I once read a fascinating article that explained how Indian cooking is unique from other world cuisines because of how it pairs flavors on a molecular level. Whereas most (especially Western) cuisines feature flavors that are of a similar chemistry, Indian cooking pairs ingredients with opposing flavor profiles.
It’s like the difference between putting blue and green together (adjacent on the color wheel) versus putting blue and orange together (opposite). Both work, but one in a more unexpected way.
Even if the science doesn’t engage you, the tastes will. I love to order Indian for delivery. But make it on my own? Too intimidating!
Let’s find a great Indian cookbook so we can tackle this famous cuisine at home!
What to Know
In addition to its unique chemistry, what else makes Indian food so special?
- India is huge. There are many regional cuisines with their own personalities and featuring different ingredients. You could easily have a whole book that just covers food from one region.
- A trip around India will also reveal an abundance of street food stalls. Having travelled and lived in Asia, I believe that street food is where magic happens—where a cuisine is experimented with, evolves, and is perfected. In addition to the many cultural influences on Indian food, its street food is another source of its uniqueness.
- Spices abound on the subcontinent; Indian food is all about the spices. As such, you may have to seek out an Indian or Asian grocer to find some of the more unique ingredients, but it will be well-worth the search!Just take a look at this spice market in New Delhi!
- Indian food is typically pretty healthy. It features nutritious ingredients like lentils, healthy carbohydrates like rice, lots of vegetables, and rich flavors from spices and flavor pairings rather than sugar, salt or fat. And while there are many meat-based dishes, there are also many options and easy adaptations if you’re vegetarian or vegan.
- You’ll find a bit of everything in Indian food: rich soups and stews, curries, rice dishes, marinated meats, flavorful sauces and dips, sweet desserts, fried snacks, naan breads and pitas. A cookbook could easily focus on any one of these (and more) categories or give you a broad taste of Indian cooking.
Let’s take a look at some of the best options available
Indian Cooking by Madhur Jaffrey
Jaffrey has published a number of Indian cookbooks and is considered the authority on Indian cooking. You’d do well to try any of her books. This one, which is an update on an older version, comes highly recommended from cooking forums, bloggers, and reviewers.
This book is not exhaustive of Indian cuisine, but it does give a broad overview that includes a number of different types of dishes from classics to lesser known ones. Users find that the recipes really work, and given that it’s about 20 years old, the guide is certainly well-tested.
One criticism is that this book isn’t an immersive sort of guide with many anecdotes and photos as many modern cookbooks are. But if you’re focus is the food, this is a great option.
Rick Stein’s India by Rick Stein
This book is based on a beloved travel series on the BBC of the same name. It is mentioned on pretty much every list of “essential” Indian cookbooks.
The photography in this book is beautiful, and Stein gives context to the recipes with quick anecdotes that give you that travel guide feel. Most importantly, the recipes are authentic and work, though some ingredients may be difficult to source and some techniques may feel difficult to a beginner.
Although Stein includes recipes from all over India, his focus is South India, so there are many fish and seafood recipes in the book. Another important thing to note is that the measurements are metric!
Made in India by Meera Sodha
Sodha shares recipes from 3 generations of her family. As such, the food from this book won’t feel like your typical Indian restaurant; it’s home cooking, Indian-style. This book is also in part a history of her family, who emigrated to Africa, then England, with anecdotes and stories that provide a personal touch.
Many home cooks find these recipes easy to follow and surprisingly quick. The guide covers all different types of ingredients and dishes from eggs to meat, starters to snacks, chutneys to drinks. The book is filled with stunning images, including in-progress pictures of some recipes, which can be very helpful.
Indian for Everyone: The Home Cook’s Guide to Traditional Favorites by Anupy Singla
Anupy is a former journalist turned Indian cooking authority. She even runs a company that produces custom spice blends for order.
The “for everyone” aspect of the book is that Singla gives notes for each recipe on possible adaptations, like vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, or even how to make the meal in a slow cooker. This is a neat addition.
This book is lovely to look at—gorgeous photos and a nice, clean layout—a “coffee table” sort of cookbook that is also a great Indian cooking resource.
Take your Pick
Thankfully, if you want to stop ordering take-out Indian, there are some really wonderful choices for Indian cookery books that will let you get into this rich cuisine in your own kitchen. How do you choose which is the best Indian cook book?
If you’re looking for a guide with more traditional sorts of recipes, Jaffrey will give you that with little fuss. Stein also gives a good overview of traditional options, with a bit more flair from photos and commentary.
If you’re interested in a home-style approach to Indian food for your own home, both Sodha and Singla's books are great options featuring the gastronomic history of their own families. Singla offers some interesting additional value with the adaptations for different dietary needs.
As your getting started with any of these, take a look at this great list of tips for Indian cooking. Enjoy!
Have you tackled Indian in your own kitchen? What’s your favorite guide?