“If a food is more than the sum of its nutrients and a diet is more than the sum of its foods, it follows that a food culture is more than the sum of its menus – it embraces as well the set of manners, eating habits, and unspoken rules that together govern a people’s relationship to food and eating.

How a culture eats may have just as much of a bearing on health as what a culture eats. The foodstuffs of another people are often easier to borrow than their food habits, it’s true, but to adopt some of these habits would do atleast as much for our health and happiness as eaters.”

~ Michael Pollan (In Defense of Food, p. 182)

To this end, Pollan has a list of “dietary algorithms” derived from the culinary “habits” of ancient cultures.

#1 is

“Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”

(See the entire list)

This wisdom is distilled from generations of trial and error to arrive at what actually works for a society to be healthy and function at its optimal level. While the farmer in Vietnam and the craftsman in north India may eat completely different things, they share a mindset that encompasses two basic ideas.

Eating sustainably. Using local ingredients that are in season and largely outside the industrialised food chain. It would imply avoiding waste and giving up the promiscuous mindset that expects strawberries in December.

Eating sensibly. Regarding food as ‘nourishment’ rather than an addiction, where nutrition and portion control are priorities.

There are an increasing number of cookbooks that try to capture the culinary “pulse” of a people by giving a composite view of what they eat and, by extension, how they live. Few have achieved this as spectacularly as Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid in their series of culinary travelogues.

Hot, Sour, Salty Sweet: A Culinary Journey through South-East Asia
Beyond the Great Wall: Recipes and Travels in the Other China
and Mangoes and Curry Leaves: Culinary Travels Through The Great Subcontinent.

(The other popular books they have authored are Seductions of Rice, Flatbreads and Flavors.)

Mangoes and Curry Leaves focuses on the cuisines we are most familiar with – those of South Asia. ‘Cookbook’ would be a misnomer. The Toronto-based couple have been visiting the Indian Subcontinent over the past 30 years, first as backpackers, now as culinary anthropologists.

The book explores India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives stringing together memories, stories and recipes. Their narratives flow from bustling markets, hamlets, bus stands and village tea shops where the gossip is as fresh as the food, and a picture is worth a million words.

What can we say about the pictures ??? This book is worth every penny for the spectacular travel photography alone. It takes a special form of artistry to capture a landscape and its people with such finesse and sensitivity. Our copy sits on our coffee table. It lets us and our guests traverse the Subcontinent in a few minutes through some superlative camerawork. The underlying script is food – how it is grown, harvested, transported, sold, cooked, and shared.

Alford and Duguid dive deep into the cultures they wish to experience. Be it a week spent at a Sherpa’s mountain hut in the Himalayas or nine days spent under the tutelage of a lady who hand-builds clay ovens (tandoors) in Rajasthan, everything they eat is the real deal, cooked with the rudimentary equipment in their hosts’ homes.

Street vegetable vendor in Assam, India. Flickr Creative Commons

South Asia, with over 5,000 years of recorded human habitation, is very rich in terms of ethnic and cultural diversity. The small country of Nepal, roughly the size of Iowa, has fifty distinct languages. This book is a real education on the worlds within the world we used to inhabit and believe we know so well.

The common man’s meals (and life) in the Indian Subcontinent revolve around the weather, the seasons, the harvest and the occasion. They are frill-free, yet each cuisine highlights a creativity, harmony and nutritional emphasis that extends to the people’s lifestyles.

Given the geological and agricultural diversity of the area, every regional cook has a an amazing array of spices, vegetables and grains to work with. As the authors point out,

“From the wintry snow-capped Himalaya all the way down to hot, humid tropical Sri Lanka, there’s a perfect place for almost everything to grow. A regional cook’s repertoire of vegetable dishes can be mind-boggling, from mushrooms and asparagus to bitter melon and okra. Rice, lentils, and breads may be the staffs of life, but vegetables are one of life’s joys, treated with great respect, almost reverence. …

The vegetable dishes of the Subcontinent have clean, clear flavors and distinct personalities.”

Alford and Duguid grew up in small-town USA (Wyoming) with little exposure to “exotic” cultures or cuisines. The sense of curiosity and wonder they bring to their explorations yields interesting insights even to those of us who are well-accustomed to the region and milieus within it. It is refreshing to revisit the place through two “foreign” sets of eyes.

