In her introduction to Six Spices, Neeta Saluja perfectly sums up the problem of finding a good cookbook for the Indian cooking novice: "I found that most were written either as memoirs with few recipes or as books with scores of recipes. Those recipes often consisted of long lists of spices and unfamiliar ingredients combined with little instruction on how to use them."
While an experienced chef or home cook will most likely not be daunted by the ingredients, I have not met a single Indian cooking newbie who learned how to effectively improvise their own dishes using Indian ingredients and techniques from a cookbook. This is the genius of Six Spices. By focusing a slim 176 pages on six key spices (asafetida, chilies, coriander, cumin, mustard seeds, and turmeric) and four basic techniques (cooking with oil, cooking with ghee, using powdered spices, and making curry pastes), Saluja helps us master the elements of Indian cooking well enough to improvise and create our own dishes. Although it includes several classic recipes such as kofta and matar paneer, the goal of the book is not to re-create the dozens of curries served at restaurants, but to teach everyone from beginning home cooks to seasoned chefs how to intelligently incorporate Indian techniques and flavoring into our everyday repertoire.
Neeta Saluja grew up in Agra and Bhopal, later moved with her parents to Australia, and then settled with her own family in Madison, Wisconsin. Although not a celebrity chef or high-profile food writer—she learned to cook exclusively from her mother, and Six Spices is her first cookbook—Saluja has taught Indian cooking in the U.S., Japan, and Australia. Having attended several of her classes, I can vouch for her talent: Saluja's style is intuitive and sensible, and she flawlessly incorporates local ingredients, such as zucchini and asparagus, in a creative and thoughtful manner that maintains the authenticity of Indian flavoring.
Six Spices begins with a discussion of asafetida, cumin, coriander, chilies, mustard seeds, and turmeric, the spices Saluja chose as the foundations of Indian cooking for this book. These ingredients are of course not the only flavoring agents used in her recipes or Indian cooking generally; garlic and ginger feature prominently, and she includes a recipe for garam masala as well. Except for garam masala however, the recipes seldom call for the warm spices, such as cinnamon and cardamom,often associated with Indian food. Saluja's affinity for central and southern Indian cooking means less discussion of the cuisines of the north, in which such spices feature most prominently. The book would have benefitted from a discussion of these spices, but the material that is included is so useful that such an omission doesn't much affect the quality of the overall work.
Saluja goes on to teach us about cooking with hot oil and ghee, the subject of the first two chapters. After a brief discussion of different types of oils used in each region, Saluja gives the reader a clear blueprint for cooking using this method sans recipe. Recipes—mostly vegetable dishes and salads—allow the reader to practice this technique and get a sense for which spices go with which ingredients. The recipe for green beans with coconut is particularly good, yielding tender-crisp, flavorful beans coated in a fragrant, complex, spicy-sweet mixture of oil, mustard seeds, chilies, asafetida, and coconut. While the recipes in the oil chapter feature vegetables almost exclusively, the chapter on cooking with ghee emphasizes beans and legumes. The technique is equally simple, the results equally fantastic. After trying three recipes for dal I found that I was using the book more for inspiration than for instruction. While the other recipes in this section—particularly the rice with cumin seeds—are wonderful, these chapters accomplished for me what every good cookbook should: they taught me a new way to make my own food, rather than strict formulas for copying someone else's. For these two chapters alone, Saluja deserves much praise.
The next two chapters discuss powdered spices and curries. These two chapters are probably where readers who simply wanted easy-to-follow recipes for Indian food would flip to. They would not be disappointed. The recipes here are delicious and simple. Unlike the previous two chapters, this section features sauces, and goes beyond cooking the vegetables or beans with oil or ghee. Although the name "Vegetable Delight" sounds like an unappealing Chinese take-out menu item, this recipe is amazing and, again, a good basic formula for any sort of curry. Vegetables are seasoned with hot oil, cumin seeds and asafetida, then stirred into a rich gravy of yogurt and tomato and seasoned with a simple curry paste made from powdered spices and water. The result is magnificent—colorful and richly flavored, it tastes the way Indian food should. The recipe for lamb curry is my favorite of the bunch—cashews and yogurt form the base for the sauce, and the inclusion of poppy seeds and saffron makes the dish especially luxurious.
Saluja also includes a "miscellaneous" chapter that does not feature technique but instead offers recipes for breads, street food, chutneys, desserts, and drinks. These recipes are gold as well, and they round out the book beyond the basic curries and vegetable dishes.
Someone looking to replicate her local Indian buffet at home will most likely be disappointed, because, although the book contains 87 recipes, it does not include popular dishes such as chicken tikka masala or naan. But the point of Six Spices is to teach cooks how to use Indian flavoring and techniques to prepare their own meals, or approximate their favorite restaurant meals, without leaning on recipes. In that regard, the book is a huge success and belongs on the shelf of anyone who wants to learn how to cook Indian food.
Recipe: Green Beans with Coconut