All cookbooks come with their own destinies. Some cookbooks are made for the kitchen. They will acquire spice stains, dog ears, split bindings and the aroma of meals long digested. Some will sit on shelves, to be taken out occasionally, dusted, and then thrust back into their niche. Yet others will be displayed on coffee tables, its pages turned every so often, its photos and recipes evoking lust and the longing for a day when one is able to take up two pages of instructions with 40-odd ingredients.
It would be easy to consign Atul Kochhar’s Benares to the last category. It’s the right size, sumptuously laid out, beautifully photographed and every single food image looks like a work of art. Which is only to be expected: Even if you have never stepped into the India-trained, UK-acclaimed chef’s signature restaurant in London, chances are you will have heard of the Michelin star it won in 2007, after wowing critics such as AA Gill and Jan Moir with its modernist interpretation of Indian food.
If ‘modernist’ and ‘Indian’ have you rolling your eyes in apprehension of curry leaf jelly and tamarind spherification, be assured that this book will give you plenty of ammunition. It seeks, after all, to present the food of the restaurant so, chances are, regulars and fans would be very disappointed if the recipes skipped details of Kochhar’s foam gravy or green herb oil.
Which then leads to the inevitable question: How easy or practical is it to replicate star-level cuisine in a domestic kitchen? And that’s where Benares gets interesting.
If there’s one basic feature that distinguishes modernist Indian from the traditional Indian it is the construction of a dish. While home-style cooking builds up flavours in a single dish by layering – think how first we infuse the oil with spices, then fry onions, add garlic, then the principal vegetable or meat, follow it up with tomatoes, and finish with a sprinkle of garnish – modernist cooking (molecular gastronomy being a bad word) incorporates multiple layered elements in a single dish, focusing on texture (an aspect that is sadly neglected in regular Indian cooking, possibly because of our ingrained protein + carb habit, which ensures a liquid dal or a sambar is always accompanied by a solid roti or a dosa), unusual flavour combinations, unexpected ingredients, all of it tied together by cutting-edge technological equipment that allows innovations such as foams, bubbles and semi-solid spheres.
And, ironically, it is this break-down of the various components of a dish that gives Benares its user-friendly edge. Consider Kadhai Murg, North Indian Tomato Chicken Curry, which combines the traditional version with a contemporary update. It is possible to choose either and be assured of an excellent dinner.
That said, Benares is not going to be your go-to cookbook for a weeknight dinner; nor is it for the enthusiastic newbie in the kitchen. Many of the dishes call for stock chutneys, gravies, spice mixes, pickles – all of which are helpfully compiled in an appendix – but they are work-and/or time-intensive. As are the recipes themselves: They call for planning ahead, hours in the kitchen and lots of helping hands.
Still, I’d say Benares is a worthy addition to the kitchen shelf; only if for its sheer inspirational value.