It is not meant to be a comprehensive ‘travel guide’ for culinary enthusiasts. It simply records honest impressions of the authors’ own experiences.

Now, when we visit a certain city in India, say Bombay, we try to visit different restaurants each time we eat out. We avoid the ‘Bombay Garden’ and ‘Delhi Durbar’ kind of places with 17 dishes, five of which have paneer, and look and taste exactly like one another. We prefer the small mom and pop hole-in-the-wall joints, but even there we dread the familiar encounters with potatoes, spinach, greasy eggplant and the odd cauliflower, ‘cos these are all the vegetables these places seem to offer. Here’s what Alford and Duguid suggest for those who want to eat the “real” India.

“If you’re on a trip to the Subcontinent, one good way to taste local vegetable dishes is to search out neighborhood restaurants that come highly recommended for serving the main meal of the day, which is most often served at noontime. In the north of India, the main meal is called thali; in Sri Lanka, it’s “rice and curry“; and in the south of India, it’s “meals“.

These main meals of the day are the ones most likely to include local vegetables, from beets to yard-long beans to seasonal greens, for they generally consist of at least three vegetable dishes, as well as chutneys and dal, and often more. When you find a good place to eat, go back every day and don’t be afraid to ask when there’s something unfamiliar.”

Makes perfect sense. Stop visiting the a la carte places. And stop restaurant-hopping. Find one good place that serves only ‘thalis‘ or ‘meals’ and keep going there.

This is a gem of a book – great to own, great to gift.

The recipe below is for Niramish – a mixed vegetable curry, which was part of a leisurely meal put together by Hasna Begum, a retired philosophy professor at the University of Dhaka. Each person at the table had a plate of rice, over which spoonfuls of curries were ladled, one at a time. First to be served was the Niramish. The next was dal (lentils), followed by a green vegetable stir-fried with some dried fish, then a simple fish curry (jhol) made with carp, ending with a spicy beef curry.

NIRAMISH (Bengali Mixed Vegetable Curry)

Mangoes and Curry leaves, pg. 163-165

Niramish literally means “no protein” and has no onions or garlic either. In winter, to make this dish more substantial, a cup of cooked lentils – either the salmon-coloured Egyptian lentils (masoor dal) or skinned, split mung beans – are added.

Use about 1/3 cup uncooked lentils for 1 cup cooked.

The main flavourings are pungent mustard oil and panch phoron (Bengali five-spice mix) that has equal portions of mustard, cumin, fennel, fenugreek and nigella seeds.

Typically, five types of veggies are used in equal proportions – including potatoes, carrots, green beans, carrots and different types of pumpkin/squash. We used veggies from our garden -
crookneck squash,

Dice about 1 cup each of the various veggies and keep them aside separate from one another. Root veggies like carrot and potatoes that take longer to cook should be diced a bit smaller than the others.

Heat in a heavy-bottomed pan or wok

3 tbsp mustard oil, vegetable oil, or a combination

1/2 tsp each turmeric and cayenne powders
1 tsp coriander powder
1 tsp panch phoron (Bengali five-spice mix)
** equal parts of mustard, cumin, fennel, fenugreek and nigella seeds

Stir for a few seconds and add
2 cassia leaves (tejpatta)
** or bay leaves

Add the veggies one at a time, starting with those that take longest to cook. Stir a bit after each addition and add salt to taste.

If using corn or green peas, wait until a few minutes from the end.

When the veggies are half-cooked, add
2 chopped green serrano, cayenne or Thai chillies and
1.25 cups water

If using fresh corn or green peas, add them now. If using cooked lentils, add them now as well.

Cook until all the veggies are done, stirring occasionally (5 minutes or so).

Stir in
2 tsps of sugar (optional)
more salt if you need it

Just before serving, add
1 tbsp fresh lime juice

Garnish with chopped cilantro

Niramish is our entry for World Food Day, an event organised by Valli @ more than burnt toast and Ivy @ Kopiaste to heighten our awareness of the problem of hunger in the world and to bring to our attention what we can do about it personally.

Homegrown Broccoli

If you wish to buy this book or the other two from Alford and Duguid’s travelogue series, you can do so at our Amazon store. It will not cost you extra, and the proceeds will go towards Jai’s coat rack fund.

