch his head for my birthday gift ;) . PLus I want to buy a book on baking…

    Miri

    it is available in india. or go to your local bookstore and ask them to order it for you. all of them do.

    bee

  33. [...] is a truly outstanding recipe from Raghavan Iyer’s 660 Curries. While split urad dal (the white skinned variety) is used extensively throughout India to ferment [...]

  34. [...] 660 Curries (p. 400) by Raghavan [...]

  35. Keerthana says:

    Thanks so much for the information!i was planning to order this book.was not sure.after reading this review, am so tempted to read the book!

  36. Jim says:

    The South Indian curd rice recipe in this book is great–also very simple to prepare and foolproof. We love it! I’d recommend trying it to anyone who has the book–you won’t be disappointed with this one.

  37. [...] time I made up my own recipe, and borrowed Raghavan Iyer’s idea of adding fennel seeds. They add a really nice flavour. I added non-fat organic milk [...]

  38. [...] recipe in Raghavan Iyer’s 660 Curries called “Mitti Chawal” has the solution. Use fewer spices, crush them, and gasp … [...]

  39. [...] our favourite cookbook. See the review HERE with a SIGNED bookplate by the [...]



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