The Scientific Method
A Local Researcher's Cookbook Teaches Culinary Experimentation
As a regular at the city's Indian buffets, I leafed through A Short Course in Culinary Experiments: Vegetarian Cuisine for Innovative Non-Experts by S. Muralidharan with interest. The utilitarian in me was enticed by the idea of finding simple ways to prepare delicious foods, and the suggestion that I could easily learn to make vegetarian Indian dishes tickled my inner glutton.
Muralidharan, who lives in Baltimore but was raised in Kerala, India, was inspired to write his self-published cookbook cum workbook because he wanted to make and share the Indian dishes he grew up with but was never taught to prepare. With no formal training, he realized he'd have to improvise. His book attempts to teach readers how to follow his lead, improvising their own Indian dishes using simple cooking methods and readily available ingredients. Following the book, you start with basic preparations and then upgrade to fancier ones as you progress. This experimental approach was a natural fit for Muralidharan, a photochemistry researcher at the University of Maryland Biotechnical Institute.
I was slightly disappointed to realize that Culinary Experiments wasn't going to help me make a five-minute masala or quick versions of other Indian dishes popular at local restaurants, as most of those dishes are from northern India, and Muralidharan's recipes, like the man himself, are from southern India.
Still, I plunged into a book that gave helpful instructions on where to begin these "culinary experiments" but challenged my definition of simple. For instance, the text offers so much advice on seasoning rice that I had to fight the urge to ask, "Will anyone notice seasoned rice if the curry sucks?"
Arguing with an inanimate object was not the only challenge I faced. It's entirely possible that others find the alphanumeric cross-referencing system employed in the book a breeze, but it left me flipping back and forth endlessly. So, I decided to get some help from the academic epicurean himself.
Set in the center of his West Baltimore apartment, Muralidharan's small kitchen is pragmatic, with little in the way of decoration or even a spice rack. A small radio by the window set the casual-yet-festive mood with upbeat sitar tunes. Muralidharan, personifying the benign academic in his haphazard dress and distracted air, moved easily around his kitchen, laughing warmly and offering me mason jars of cumin to sniff and mustard seeds to taste. His use of a rice cooker (as opposed to the stovetop) and gregarious laugh assuaged my alphanumeric anxiety.
We began by preparing two cabbage-based curries, cutting heads of a vegetable that my Irish ancestors got to boiling, salting, and not doing much else with. Somehow after half an hour of wielding a paring knife and chatting, the lackluster lettuce was transformed into a savory, almost illicit substance.
Despite the fact that we prepared at least three more complicated dishes, my fork always seemed to land in the simple cabbage curry. Perhaps years of gnawing through corned beef and cabbage with the aromatic appeal of a full diaper had prepped me for this moment of joyful incredulity. As I gushed over the enlivening aroma coming from the pan of turmeric, mustard seeds, garlic, and chilies, Muralidharan pointed out how cheap cabbage is--a useful note given the current economic crisis.
Muralidharan's approach to cooking is refreshing. His book offers the basic recipes for standard Indian cuisine, but those recipes are just a starting point. Each dish should be made to taste, and no alternate use is incorrect as long as the end result is delicious. When I asked if it was OK to skip the coconut (because of an aversion to it) in one recipe, I was gently reprimanded. "The point is if you try it and you like it, then it's good, not right or wrong," he said. Of course, he provides suggested spices and hints, but the approach encourages experimentation and development of your own dishes.
In the bizarre, throwback world of Martha Stewart where following a recipe to the letter is essential, this approach is not only liberating but practical. It's easier to stock up on a few spices available at Punjab on 33rd Street and have the flexibility to use what's in your kitchen than to spend all morning zesting lemons. It's also much more adventurous to say to a spice-loving crowd, "Watch out for the chilies if you have any open wounds on your fingers, unless you're up for a good cry."
Even as Muralidharan was showing me recipes from his book he made changes, adding here and substituting there. In the rava dosa (flatbread), we used cream of wheat (another childhood nightmare re-evaluated) in place of semolina. Adding spinach gave the bread a kelly-green color that made it more visually interesting against the pale-brown peanut chutney.
Several times I tried to match what he was doing to what was in the book. "Is this when we add the turmeric powder?" I asked. "Let's try it with chili powder, since we used turmeric before," he responded. That's when it finally sunk in that this book is not really filled with recipes but with guidelines, a place to begin. The flipping back and forth I did when I was cooking alone was unnecessary, because once you understand the basic methods and spices, the whole process breaks down to what you have in the house and what you like.
Cooking quickly and in your own way is a useful skill. Combining practicality and personal touches with dishes as vibrantly colored and scented as Indian cuisine is genius. And, if the book still intimidates you, Muralidharan will also be doing a book signing and cooking demonstration/class at Breathe Books in Hampden Nov. 22, so you can see and taste for yourself.
Information about how to get Muralidharan's book is available at simpleistasty.com
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