Friday, February 10, 2012

Book Review-Southern Flavours by Chandra Padmanabhan

I’m excited to be writing my very first book review on this blog. Blog Adda sent me this book last week and I’m proud to be one of the 20 bloggers that have been selected in India to review this book, Southern Flavours, by the award winning Chandra Padmanabhan. I love this initiative of Blog Adda. Along with the book, there was also a note from the founder, Nirav Sanghavi, as well as a bookmark, which I thought was a nice personal touch. I love reading and collecting cookbooks-almost 98% of them being gifts from my dad and the one book which is my touchstone being the one handwritten by my mom. Still, I’m sure this will be a book I refer to quite often in the years to come!

Before you go into the review, let me first answer the most basic question that should be answered in any book review-Should you buy the book? Well, I would wholeheartedly recommend this to all of you, vegetarian foodies as well as nonvegetarians (because as we nonvegetarians know only too well, “you gotta eat your veggies!!!!)”. Anyone from any part of India, not just South India, but anyone with a curiosity and love for good food would love this book. It is reasonably priced at Rs. 599 and comes in a sturdy hardbound edition from Westland Publishers.

Now onto the book: What first caught my eye, of course, was the cover. If you see the picture I've taken above, you’ll notice there’s a beautiful necklace, of the “temple jewellery” style, framing the dish. I thought that was an unusual prop for a food pic. The combination of colors was aesthetically appealing, so full marks for cover design!

Next, onto the table of contents:  This is a book of South Indian vegetarian recipes and it opened my eyes to the rich variety that we have. There are also recipes from different communities within each state, like the Iyengars, Saraswaths, Sanketi, Palakkad Iyers, etc. I learnt that even the humble sambar has so many different varieties! The introduction section was informative, giving measurements and conversions and a photograph of utensils which you would find in a South Indian Kitchen. I feel this section would have been better if it included even more utensils, which would have been helpful for those just beginning to equip their kitchens.

One thing that confuses many beginner cooks, much to the amusement of more seasoned ones, is how to go about cooking rice. The author has included this in the Basic Recipes section, with 3 methods of cooking rice. The words “1 cup rice” was intriguing though, as the type of rice was not mentioned. Considering that there are so many different varieties of rice available, all of which have their own eccentric cooking timings, it isn’t easy to give a generalized cooking time for all. Still, this could be a useful rule-of-thumb if you’re just starting out cooking and find yourself in an emergency where you can’t call your mother/mother-in-law/wife/husband/father (or whoever your cooking guru is) to ask how to get the rice cooked! This section also has recipes for common spice powders such as sambar, rasam, and poriyal (another useful thing if you don’t like to buy the commercial ones or haven’t got your yearly stock of these powders from your mom/grandmom!).

The next section, on “sambars and kuzhambu”, which are the curries you normally have with rice in South India, had nearly 40 recipes. I guess this would be enough to break the monotony of lunchtimes-you can have a different sambar/kuzhambu every day of the month! The “rasam” section had about 12 recipes-again, a lifesaver if you have a repertoire of only 2-3 rasam recipes or are the type who just has to have a rasam every day! 

The “poriyals and kootu” section had more than 20 recipes and some of the best photographs in the book-mouthwatering! The author has also given variations for each recipe, with suggestions for combinations with curries or rasams, and also tips for the health conscious among you. The “rice” section is next, with 16 recipes, ranging from the everyday to the festive (and appetizing photographs as well!). The section on “snacks” actually includes breakfast foods too, from the world famous dosa to the lesser known Kancheepuram idli. The snacks range in variety from different types of “vadai” to “bonda”. Again, something to rustle up your everyday breakfast routine and bring in some variety!

The section on sweets had everything from payasam to burfi and ladu. I was happy to see one of my favourite Kerala snacks “ethekka appam” included in this, although the author’s note that this variety of plaintain is available only in Kerala has to be contested-I know from reliable sources that they are even available in the UAE now (maybe because of the large Malayalee diaspora there). Even when we were in Hyderabad, these plaintains were easily available from the local “Kerala Store” which I bet are common in almost every state outside Kerala now...

Photograph of Carrot Payasam from Andhra Pradhesh
The last section, “accompaniments” covers a wide variety of chutneys and sauces and relishes. I’m particularly interested in making the “malli thokku” from Chettinad, so stay tuned to that on this blog sometime!

What I liked the most about this book: The menus suggested by the author-both for every day lunches/dinners (6 of them) and for festive buffet spreads (two). This would be great if your head is reeling with the numerous recipes in the book and don’t know which to match with this was a nice touch! There is also a glossary of ingredient names in English, translated to Hindi and Tamil (a Malayalam, Telugu, and Kannada list could also have been included, but I guess Tamil could be called a base for all the South Indian languages so the terms might be common between them and that's why it was omitted?).

The only gripe I have with the book: I am from Kerala and while I do not necessarily need any more Kerala recipes (I’ve got enough from well-meaning family and friends, you see!), I found that the representation of recipes from Kerala were quite miniscule, compared to the rest of the states. Even the ones that were from Kerala, were mostly from the Palakkad district. Even among communities from different parts of Kerala, there are so many recipes. I was surprised, for example, that in the snacks section there was no mention of the famous “puttu” or even “appam”. There are so many lovely breakfast dishes among the Malabar Muslim communities of Kerala, like aripathiri, neypathal, etc., that even Malayalees in other parts of Kerala do not know about, so it would have been great if those were included in this book. Also, in the section on “poriyals”, which are basically dry vegetable dishes, there were just 3 recipes out of 26 recipes. Anyone who has attended a typical Malayalee “sadya” lunch would know the delicious and wide variety of dishes we have-just one look at the sadya leaf is enough!

I understand that it would be difficult to include all these in this book as it covers all the 4 South Indian states, and since Kerala is a smaller state compared to the others, maybe the author felt this was a fair representation. I’m hoping, however, that she includes some more recipes from Kerala in her next book, just so that people from other states would get to know and enjoy more of our fantastic recipes!

Note on the author: Chandra Padmanabhan, a graduate from Calcutta University, did her post-graduation education at Delhi University. She has long been associated with the publishing industry. But it is cooking that has been the author s forte for nearly four decades. She is the author of the three best- selling titles, Dakshin (Harper Collins), Southern Spice (Penguin) and Simply South (Westland). She last won the international GOURMAND award for the second- best vegetarian cookbook in 2009.

This review is a part of the Book Reviews Program at Participate now to get free books!