Pic taken from www.hookedonheat.com, visit site for recipe details.

The year I turned 15, my Mom decided it was time I learnt the basics of cooking. If nothing else, she figured I could at least make myself breakfast without having to yell for her when I’m hungry. Starting with the classic rule to making the perfect hard boiled egg – where the yolk is firm, yet still melts at the touch of your tongue, I gradually moved on to more complicated things, like making perfect plain boiled rice – not mushy, not hard, but just right.During the years since, I’ve played around with many of Mom’s classic favourites. Food she would only let us indulge in on special occasions, or when she was feeling slightly more generous. Everytime I experimented with one of her classics, trying my best to add my own touch to it, I would keep note of the alterations I made. The next time we spoke, I would tell her of my experiments, only to get more tips on what else could have been altered and in what way. I would then go back into my kitchen and play around some more until I had it perfect to my taste. It would taste nothing like hers, but it wouldn’t be bad either. If I like it enough, I make it a part of my own collection – a stash of my tried and tested favourites that I always turn to when I want to please those I intend to feed.

Over the years, many of these recipes have featured over and over again at my dinner parties. Some, for the same group of people who always request it when they come over. With time, I’ve shared many of these with close friends, who succeeded in bribing me enough to persuade me to part with my secrets. Likewise, they never fail to let me know when they try it out, and especially when they’ve experimented and made changes to it, only to come up with something better suited to their tastes. As the recipes move around, being part of many alterations and tests, one thing always remains the same. It’s the circle we share, a cult of kinds, membered by those who love nothing more than a plate of good food and won’t stop till they get it. And so, the sisterhood grows.

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For someone who loves to throw parties at the drop of a hat, getting my hands on this book was like finding that cookie jar meticulously hidden away by Mom! Friends and family will swear to you that when I decide to throw a party, food is all, if not the ONLY thing that sits on my mind for most days prior to the event in question. Hubby Dear can attest to the fact that I call him during office hours simply to discuss menus with him. Not that he has much say in it, except for what he would like to eat himself at the party.For a girl like me who loves to excite and impress her guests with tiny tid-bits of food that not only buffer ongoing conversation, but become topics to discuss in length themselves, Julie gives me eactly what I’m looking for. From dips you can sink your heart into, daintily filled phyllo packages, lip-smacking favourites, to sweet litlle bundles of sugar, she takes you on a wonderful ride through the fabulous world of miniature food.

The first time I sat down with Grazing, I couldn’t help but run to get my sticky markers (the mini post-it stickies that I can’t live without!) to mark the recipes I just knew I had to try. No matter how much I try and contain my excitement everytime I flip through a page of the book, it always seems to drive me to my kitchen. Now, I’m not a fan of cookbooks that do not have a story to tell. There have been ample times when I picked up a great looking cover, only to place it down again because it lacked what I’d like to call, a soul. True, great photographs do make you swoon, but I’d rather know a little something about the essence of the dish than what it could look like. I’m a firm believer that beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder, and I’ll gladly try out a recipe that might not look too appetizing, but has a strong conviction to back it up.

And here’s exactly where Julie’s book breaks all my ground rules. With very few (but highly delectable) photographs to allure your taste buds, and no inside tales to gossip over, Julie hits the nail right where it’s meant to be. The 100 or so recipes truly stand out for themselves leaving very less to imagination. The simplicity of it all tells you than you can expect yourself to be blown away by it’s smartness and mingling flavours. As a crazy woman who’s sole resolution for the year was to throw at least ONE party each month, I couldn’t be happier to get my hands on this treasure trove. And if you’re one of those who love to munch through a meal without the guilt of eating a 10-lb steak, then I’d suggest you jump in on the bandwagon. You see, the book is only filled with munchies, food in its miniest (if that’s even a word!) size, and perfect for those who like me, believe that as long as it’s tiny, it hardly matters how many you ate. After all, how weight can one gain over such a small bite of food, right?

In my quest to dismiss the myth that Indian cooking is not for the faint hearted and to help spread my knowledge on some simple and traditional Indian food recipes, I have started this series called Indian Cooking 101. To make it more interactive and as helpful as I can for my readers, I welcome you to email me any questions that you may have in the process. I will try and respond to the questions personally through email, or in the next part if it’s connected to what I have already planned to discuss. Before I start to talk about cooking Indian food, here are a few tips that I think would help make the process a tad bit simpler. While I already have a Quick-Start Guide on my homepage, this list is minimal for those who want to start slow.

SPICES: If you’ve never cooked Indian food before, and the only spice even remotely connected to Indian cooking ever to step into your spice collection is curry powder, then don’t fret. Start with the basics. Here is a list of the most standard spices that would help you cook many delicious Indian meals without making you go all out and splurge on many exotic flavours that you may be clueless about.

– Cumin Seeds
– Mustard seeds
– Turmeric powder
– Red Chili powder/Cayenne
– Coriander Powder
– Garam Masala

Once you have these staples and are confident about playing with them, then go a step further and try out a few more new to you. Slowly, but surely, you’ll have your own collection of spices that you’re fond of and those that you know would enable you to cook meals that you like.

