Among all the world's cuisines, nowhere is the connection between food and spirituality so important as in India.
The expression "you are what you eat" is more than a cliche' in Indian cooking, particularly in the cooking of the approximately 600 million vegetarians. What you eat, in these terms, affects not only your physical well-being but also your mental and spiritual health.
And, by the same token, if you want to feel like a pagan slob, step into the kitchen of Yamuna Devi. Devi is a Vaishnava -- a devotee of Lord Krishna and a strict vegetarian who eats no meat or fish. Her cooking style is serene, scrupulously clean and organized, quiet, even shoeless. Visitors to her kitchen will be asked if they mind removing their shoes -- and something about the transaction makes it clear that the visitor will not mind.
Devi grew up in Oregon, then spent many years in India and England, some of them cooking for and learning from Indian Swami Srila Prabhupada, some of them hanging out with the Beatles.
In another era you might have called her a flower child, but with the recent publication of her encyclopedic work on Indian vegetarian cooking you'd have to call her a scholar.
"The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking" (Bala Books, E.P. Dutton, $29.95.) is 771 pages long, not counting the index and the list of ingredients sources. Recipes begin on Page 8, surely a record for modern cookbooks, where the introduction often includes not only the autobiography but also the complete psychoanalytic profile of the author, along with a justification for his or her book whose length tends to be inversely proportional to the sense it makes.
Devi devotes a mere two pages to her own personal part in this ancient cuisine, then plants the reader firmly in the midst of the recipes, beginning with rice and ending with warming drinks. Along the way she even gives a plug to an earlier book by another expert in Indian cuisine -- Julie Sahni's "Classic Indian Vegetarian and Grain Cooking." Mention rival names to most cookbook authors and you'll get either a cool "Who?" or an even cooler "Frankly ..."
Devi began her work 10 years ago. It has accompanied her on moves from England to the United States and back, and around various places in the United States as well. She has put as much work into every step and nuance of the project as a candidate for a doctoral degree would put into a dissertation.
The result is a work of scholarship that also works as a cookbook. She seems to have found the middle ground -- rare in the world of cookbook writing -- between the desire to tell everything she knows and the desire to produce a book that people can actually cook from.
Devi's early history is classic West Coast '60s: Reed College in Oregon, then a pottery-and-calligraphy shop in San Francisco operated with a boyfriend. But the wedding of her sister in New York is the event that provided a seed for what was to follow, which included a name change -- from Joan Campanella to Yamuna Devi -- and eight years of traveling throughout India cooking not only in home kitchens but also in the kitchens of sacred temples. This last bit is something few westerners ever get to do. As she went, Devi took notes on everything, including the arrangement and the ambiance of every kitchen she visited.
Devi's sister was a Vaishnava, and in charge of her wedding feast was Prabhupada. Since relatives were expected to help in the cooking, Devi had no choice but to plunge in. What she learned from Prabhupada that day about food and spirituality began a 20-year course of study that hasn't ended yet but has produced this book.
Not that the book is chockablock with remonstrations that make the average I-just-want-dinner cook feel stupid or banal. Devi has been merciful with us; she's given us the recipes and the attitude -- which generally asks that one think of cooking and eating as connected to the rest of life -- but doesn't hit us over the head with it.
The recipes are straightforward: helpful without being wordy, comforting without undue hand-holding.
"The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking" is an act of faith in more ways than one. Devi began the project before Madhur Jaffrey or Julie Sahni had introduced Indian cooking to the western world. There were few Indian restaurants in the United States, even fewer Indian vegetarian restaurants. She had no publisher and not much hope that a publisher would find such a work of interest. In other words, she knew nobody was paying her for her time, but she persevered anyway.
The first draft of the manuscript, completed around 1980, was 1,400 pages long. The outtakes alone -- some 200 recipes -- are enough to make up two average-size cookbooks. By the time she completed the first manuscript, the food processor had become standard equipment in many American kitchens, so she made revisions to accommodate that. And as she worked, Indian restaurants opened, "exotic" produce and spices became more available, and vegetarians were no longer considered especially dangerous. So she revised some more, able suddenly to include recipes for typically Indian ingredients. Along the way she found a man in South Devon, England -- a shepherd by trade -- who did wonderful little drawings to illustrate the book. That phase -- getting the illustrations exactly the way she wanted them -- took nine months of communications back and forth between David Baird, the illustrator, and Devi.
Working on the layout took Devi and the publisher another nine months. Most authors don't bother themselves much with this phase; Devi looked at every page layout. Those she didn't like she revised herself.
In other words, this is a careful book.
Take a look, for example, at the "general information" section in the back of the book. It's a guidebook to all the ingredients and techniques used in Indian cooking. Devi describes unfamiliar ingredients, gives their Indian-language names, discusses how to buy, use and keep them. And the information she delivers is never extraneous; it all seems fitting.
The recipes are clearly written, with straightforward descriptions at crucial steps about what should be happening. Devi specifically tried to avoid what she calls the "see page ..." type of recipe -- those that require scanning the book for other subsidiary instructions or recipes. In general, all the information you will need to complete a given recipe will be within that recipe.
While the food is often enlivened with chilies, spices and ginger, you'll find no onions or garlic in "The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking." This may prove shocking to cooks who have grown used to other Indian recipes. But Vaishnavas believe that these foods "bring an uprise of passions," and that there is already more than enough passion in the world.
Giving up these foods, says Devi, is like giving up smoking; when you stop, other flavors come out. Of course, if your own personal credo allows for an uprise of passions, you can always add the onions and the garlic.
The following recipes will give you the merest taste of Devi's work.
