Halloween Sambhar and other stories
It’s been a few years, okay, decades, since I left university, but I’ve always had a soft spot for college cookbooks. In fact, I encountered them for the first time after I’d left college, while living on my own with a couple of friends. We were all working on our second jobs far away from home, and college cookbooks slipped right into our shoestring lifestyles, which called for lots of toast-and-coffee breakfasts, packed lunches and quick dinners.
Roomies/Foodies: Fun ’n Easy Cooking for Desi Students Abroad, published by Bloody Good Book this past December, took me right back to those frugal, fun times when, frequently, all that stared back from the store cupboard were milk, bread and eggs. This book addresses the Indian student in the US, so, if the reader has diligently followed the advice appendix, chances are he’ll also find rice, dal and various bags of spices staring back.
As much a memoir of the authors’ student days as a cookbook, this handy compilation by Lakshmi Ashwin (Lux) and Meghana Chaudhary Joshi (Meg) is a must-have for all students living away from home. (There’s also an app, Roomies Foodies, for iOS and Android.) No matter how glowing the reports of the school canteen or the dedication to quick-cooking noodles, there will come a time in every Indian student’s life abroad when he will yearn for Ma ke haath ka khaana. Since Ma is likely to be seven seas away, this book will quickly become indispensable.
Based on Lux and Meg’s years in the US as graduate students, when they shared accommodation and found their way around supermarkets and science labs with equal fearlessness, the book is intuitively laid out (apart from the rather bizarre decision to bung the all-important staples-and-equipment lists at the back): It opens in the fall, which is when most foreign students begin their sojourn in the US, goes into freezing winter and ends with summer. Around the season-appropriate dishes and drinks—Meg’s Winter Warmer (a spiced apple drink), Lux’s Chicken Curry, Lux’s Summery Mint and Lemon Juice, or Tropical Fruit Salad—are tucked in ideas for those constants of American student life: lazy brunches, pre-exam comforters, potlucks (including the Halloween Sambhar, a pumpkin-based take on the southern Indian staple), barbeques, parties and, yes, romantic dinners too.
There aren’t too many recipes under each head—I counted a max of nine—but, together, they pack quite a punch. Best of all, none of them calls for super-long preparation or slow cooking or exotic or expensive ingredients—and, yes, there are plenty that make the best use of bread, milk and eggs.
In keeping with a 20-something’s tastes (and metabolism), the recipes don’t shy away from deep-frying or cheese or white sauce. Additionally, while the recipes themselves aren’t dumbed down, there is a glossary of terms that may be beyond the newbie cook, such as basting and sifting, a list of vegan and vegetarian substitutes for chicken, fish and eggs, as well as hacks and tips (ragda pattice with frozen hash brown patties, anyone?).
The one grievance I have with the book, however, is how steadfastly it addresses the female student. While there are plenty of mentions of male (Indian) friends, it’s usually in reference to dishes the girls made to share with them, or to kitchen mishaps at the all-boys’ chummery or, to use their nickname, ‘The Perverts’ (don’t ask, there are no explanations). Yes, of course, this is Meg and Lux’s book, but a little gender-equitability would have only enhanced its appeal.