UTENSILS: While certain dishes require certain traditionally designed equipment, a good start would be to invest in a few simple utensils that you already may or may not have.

– a non-stick wide pan
– a deep heavy-bottomed pot
– a kadhai, or wok, preferably non-stick or aluminum

When it comes to cooking simple Indian food, you would only need to be familiar with a few spices and the flavours that go with them. As a self-starter, it’s very easy to lose yourself in the wide selection of spices. True, they may seem intimidating at first, but then as you go along and acquaint yourself with the robust flavours they have to offer, you can’t help but get excited at the prospect of shopping and stocking your spice racks with some of your favourites.

As a first in this series, I thought I’d start with a recipe so simple, yet so flavourful, that would help you identify its distinct taste and aroma. Most Indian cooking would begin with a tempering, simply put, it’s just a process where spices like cumin or mustard seeds are added to hot oil and allowed to sizzle. Doing so adds plenty of flavour to the oil, which then helps in penetrating through the dish during the cooking process. Tempering, or tadka, is also a common way of adding a burst of flavour to a subtly spiced dal.

Pic for Jeera Alu taken from www.hookedonheat.com. Visit site for a detailed recipe.

The one thing I like about this dish is how the cumin dominates in taste. Another reason for adding it to the menu today, is to allow you to experiment and play around with some of the flavours you already love, or some that you wish to try. Potatoes are a wonderful vegetable to use when you need to experiment with a certain spice. Since they lack in much flavour themselves and carry out others with ease, I’d suggest you use not more than a combination of 2-3 spices to begin with. This would help you identify the flavours and also enable you to decide whether or not you like the mingling of them together.

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Coconut Fish Curry
Coconut Fish Curry

Even though I would like to think of myself as a highly organized person, the fact doesn’t seem to hold true in every aspect of my life. No matter how many times I update my to-do list, or how many post-its I leave around every unexpected corner in my home, I still have to deal with unpaid bills, unanswered emails, and missed deadlines. However, one area where I always seem to excel as someone who would have ‘organization’ as their middle name, would be in making sure my fridge, freezer and pantry are well stocked. This would surely have something to do with the fact that I may be a compulsive list maker. Yes, I love making lists. In fact, I make so many lists within the span of one day that I sometimes even have to make a list of the lists I’ve made. Confusing? Tell me about it!

Though I may not seem to be most successful in crossing out everything on my day’s schedule, my grocery list is one that can be easily counted on. I always have a freezer stocked with a few pounds of chicken, a huge bag of fries and a couple of packets of frozen veggies. My fridge never runs out of eggs, bread and milk, and not mention the staples like veggies and fruits. And my pantry, oh what can I tell you about my pantry, except that if ever we were locked in our house with no way to getting out whatsoever, I could easily survive with three other people for an entire week, with a couple more days added to it! Yes, my husband does comment on the size of my pantry, but hardly ever do I see him complain when I dish out a perfect meal after he refuses to head to the grocery store in the midst of a huge snow storm!

When it comes to wanting a wholesome, no-fuss, quick and easy meal, I always turn to my pantry for comfort. Like the long lost friend who always brings a smile to your face and warm joy to your heart even after seeing them after what seems like ages, my pantry serves me well. I always make sure I have enough of rice, flour, and a few different kinds of pasta to serve me when I call for them. I also stock on various sauces, lentils and beans. And it’s in times like these where I can happily fall back on my tried and tested stack of recipes. Most of them can be made within a few minutes with ingredients entirely coming from pantry staples, while a few may need a little help form something fresh or something frozen.

Speaking of frozen, I like to have a pack or two of some of my favourite seafood always on hand, and fish is definitely one of them. I like buying them pre-cleaned and pre-cut, which then only leaves them the need to defrost and cooked to my liking. Take for example this curry. It’s simple and quick, with only a handful of ingredients. And if that’s not good enough, it’s all made in one pot. Now what could be better than a one-pot meal left to simmer by itself while you tend to a few emails?

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When it comes to cooking, I hardly ever follow a recipe. I often give it a quick read, making a mental note of the spices, and then just play by instinct. But baking, now that’s a whole different post altogether! Coming back to cooking, apart from my daily ritual of pouring through endless mounds of paper scattered all over my floor, I also make time to decide what would be on the day’s menu. Some days, I plan in advance, like say the night before, while most other days, I go by my mood.

Recipe for Ginger-Chilli Shrimp taken from www.hookedonheat.com

Take today for instance, I woke up craving for shrimp. While I don’t often cook seafood, I do however, have tons of recipe ideas for them. And today was just the day to try one out, I thought. As I sipped my morning cuppa and went through my regular rounds of email, I heard a little voice in my head – “Ginger… Chili… Shrimp…”! As I read an email from a fabulous lady requesting me to review her latest cookbook, I heard it again – “Ginger… Chili… Shrimp…”! Half an hour later, drooling over an episode of Ina’s where she made the most delicious looking lemon loaf, there it was again – “Ginger… Chili… Shrimp…”! By the time it was mid-morning, I could take it no longer and set off to cook myself some lunch – “Ginger… Chili… Shrimp…”! There it was again!

