Rijua Das on a Kiwi cookbook of Gujarati recipes

Indian home cooking is the fine art of eyeballing and relying on instincts. Most people learn cooking by watching other people do it, and eyeballing is the preferred unit of measurement. I find in myself an inexplicable, almost pathological inability to follow a recipe. I find my brain melting under the tyranny of measurements and cooking times. I would much rather make up my own spice-mixes, and eyeball measurements and judge from the colour of the food what needs more time in the fire. There’s a certain freedom and joy in making it up as I go along but it’s a trait that makes for a bad baker.

But I love cookbooks. Their delights are manifold. They look beautiful, they are full of infinite possibilities, they make life seem full, joyful and luscious. There are two kinds of Indian cookbooks –– ones that repackage a pan-Indian sort of cuisine for cleaner, quicker, contemporary kitchens and ones that revive hyper-local, regional, traditional Indian recipes. A Little Bit of This, A Little Bit of That by Kiwi Indians Jayshri Ganda and her mum Laxmir is firmly in the second category. It’s revivalist at heart and wants to conserve familial traditions.

After Laxmi and her husband Tahkor Ganda retired after selling their family dairy in Christchurch, Jayshri rang her mum asking for some tips on cooking. It resulted in the pair of them spending eight months cooking and recording everyday Gujrati recipes, and the result is A Little Bit of This. Some beautiful pictures of the Ganda grandchildren playing with rotis and poppadoms show that the food traditions are alive and well in the Ganda home.

Growing up in West Bengal in the 90s and the early aughts, we didn’t know much about other regional cuisines. Dining out for middle class families was rare, and when we did there were three choices –– Indian (which was shorthand for Mughlai cuisine, serving usual suspects like butter chicken and tikka masala), Chinese, and south Indian. Never mind that south of India is a vast region with several states, languages, ethnicities and food traditions, to us, it was code for two things–– dosas and idlis. All of India has a sporting disdain for the rest of India’s cuisine. Punjabis look down on Bengali food, Bengalis look down on ‘south Indian’ food and so on and so forth. Perhaps that was due to ignorance, or perhaps due to the narcissism of small differences, but the rise of region-specific food, especially from lesser-known food cultures, is a recent and welcome phenomenon. Books like A Little Bit also fill a gap in the market –– you cannot find a Gujarati restaurant in New Zealand for love nor money, so you better learn to cook it.

The voice in A Little Bit is intimate, and gentle. It’s a bit like being invited to the Ganda home and being taken through the food they’ve laid out on the table. Photographs in cookbooks go a long way in positioning it, telling the reader what the essence of the book is. Those in A Little Bit are all of family, the hands that make the food, the hands that eat it and the little hands that play with it.

Dokra, a steamed spiced splice made from lentils, in A Little Bit of This.

The recipes and anecdotes in A Little Bit brought back a lot of memories. The chicken curry recipe, called Soupy Chicken and described as a Sunday tradition in the Ganda household, will be intimately familiar to many Indian families. Even though I was quite little, I remember waiting outside our kitchen on Sundays for a  pre-lunch taste. The vegetable dishes like the stir fried okra, bitter melon, cauliflower and peas reminded me of the midweek dinners we grew up eating. Other recipes like stuffed chillies and eggplant, semolina shortbread biscuits, khandvi, dokla and spicy deep fried bread were uniquely Gujrati. Interesting crossovers like the masala roast chicken, baked chicken nibbles and bbq masala chops are handy recipes for quick dinners that are easy to assemble but still pack tons of flavour.

Just after the dedication, the book starts with this epigraph: “Like many first generation Indian families, growing up in New Zealand, our language of love was not in a verbal language of ‘I love you’, not in a physical language of hugs, but in a language that they were shown by their parents, which they passed on to the next generation. An Indian Language of Love: Food.”

Like most other community based traditional societies, in the subcontinent, food is the language not only of love, but of respect, wealth, well-being, hospitality, and even social contract. Hindu brides across India leave handfuls of rice behind as they depart from their birth homes, symbolic of paying back their food debt to her parents. Food is parlay and prize, currency and gift. It is worth noting that we have no rituals of blessing the kai, we do not say grace before eating. But what we do is cross our hearts if we happen to step on a grain of rice. The food is god, and one cannot bless a god, or refuse it. Perhaps it is not unexpected in a country where starvation and famine is still either a reality or part of generational memory.

The recipes are remarkably short, with only a few requiring 10 or more ingredients. It sounds like a lot, but trust me, Indian spices can quickly add up when you write them down. But once you get the basic hang of things (or if you already cook a curry once a week) you’ll appreciate the easy, short recipes for midweek dinners or a long WFH lunch. Because what are These Unprecedented Times for if one cannot take an extra 15 minutes for lunch.

The book has a handy glossary of common Indian ingredients and spice mixes and pastes. The recipes range from starters, rice and breads, vegetables, poultry and fish, meats and an extensive section of various Indian desserts. Many of the meats, and vegetable recipes might become your go-tos but I recommend cooking something (or many things) from the desserts and sweets section, which is definitely extensive. The sweets are something you’d be hard pressed to find in stores, even Indian stores. The cookbook also has recipes for sides, condiments and even snacks. For the true Gujrati food enthusiast, there is plenty to cook from, and set out a large feast complete with poppadoms and ghee made from scratch!

A Little Bit is a self-published book but the production quality is excellent. From the photographs to the writing, this book is a not so much a work of art as your Ottolenghi might be, but more like a family album. There’s an undeniable nostalgic quality to the book, which feels like both Jayshri’s paean to her childhood and Laxmi’s legacy – she emigrated to New Zealand at 17, from a small fishing village in west India. A Little Bit charts a family’s journey of putting down new and deep roots on this “unaccustomed earth”. Really, it’s a memoir of food.

A Little Bit of This, A Little Bit of That: A Gujarati Indian Cookbook from Aotearoa by Jayshri Ganda and Laxmi Ganda ($69) is available in bookstores nationwide, or can be ordered directly from the authors online.

Wellington writer Rijula Das is a Bengal-to-English translator, and the author of Small Deaths, a thriller recommended by Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn on the US Today TV show as heartbreaking and wonderful"."

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