My Bombay Kitchen by Niloufer Ichaporia King

I have an endless fascination with cookbooks from far away countries, of unfamiliar cuisines. Which would explain why I own cookbooks—note the plural—devoted to the cooking of Eritrea and why I felt inclined once to buy an entire volume devoted to traditional recipes of Kenya. But as fascinating as these books are, they can rarely be found cracked open on my kitchen counter before dinner. The problem with books devoted to exotic dishes is that they usually require rather exotic ingredients. The local Hampstead Food Lion, my current supermarket, is a very wonderful place but has not, as yet, taken to stocking things like kaffir lime leaves or “taff” (a small, specialized eastern African grain). Usually these books are for dreaming, not for using.

My Bombay KitchenBut occasionally, they aren’t. Sometimes, you come across a cookbook that is as fun to use as it is to read, and I think that King’s My Bombay Kitchen may well be one of this rarified group. The subtitle of the book is “Traditional and Modern Parsi Home Cooking” which is why I picked up the book in the first place. Although I like to talk about my Italian grandmother and her endless attempts to force us to eat swimming pool-sized helpings of lasagna, in truth I happen to come from a family that –thanks to several rather adventurous aunts—is a little more international. I have some cousins who are Arab, and one who is African American. One especially adventurous aunt married a Parsi—his family lives in India although his ethnicity is actually Persian. (My mother says that our family portraits look like a little United Nations gathering.) Dinners at my aunt’s house were always exciting.

Parsi cooking is a complex amalgam of rich Middle Eastern cuisine and high-caste Indian cooking. Recipes tend to have lots of ingredients, and especially lots of spices. It is…a joyous cuisine, I guess, where every dish seems to have an exuberance and extravagance that I normally associate with special holiday dinners. King’s book—written as part family memoir and part culinary exploration of a cultural foodway—is a testament to this joyousness, this delight. This is a cuisine, one realizes, for people who love to eat.
Not that there aren’t a few oddities that I’ll probably never try making in my kitchen. I could do without the “kharia” which is a very short, innocuous word for “trotters with black-eyed peas.” King claims she has been “hopelessly and gluttonously fond of it since childhood” but most readers and cooks are no doubt willing to take her at her word. Nor was I immediately enamored of King’s recipe for “Brain Cutlets” –a dish, she says, of “brains for people who don’t like brains.” Which would be pretty much everyone, would it not.
But organ meat oddities aside, My Bombay Kitchen is packed from start to finish with recipes that bring new meaning to the phrase “mouth watering”. Her seafood ragout (“patia”) takes a full two and a half pages to describe (no pictures), will leave your kitchen redolent in the scent of chilies and turmeric and the tang of tamarind, and is absolutely exquisite when it is finally, finally finished. Most of the recipes are like this—requiring time and attention but immensely rewarding for the effort. They are also full of surprises. The crab salad includes mango. The coleslaw includes lime and mint. The “Thanksgiving Turkey”, the kind of modern adaptation one might expect of a family that had migrated from Mumbai to San Francisco, is made with ginger and pomegranate molasses.

King is careful to include extensive descriptions of each dish—sometimes culled from her own experiences and family memories, and sometimes showing the evidence of diligent research. This makes My Bombay Kitchen read like an intricate combination of memoir, history, and cooking class. But despite the sometimes overwhelming amount of information, it remains a fundamentally useful volume for a home cook. Even if that home cook does not, like the author, have the good fortune to live in a city like San Francisco. I found myself impressed with how many recipes could be made with a little garlic-chili paste, some turmeric, and a few fresh garden vegetables. The quick-cooked greens, what the author calls “express bhaji”, are delicious with the addition of a little ginger and chili. I made them with kale, which tastes sharp and spicy, and again with collards (I can hear my southern mama-in-law is tut-tutting up there in heaven). And I was very much impressed with King’s “Get-Well Soup”, which I really could have used back in January when I was shivering with a low-grade fever for weeks on end. This is not your average chicken soup. One reviewer called it “the first real cure for the common cold” and frankly, he had a point.

In the end, My Bombay Kitchen stayed open on my kitchen counter for over a week, during which the scents of ginger, garlic, chili and sautéing vegetables and chicken wafted out of the kitchen window nearly the entire time. I could see my next-door neighbors turn and look towards the house with something like wonder, or envy. As interesting as the book is to read, My Bombay Kitchen is really a book for people who love to cook. And all of their friends, who must love to eat.

Get Well Soup

1 small chicken (about 2 pounds), all visible fat removed
6 to 8 slices peeled fresh ginger
6 to 8 slices fresh turmeric
4 cloves garlic, crushed
6 whole cloves
12 (or more) black peppercorns
1 stick cinnamon
1 teaspoon salt
2.5 quarts of water
lime or lemon halves
freshly ground black pepper

Put the chicken in a deep pot with the ginger, turmeric, garlic, cloves, peppercorns, cinnamon, and about 1 teaspoon of salt. Cover with the water. Bring to a boil; reduce heat, cover, and simmer gently until the chicken is falling off the bones.

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