Have you ever been so captivated by a novel that its story weaves with the fabric of daily life, until the characters seem real and you long to return to them each evening? For me, this captivation process is intensified by cookbooks, which not only introduce you to new characters (flavours, ingredients, dishes), but instruct you on how to bring them to life in your home. The best cookbooks are a unique form of storytelling that empowers the reader to recreate what is on the page.
And so it is that I have been enthralled by the writing of Meera Sodha, who many fellow Bristolians may know for her collaborations with the local Thali Cafes. Her latest cookbook, Fresh India, has become indispensable to the evenings and weekends that I spend in the kitchen. I can no longer remember a time when I wasn’t familiar with its tastes and smells, the rhythm of thrice washing rice or the sizzle of curry leaves, mustard seeds and spices jumping in hot oil.
On a recent trip to Kerala, the time that I spent cooking with our host impressed upon me how quick, fresh and vibrant Indian cuisine can be. It was rare for her to leave something for a long marinade or patiently build a rich sauce; instead, the meal’s building blocks (usually vegetables) were thrown into a wok with an instinctive mix of coconut, tamarind and ground spices. Alongside these distinctive South Indian flavours, I was surprised to encounter more familiar ingredients such as beetroot, squash and beans, with their earthy flavours enhanced by the interplay of spices.
This light and lively style of cooking is championed by Meera Sodha in Made in India and, more recently, her vegetarian book Fresh India. The latter opens with her reflections on the ‘Gujurati way’: fresh, vegetable-first and totally at odds with the heavy, brown curries often associated with Indian takeaways. Happily, the Gujurati way also complements seasonal British produce. Indeed, Meera’s influences from Gujurat and her travels across India are merged with ingredients from her upbringing in Lincolnshire – leek, cauliflower, beets and chard.
In this way, Fresh India not only offers a creative style that is alive with aromatic flavours, but also encourages us to cook in a way that is good for our health and the environment.
Initial impressions: structure and style
It is hardly a surprise to find that Meera, who was taught to cook by her mother, writes like a mother – in equal measure practical and nostalgic. She at once provides practical advice and reminisces about the stories linked to each recipe.
Fresh India opens with Sodha’s essential cookery tips, including sections on how to use the book, helpful weights and measures and her top ten tips for raising your game in the kitchen. Practical suggestions continue to be peppered throughout the books, from presentation skills to menu ideas to a glossary of pulses.For me, the alternative contents has been a particularly accessible method of encouraging my first forays into the book, with suggestions for midweek meals, weekend cooking, lunch boxes, batch cooking, allotment gluts and seasonal recipes.
Her early emphasis on cooking with the seasons is carried forward into the structure, with chapters focussed on ‘hero ingredients’ such as greens, roots and squashes, or aubergines. This ingredient-led format helps us to eat both seasonally and economically – where a dish only requires half a butternut squash, for instance, there will be a recipe on the following page for using the leftovers.
Sodha’s pragmatism is rooted in a respect for ingredients and an understanding of how to bring the best out of each one. She advises us to cook onions for as long as possible so they are sweet and mellow, or to take the time to decorate dishes because we eat with our eyes. Her affection for food spills out in the preamble for each chapter and recipe, where we learn the story of the dish’s inception: who inspired it, the memories attached to it and how she has made it her own.
From the tales of the best street food traders in India to the rhythms of rural life in a Lincolnshire farming village, her recipes and the people behind them are threaded together by shared flavours. It is these stories, told in Meera’s bright, honest writing style, that capture my imagination and make me yearn to cook her food.
Frequently found flavours: ingredients that appear often
Although Meera features dishes from across the Indian subcontinent, there are certain ingredients that she returns to again and again, with a particular focus on the vibrant, piquant flavours of Western and Southern India. Tamarind, coconut, ginger, green chilli, garam masala, cumin, coriander, tumeric, chickpea flour and lentils all abound in Fresh India. Often, there is a quick tarka of curry leaves, mustard seeds and spices sizzled in oil, then used to crown the dish.
Some of the recipes include almost all of these ingredients to create many layers of fresh, clean flavour. In the vegetable sambar, a traditional yellow lentil stew from South India, sturdy vegetables like squash and aubergine stage the sweet-sour dance of tamarind and coconut with the zing of chilli, fenugreek, cumin and coriander. And then there are surprising ingredients more typically associated with other regions, such as the presence of pomegranate and bulgar wheat showcasing the historical fusion of flavours between the Middle East and India.
Meera also champions to produce more familiar to the British cook: beans, brassicas, pumpkin, tomatoes, potatoes, mushrooms and onions are all elevated by aromatic Indian flavours. For instance, there is shredded roti with red cabbage and carrot, cauliflower korma, kale subji and corn on the cob in peanut sauce. Even the humble potato is transformed, whether crushed with creamed coconut and spices to fill chickpea dosas or married with classic Gujarati spices in a rainbow chard aloo.
New favourites: recipes I now cook regularly
The diversity of recipes in Fresh India means that I can, and do, cook from it throughout the week without feeling like I am eating the same cuisine every night.
Having so far cooked from the book during autumn and winter, I have naturally gravitated towards the recipes with seasonal squash, pumpkin and root vegetables at their heart. A favourite has been the gentle, comforting olan, in which squash is roasted until its edges caramelised, then cooked until it almost collapses into a sauce of soft, jammy tomatoes, tender black-eyed beans and coconut milk. Squash has also graced our dining table in a more vibrant guise, dressed in a tangy marinade of coriander, garlic, green chilli and spices for the Portuguese-inspired cafreal.
Quick curries that appear often in our kitchen include the bhara baingan (aubergine and pea) and the chana saag (spinach, tomato and chickpea). Many recipes also work well for packed lunches guaranteed to induce envious comments from colleagues. Sweet-smoky butternut squash shikh kebabs are perfect wrapped in parathas, with greens and a mint yogurt to sooth the gentle heat of ginger, chilli and cumin. The ‘hara bara’ kebabs, bright with greens and fresh herbs, are also easy to transport and need nothing more than the bitter-sweet burnt lime raita and a crunchy green salad alongside.
Next on the menu: dishes I’m planning to make
During a recent Cookbook Club evening inspired by Meera Sodha, it dawned on me during the dessert course that I have yet to set forth into the sweet section of Fresh India. Within the next few weeks, I promise to fill my tins with pistachio, orange and date biscuits, whilst my fridge will house a jar of gulab jamuns - little milk doughnuts fried until they turn the colour of caramel, then soaked in rose syrup. The rhubarb and ginger compote crown my daily porridge, whilst the Bengal baked curd with tamarind berries will be a weekend treat.
I’m also longing for the imminent arrival of spring and summer vegetables, so that I can get stuck into the chapters exploring greens and aubergines. I’ll be starting with the aubergine fesenjan in its sour-sweet sauce of pomegranate and walnut, and the baby aubergines cooked in a rich, tangy gravy of peanut, coconut and coriander. Matar paneer will be sublime with the sweetest summer tomatoes to accompany its greens and I dream of warm evenings, when I can sit outside with a glass of white wine and a plate full of leek, pea and mint samosas.
Sweet or savoury, Meera Sodha’s recipes have brightened my hurried al-desko lunches and warmed the coldest winter evenings; I’m equally certain they will compliment the summer season. It’s unsurprising, then, that I heartily recommend Fresh India to everyone I encounter, vegetarian or not. After all, this is not really a vegetarian cookbook, but rather a book filled with delicious recipes that happen to be vegetarian. From sturdy root vegetables to delicate dairy products, Meera’s aromatic spicing animates even the most unassuming ingredient and showcases the best seasonal produce.