Unfamiliar ingredients will be available in Indian grocery stores (they are scattered throughout the area; look in the Yellow Pages) and some specialty stores and supermarkets. ALMOND HONEY MILK (2 servings)
1/4 cup blanched almonds
2 cups milk
1/4 teaspoon cardamom seeds or a 1-inch piece of vanilla pod, slit to expose the seeds
3 tablespoons mild honey
Place the nuts in a blender or food processor fitted with the metal blade and pulse until finely chopped. Add 2/3 cup milk and process until smooth. Pour the milk into a heavy-bottomed pan and whisk in the remaining milk.
Place the milk over moderately high heat and, stirring constantly, bring it to a full frothing boil. Remove the pan from the heat, allow the foam to subside, and add the cardamom seeds or vanilla pod. Place the pan over moderately high heat and again bring to a boil. Remove the pan from the heat and add the honey.
Again place the pan over the heat, bring the milk to just the boiling point, and pour it through a strainer resting over a clean pan. Pour the milk back and forth from one pan to the other for at least a minute or until frothy. Pour it into warm mugs and serve immediately. SPICED CREAMED SPINACH (4 to 5 servings)
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 tablespoon coriander
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon garam masala
3 tablespoons water
4 tablespoons ghee or unsalted butter
1/8 teaspoon yellow asafetida powder (also known as hingSTART NOTE:cq END NOTE)*
2 pounds fresh spinach, trimmed, washed and coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup of any of the following: whipping cream, cream cheese (cut into cubes), cre`me frai~cheSTART NOTE cq END NOTE, sour cream or stirred yogurt
Combine the cayenne, coriander, black pepper, nutmeg, turmeric and garam masala in a small bowl, add the water, and mix well. Melt the ghee or butter in a 5-quart nonstick pan over moderate heat. Add the asafetida and let it sizzle for a few seconds, then pour in the spice mixture. Fry for about 2 minutes.
Pack in the spinach and sprinkle with the salt. Cover and reduce the heat. Cover for 6 to 8 minutes, then turn the leaves over so that the uncooked layer on the top changes places with the cooked leaves underneath. Cook for an additional few minutes.
Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the desired milk product. Return the pan to the heat and rewarm briefly. (If the yogurt is allowed to simmer, it will curdle.) Serve immediately.
*This amount applies only to yellow Cobra brand. Reduce any other asafetida powder by three-quarters.
DEEP-FRIED BANANA WHOLE-WHEAT BREAD (Makes 16 pooris)
2 cups chapati flour, or 3/4 cup whole-wheat flour mixed with 3/4 cup unbleached white flour and 1/4 cup barley flour
2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon each cardamom and coriander
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons melted ghee or vegetable oil
1/2 cup pure'ed banana, mango or papaya
Enough warm water to make a stiff dough
Ghee or vegetable oil for deep-frying
Place the flour, citrus zest, ground spices and salt in a large mixing bowl. Blend well. Dribble the melted ghee or oil over the flour and rub it in with your fingertips. Add the fruit and 1/4 cup of water all at once and work into a mass. Then, while still mixing with your hand, add water slowly, in dribbles, until a kneadable dough is formed.
Place the dough on a clean work surface, wash and dry your hands, rub them with oil and knead the dough until it is silky smooth and pliable (about 8 minutes). You can also make the dough in a food processor, adding the fruit along with the ghee or oil. Form the dough into a smooth ball. Rub it with ghee or oil and cover with an inverted bowl. Let the dough rest for 1/2 to 3 hours. If you want to leave it longer, keep it well sealed in the refrigerator for up to 24 hours. Remove at least 1 hour before use.
Collect items needed for rolling out and cooking: a rolling pin, two or three cookie sheets, a slotted spoon for frying, a tray lined with two layers of paper towels for draining the fried breads, and a karai, wok or deep-walled dutch oven.
Place the dough on a clean work surface and knead briefly. The dough should be stiff enough to roll out without extra flour; if it has softened too much, knead in flour as necessary.
Divide the dough in half and roll one portion into a rope 8 inches long. Cut into 8 pieces and roll each piece into a smooth ball. Place the balls on a plate without letting them touch and cover with a damp cloth. Repeat the procedure for the other half of the dough.
If you are experienced at rolling out and frying the breads one after another, pour melted ghee or oil to a depth of 3 inches in the frying pan and place it over moderately high heat. (If you are going to roll out all of the breads first, do not heat the ghee or oil yet.)
Remove one ball of dough, keeping the remaining ones covered, and flatten it into a 2-inch patty. Dip a corner of the patty in melted ghee or oil and roll it, exerting firm but even pressure, into a 5-inch round. Place on a cookie sheet and continue to roll out all of the pooris in this way. Do not allow the rounds to touch; lay them out, in one layer, on several cookie sheets or on another clean, flat surface. Cover with plastic wrap.
Heat the ghee or oil over moderately high heat until it reaches 365 degrees. Lift up a rolled-out poori and carefully slip it into the hot oil so it remains flat and does not fold over. The bread will sink to the bottom of the pan but will quickly try to bob to the surface.
As it begins to rise, cover it with the back of a slotted spoon and keep it submerged until it puffs into a steam-filled balloon. (Take care not to press the poori harshly; a tear in the delicate crust could fill the inside with oil.) When it is lightly browned on the first side, carefully turn it over to brown the second side. The frying time is under a minute for both sides. Remove the puffed bread with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Repeat the procedure for all of the pooris, adjusting the heat to maintain the temperature of the oil. If it overheats, remove the pan from the burner.
Serve immediately or keep the batch warm for up to 1/2 hour on paper-towel-lined baking sheets, overlapping slightly, in a 275-degree oven.
As pooris cool they deflate. At room temperature the pooris can be stacked and kept wrapped in a clean tea towel for up to 12 hours