It's a sad fact that there are fewer Indian cookbooks than other ethnic cookbooks. So while you might find lots of subcategories of, say, Italian cookbooks — slow cooker, easy, vegetables, grilled, desserts, regional — you're lucky to find even a couple types of Indian volumes. Happily in recent years, we've seen easy-accessible Indian well covered. And now, with "The Complete Indian Regional Cookbook," by TV chef Mridula Baljekar, we have a working regional Indian cookbook.
The United Kingdom-based author organizes the 300 recipes by area (north, northeast, east, central, south, and west). You can sense some of the differences as you browse: rice here, bread there; vegetarian here, meat-eating there, variations in the use of dairy. But most recipes display a basic shared vocabulary: cilantro, tomatoes, garlic, ginger, and a dozen spices combined in a thousand ways.
Indian cheese curry in milk is a simple, easy paneer with the representative flavors of ginger, garlic, and green chile. The milk makes a clingy sauce that's almost overwhelmingly rich, even if you don't try subbing in cream (as a footnote suggests). South Indian dishes put rice through every variation you can imagine, including one tinted golden with turmeric and laced with fried onion.
With so many recipes, there are a lot of siblings. A pair of mixed vegetable dishes both rely on a classic five-spice mix (fennel, nigella, cumin, mustard seed, fenugreek). The one that's mixed with roast split mung beans (moong dal) has a grainy, somewhat monotonous feel. But the other, mixed vegetables with five-spice mix, is shockingly complex, an extra dose of chiles and tomatoes and a pinch of ground spices lending intrigue, character, and depth.
There's similar layering of flavors in a Goan pork vindaloo, which is hot, acidic, sweet, pungent, fruity, and almost tropical in flavor because of vinegar. Ginger and garlic purees and dark, assertive spices make a paste that would rouse the dead. A fairly involved rendition of butter chicken is rich and seductive, cinnamon, cloves, and tomatoes in a veritable bath of butter. Mustard greens also take a turn in rich, spiced butter, pureed into pillowy softness, the result like creamed spinach.
But there are misfires. The liquid proportions are off for a batch of naan dough, leaving it so dry it crumbles to bits on the counter. A dish of shrimp in poppy seed and "cashew" sauce is filled with small errors, from puzzling misprints (like 14 pounds instead of 1.4) to cooking the shrimp a total of 6 or 7 minutes, far more than necessary. Still, if you tweak, you can end up with something truly wonderful.
A slow-cooked chicken over rice is, I guess, not slow enough, as the boneless pieces overcook in the oven. Still, the saffrony, oniony rice, and a thick spice paste make up for it. Minced lamb in yogurt sauce would have been a lot better if it had called for draining the lamb fat midway through (there was so much fat it curdled the yogurt); afterward, it occurred to me that perhaps the author had leaner lamb than I used.
Because Baljekar is based in Britain, many of her measurements were converted to US volumes from metric weights. There are many slips between a test kitchen and the printed page, particularly when conversions are involved. Even with the abundance of step-by-step color photographs, you'll have to make some judgment calls, and some frustration may ensue. But this slightly uneven, generous volume amply rewards the extra effort.
T. Susan Chang can be reached at email@example.com.