Book Review - Modern Spice: Inspired Indian flavors
Modern Spice: inspired Indian flavors for the contemporary kitchen
by Monica Bhide
New York: Simon & Schuster
Whether Monica Bhide is explaining how to make pomegranate chutney, clueing you in as to what spices make up garam masala, or sharing a memory about getting her young son interested in learning to speak Hindi, she’s telling stories. In her most recent book, Modern Spice, these stories might have to do with traditional customs of India, unexpected combinations of Indian and western foods and spices, or tales set in family and culture. All of these are seasoned with Bhide’s lively curiosity, gentle humor, and spirit of creative exploration about food.
After introducing a pantry of Indian spice flavors, Bhide divides the recipes she offers into several categories. She begins with a range of chutney concoctions, and suggests uses for them beyond their expected place as toppings and dips. She gives ideas about Indian drinks, from an elegant guava Bellini to a chile spiced rum drink. Her chapter on appetizers includes Indian Spiced Onion Rings and a not at all what you might expect Indian Burger, and Spice, Crackle and Pop, which among other things includes puffed rice cereal such as Rice Krispies among its ingredients along with turmeric, fennel seeds, peanuts, and mango powder. These combinations point up Bhide’s belief in thinking globally while eating locally. “The recipes in Modern Spice are not traditional recipes,” she writes in the introduction, “although they are inspired by tradition and have roots in tradition." Are they authentic? Bhide points out that authenticity is in the eye -- and the saucepan --of the beholder.
Both deep interest in the range of traditional Indian spice and cooking techniques and an appetite for adventure with them may come naturally from Bhide’s background. She was born in India to a family interested in trying new foods -- they’d often plan vacations round such experiences. She grew up in the middle east, in the small island of Bahrain, “Dubai’s less grand neighbor on the Arabian Gulf,” as she describes it. For more than fifteen years, Bhide has lived in the United States. With her husband and two young sons, she now makes her home in the Washington DC area.
All of those experiences explain why you’ll find a recipe featuring Brussels sprouts, a hearty soup which substitutes cannellini beans for lentils, and a very tasty egg salad and caramelized onion combination --- many non tradtional Indian ingredients there --in her chapters covering vegetables, beans and lentils, and poultry, meat, and eggs. She also gets into creative bread recipes, including pizza topped with with figs and paneer, a variety of Indian cheese, and looks at the somewhat undiscovered side of Indian cooking, fish and shellfish. From a country with 4,300 miles of coastline, you know there have to be some good seafood ideas, and Bhide's adventures in seafood range from chile squid to pan seared trout with mint-cilantro chutney. She also gets into desserts, moderating the extreme sweetness traditional in Indian recipes a bit to suit a range of tastes, with dishes such as mango and champagne granita and saffron cardamom macaroons.
But wait, you say -- that all sounds good, but I don’t know anything about Indian cooking, and will I have to buy a load of unfamiliar ingredients? Bhide is with you there -- after all, she didn’t start out as a chef. She began her career as an engineer, following her interest in food on the side. So thinking about using a few ingredients for maximum taste and tantalizing Indian flavor when she creates her recipes is on her mind -- most of the dishes in this book have quite short lists of ingredients, and there’s that helpful primer about spices at the start of the book as well as notes along with individual recipes themselves letting you in on what the spices taste like, and when and what (and what not) to substitute. If you’re feeling a bit hesitant about diving in, Bhide is reassuring: “There are several very simple recipes in the book that showcase how wonderful spices are and how to use them to bring out flavors in dishes. I would suggest that the readers try those and once they are familiar with those, then they can move onto more complex recipes. For instance, I would suggest the zucchini with cumin as a great way to learn about cumin or the very simple recipe using mint cilantro chutney as a simmering sauce for chicken – this showcases how versatile chutneys can be and how they can bring unique flavors to your table!”
Cooking and sharing recipes are really passions for Bhide. There’s more to this book than just cooking instruction, though. Interspersed through the book are short essays, sometimes immediately related to food, such as one about her feelings on meeting a superstar chef and trying one of his dishes, and others such as a story about trying to get her young son interested in learning the Hindi language, which have a more indirect relationship to the world of food. These well-written pieces would make fine reading on their own; as they are, they add depth and dimension to the story of food and the story of life Bhide tells in the rest of the book. “Modern Spice is a collection of not just recipes but recipe memories,” Bhide says. “It is a look forward and a reflective look at things past. Doing so helps me create something very unique, I think. It has always been my dream to do a book that had not only food but food memories. The essays seemed to fall into place as I began to write the recipes and create my vision for the book.”
Whether you enjoy cooking or traveling, or just reading about both, Modern Spice is sure to suit your spirit of adventure. As to what Monica Bhide herself has learned from writing Modern Spice, she says “It totally confirms my love of telling stories. I feel like this is what I was meant to do with my life. I learnt that if you do what you love, everything follows and sometimes being insanely passionate is a good thing!”
Monica Bhide teaches cooking, both in person and online, and also offers an online course in writing about food. You may also catch her articles in The Washington Post, Cooking Light, and other publications. More about all that at www.monicabhide.com
Kerry Dexter is the Music Editor for Wandering Educators.
Kerry's credits include VH1, CMT, the folk music magazine Dirty Linen, Strings, and The Encyclopedia of Ireland and the Americas. She also writes about the arts and creative practice at http://www.musicroad.blogspot.com Music Road. You may reach her at music at wanderingeducators dot com.