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Julie Sahni - a forgotten master

"If you know how to fry, there are few tricks to Indian food." Julie Sahni

Part two of may first recipe post is going to be about the lady on the left - Julie Sahni and her book Classic Indian Vegetarian Cooking, which was the next book on my bookshelves. She has actually written a few books, one of which Classic Indian Cooking is said to be a classic in itself. So much so that the James Beard Foundation, which I think is the highest food awards, etc body around, in 2007 declared Classic Indian Cooking to be one of “20 Essential Books to Build Your Culinary Library”. I only own the vegetarian book, but since buying it I have seen it referred to here and there. I think, for example that my favourite Bert Greene uses one of her recipes in one of his books.

And yet it is Madhur Jaffrey who is the big name in Indian cooking. They both live and work in New York so why does Madhur get more glory than Julie?

“I suspect timing is likely the main issue: Classic Indian Cooking came out seven years after Jaffrey's An Invitation to Indian Cooking" says Mayukh Sen ... "The way that our cultural memory operates, at least in food, is so short and geared toward the new and up-and-coming that this simple fact may explain why her work hasn't quite had the stamina that Jaffrey's has had over generations.” Sen also posits that the glamour that was pervasive throughout Jaffrey’s career is absent from Sahni's public image. “Sahni was an incredibly accomplished dancer, urban planner and architect before she began her career in food, but these careers didn't become central to her image in the same way Jaffrey's career as an actress became integral to hers,” he said." Mayukh Sen/Pooja Makhijani - Hyphen: Asian America Unabridged

Mmm. Maybe. Maybe it's simply a matter of the presentation and marketing of the books themselves. Julie Sahni's books are pretty plain to look at. The two editions above are more atrractive than the original which are even more plain in appearance. And then, as far as I am aware Julie Sahni has not had lots of television series publicising the books. Although you would have to wonder why not. She is plainly as attractive as Madhur Jaffrey and not a stranger to teaching because she still runs a highly successful Indian cooking school in New York. Maybe it's just the people you know. Maybe it's the books themselves. Quite aside from the book covers the insides of the book are not that attractive either. The occasional bit of drawn decoration but no pictures of the food. Madhur Jaffrey has lots of them. A picture is worth a thousand words they say and maybe that is the problem. My edition has a copyright date of 1985 by which time cookbooks were containing rather more pictures than previously. I see that her last book seems to have been published in 2006 and this has a rather more attractive cover that hints at illustrations within. I won't revisit the 'do you need pictures of the dish?' question. Suffice to say that there are no illustrations of the dishes, but that the recipes themselves, if you take the trouble to read them are great. A mix of so authentic that you can't do them because, unless you live in Dandenong you won't be able to get the ingredients, and simple extremely tempting sounding things.

More on the recipes themselves tomorrow.

I think I bought this book when I went through a phase of wanting to cook more vegetarian food. I already had books by Charmaine Solomon, Madhur Jaffrey and my little Cooking the Indian Way book, which had started me on Indian cooking, so this one was, in a sense, nothing to do with the Indian aspect and more to do with the vegetarian one.

Technically the first recipe in the book is for Vedic curry powder - and I will talk about that tomorrow, but the recipe section does not really start until page 105. Prior to that there is an introduction and a comprehensive list of ingredients in different categories - vegetables, fruit, spices, etc. - It is very comprehensive and each ingredient has a longish paragraph about it. Then she talks about how to plan, serve and eat meals and what to drink with them. It's a longer than usual preface to the book but an extremely useful one.

Julie Sahni herself is a couple of years younger than I but she still runs her cooking school and she organises two tours of India per year which she personally escorts. I have to say the Southern Indian one in particular sounds very tempting. But she is in America and so they probably are not available here and besides I bet they cost a fortune.

She grew up in India although not in one place as her father, a scientist, was moved around the country. She studied architecture at Delhi University and in the late 60s emigrated to the USA where she did a masters in urban planning at Columbia

University in New York. For many years she worked in urban planning for New York City, learnt French and Italian cuisine and eventually set up her cooking school in 1973. She has written for various journals, had professorships and consulted here and there. A very distinguished lady. So if you are into Indian food and if you see one of her books somewhere. Buy it. I shall certainly be keeping my out for more.

And who wouldn't love the dedication to the book?

"To my son Vishal Raj

- a total joy

- a lover of good food

- for rolling and puffing perfectly round balloons of poori bread since the age of four."

#indianfood #vegetarian


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