Who cares about Race? by Bee @ Forgive Me My Nonsense.

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  1. Rashmi says:

    Beautifulpost and recipe!
    Local food is always fresher, cheaper, tastier but I always make an exception for Indian mangoes:)

  2. Manasi says:

    Lovely!! I had borrowed this book from our local library. Made Bangla Daal with a hit of lime! ur post makes me want togo bvack and get it (after they r done renovating the lib.)

  3. Anjali says:

    I think our bengalis call this Bhaja a simple stir fry.

  4. Uma says:

    This book sounds great! Niramish looks awesome. Will try to get hold of this from the library! LOL at “Jai’s Coat Rack Fund”.

  5. Cham says:

    Good info & the curry is super quick!

  6. Cynthia says:

    I’ve had this book in my Amazon favourites for sometime now. Will definitely try and get it soon. Thanks for the review.

  7. sra says:

    I make this often! And as much as an unoriginal comment may make you wince, “beautiful photo”!

  8. Pelicano says:

    I’ve flipped through this book a few times at B&N; it is definitely on my list! Wonderful review. Niramish looks like a totally versatile dish- love the touch of lime juice and sugar; a very good one to keep close or in memory for quick, seasonal meals.

  9. Ivy says:

    Thank you Bee and Jai for the lovely book review and the lovely recipe prepared for the WFD Event. The dish sounds delicious and flavourful.

  10. Mary-Anne says:

    I own this book and LOVE it….more for the photography and stories than the recipes. I’ve made more than 50% of the recipes….and I feel they’re very homely, good for everyday meals.
    Love the picture, might try that recipe from the book now. Thanks for posting.

  11. Shreya says:

    Love this post:-) Amazing book review and recipe. Learnt a lot of things new! Your blog is becoming my mini-encyclopedia for reference to anything food-related.

  12. Rashmi says:

    Nice Post….I need to read this book….i would be happpy to contribute towards Jai’s coat rack fund …LOL…

  13. Happy Cook says:

    Thankyou for the info about the book.
    I will buy through the net as here we never get new english books.

  14. indosungod says:

    I’d like to contribute to the “coat rack fund” when the Stock Market picks up a bit ;) Kidding aside this book might be a present to myself pretty soon. Wowee with all that the goodness from the garden fantastic!

  15. Mishmash! says:

    An interesting post….kept me focused till the end :P

    have a lovely weekend ahead..

  16. Thank you so much guys for entering this superlative dish into our conga line of international dishes.We are thrilled that you participated:D

  17. sunita says:

    Oh! The picture of the street vendor with all those gorgeous vegetables is making me so very homesick…so much variety, we get there…and there are still more…

    The niramish recipe is so similar to the ‘labra’ that we make.For us, though, ‘niramish’ refers to ‘vegetarian’.

  18. nags says:

    I love the bowl! And the book definitely seems good. TH just got me Das Sreedharan’s book which cost him a bomb so guess I will need to wait for the next one.

  19. Bharti says:

    Lovely post. The book sounds intriguing and if I buy it, I’ll go thru your store.
    “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”
    This above line has become my “checkpoint” ever since I read it….if my great grandma or any great grandma in another country wouldn’t recognize it, I try to avoid it.

  20. Nirmala says:

    Worth reading every word. I am with you on this “eat whats produced locally and in the season”. At home we never buy canned/tinned food and cook fresh for every meal-time. My father being a purist-foodie doesn’t eat for dinner thats cooked in the morning. Again he never demands elaborate food but even a rasam and papadam served with piping hot rice is ok with him but he jus wants them fresh.

  21. Mona says:

    This cookbook is of my favorites too. It has got a collection of so many good recipes from the Indian sub-continent.

  22. Today is World Food Day. Come on over for the party. Thank you so much for all that you have done in helping spread the word about this global issue. Now let’s DANCE!!!!!

  23. [...] is the simplest of the four Sri Lankan sambols (spicy chutneys) featured in Mangoes and Curry Leaves by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid. It is usually served as a condiment or a [...]

  24. [...] recipe is from Mangoes and Curry Leaves by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid. They are outstanding food photographers and [...]

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