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Of the few complaints I get on Indian cooking, the one that stands most prominent is the myth that Indian cooking is just too hard. Yes, you heard me right, a myth! Now before you roll your eyes at me and say, “Yea sure, easy for you, you’re Indian!”, just hear me out. True, I was born Indian in an Indian household with a Mom who cooks the most delicious Indian food I know. But truth be told, and as much as I would like to believe, I wasn’t born with Indian culinary instincts in me. Yes, like any of you not familiar with the South-Asian cuisine, I too started off without much knowledge.

Try as I might, somehow, I can’t convince people enough on just how simple and quick and not to mention, healthy, Indian food can be. So here is where my mind got to work. I thought why not start a cooking class, and Indian food 101, if you will, introducing people to the simple basics of cooking Indian. A beginner’s course for all the eager enthusiasts willing to start from the top.

And with this, I announce the start of a fabulous series, Indian Cooking 101, where I will discuss how to make basic Indian food. We will begin with the essentials, and slowly move up to a point where you will be confident enough to throw in a pinch of this and a dash of that. Hopefully, through this series, you will see that once you know the bare minimum, the rest from then on is smooth sailing. And then maybe, just maybe, I will finally be able to dismiss the myth that Indian cooking is just too hard. Yes, you heard it right again, myth!



India with Passion by Manju Malhi

When I received Manju Malhi’s cookbook, India with Passion, for a review, I couldn’t wait to brew myself a nice hot ‘cuppa Joe, and snuggle up on the couch with it. With photographs that are totally drool-worthy, the recipes just seem to pop out begging me to give them a try.

Written with utmost passion, the book is divided into four parts – North, South, East and West, with each section comprising of traditional and some not-so-traditional recipes from that region. With a wonderfully drafted introduction, detailing the kind of food eaten, various cooking techniques, and it’s history with the people, each section brings you a few steps closer to understanding the diversity that India offers and appreciating the effect it brought about to the Indian cuisine.

If I ever believed that classic Indian dishes could never be listed without missing a few in the process, this book has only sustained my faith. As you move through each section of the book, and undoubtedly through each recipe as well, it’s hard not to notice the change in cooking style and the flavours prominent in each region. While the North may be proud of it’s history with the Mughals and their love for rich creamy curries, the South doesn’t fail to enhance you with its love for the sweet coconut and pungent curry leaves. Where you may enjoy the sweetness of the West, there’s the spiciness of the East that could take your breath away.

When cooking for friends and family, I tend to not fuss too much with the traditional ways of Indian cooking. And I think that’s why Manju’s recipes struck a chord with me. Not a traditionalist herself, she happily suggests easy substitutions where ever possible. While some of the recipes are down-right classics, many of them were created in her own kitchen using everyday ingredients and enhancing the simple flavours we all love. Renowned for her simple, homely approach to Indian cooking, Manju Malhi has quickly become a favourite in my kitchen.

Pic taken from www.hookedonheat.com, visit site for recipe details.

Growing up in a household where vegetables were always given high preference over it’s non-vegetarian counterparts, I wasn’t too happy. Like any rebellious 12 year old, I despised anything green and considered “healthy” in my Mom’s dictionary. As a spunky 17 year old starting fresh at college and living in a hostel miles away from the caring tender fingers that caressed Mom’s cooking, I had grudgingly succumbed myself to the meals catered at the campus. To my added disappointment, not only did the food lack in flavour and eye appeal, it also somehow failed in providing me with the limited array of greens that I actually thought were edible, to say the least.

Somehow, between the humdrum of a busy schedule and an even busier college life, one could easily manage chugging down meals without a moments notice. That is, until one gets the same dish – mind you, same tasteless flavour and all, for five consecutive meals. Yes, five! And that was where I decided to draw the line and gift myself with a pan or two, and some basic starters to a home cooked meal. The dreaded dish if you wish to know, was okra.

It’s not hard to believe that I graduated through cooking for myself for the next few years without so much as a slight glance at the okra. Never was there a shopping spree through the fresh produce section where I stopped and smelt the darned vegetable. And never had it, for as long as I can remember, ever taken a place in my cart. That is, of course, until I met the then would-be Hubby Dear. Like a sudden twist of fate in any classic crime story (the crime here was of course committed against the okra, damn you okra!), on one of our first food conversations, Hubby Dear had candidly confessed to having a secret love affair with the dreaded pod.

Now what was a poor little girl like me supposed to do! I’d heard endless tales of how a man’s heart could easily be won through the deeds done for his stomach. Seeing that I had promised to cook him his favourite meal didn’t make my case any easier. So there I was trudging through the fresh produce section, not only smelling, but also picking my first pound of okra, and giving it a place in my cart. And like anyone gifted with an unwanted pet that’s impossible to give away, you accept your kismet and just get used to it. And hopefully eventually, but surely, you’ll learn to love it.

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