This might well be the strangest book I’ve reviewed in these columns. After spending several evenings with it and even adapting a couple of recipes, I’m still not very sure who it’s by, or for. The cover credits Michael Swamy and Mugdha Savkar. The first name rang a bell: Swamy is the author of The East Indian Kitchen (2011), a lovely documentation of “Maharashtrian-Portuguese Fusion Cuisine” and possibly the first commercially published book on the subject. (The very first book, I believe, was 2008’s The Salsette-Vasai East Indian Cookbook by Dorothy Rodrigues, which was largely circulated privately.) Swamy’s mother’s family is East Indian, and, as a Cordon Bleu-trained chef, he balanced culinary familiarity with professional expertise in The East Indian Kitchen.
I guess I was looking for a similar authority in Comfort Food. Instead, I found a vanity project, a restaurant cookbook, apparently published to mark 25 years of a brand. It’s never very explicit, but, from the unsigned foreword, written in the first person plural and referring to Uncle and Aunty (Virender Kumar Batra and Usha Batra), I think—and I’m not at all sure about this—Swamy and Savkar had something to do with the Batras’ sons (or, as they are referred to here, “Batra Brothers”), Sharad and Vikrant. From what I could gather, the senior Batras ran a banquet hall in Naraina, New Delhi (established in September 1989), and, in February 2009, the younger Batras set up a restaurant called Delhi Heights 1 in Rajouri, in west New Delhi, which became the first of a chain called Cafe Delhi Heights. I cannot vouch for any of this since before this book I had heard of neither Batra Banquets nor Cafe Delhi Heights (though I do seem to vaguely recall a Neha Dhupia film called Delhii Heights—maybe there’s some connection there, but, as I said, explicitness is not a strong point in this section of the book).
But, onward. And, strangely, that’s where Comfort Food ceases to be a puzzle. Well laid-out with fun graphics, pleasant if unspectacular photographs (by Swamy, according to the title page) and clear-cut instructions, the book is a compilation of surprisingly friendly, matter-of-fact recipes. They might be considered an odd medley, but they are just what they are: No fripperies, no flamboyance, just a straight-up representation of what one would find in a middle-of-the-road cafe/restaurant in Delhi: soups, sandwiches-pizzas-and-pasta, starters, mains, drinks and desserts. I presume the recipes are sourced from Cafe Delhi Heights—and not Swamy’s own – because nowhere is it stated that these are the Batra Brothers’ best-sellers or similar, though the introductions to a few recipes do mention a family connection.
Struggling to get a grip on the book, I came across a recipe for Singaporean Laksa. Now, this is a dish I’ve tried several times, using various recipes, with varying degrees of success. I rather liked the easy-breezy approach to the dish in this book though—it suggests using ginger in case one doesn’t have galangal (I didn’t) and star anise instead of lemongrass (which I did have)—and thought I’d give it a shot. Notwithstanding the slight confusion over rempah paste (yay, Google), and the multiple fussy steps of stir-frying and removing various constituents (pastes, prawns, veggies) before the final combination, it turned out to be the best Laksa I’ve ever turned out.
To ensure it wasn’t a fluke, I tried out a second dish: Aunty’s recipe for the Sindhi Kadhi. I’ve no idea if it’d pass my Sindhi friends’ taste test, but, to me, it made for an excellent Sunday lunch.
So there you have it. These are recipes tried, tasted, written up and compiled by a pro—it shows literally on every spread. If you don’t mind a Gambas al Ajilo rubbing pages with the Kadhi, or a Chicken Chettinad backing into a Grilled Chicken Breast with Black Pepper, or even something called a Delhi Burger (with soya granules, baby corn, jalapeno and deep-fried burger buns—no, I did not try it out), and if you are looking for a book you can parachute into, cadge an idea off and turn into a fairly successful dish for a not-too-demanding dining table, this is it. This is not a book you’ll flaunt before your snobbish friends (well, not unless you love Delhi Heights, or whatever they’re called)—but, over a period of time, you’ll probably find the book falling open at one or two pages of favourite recipes. This is an Indian take on the Hermes House tradition: a well-produced, well-illustrated cookbook riding not on a big chef name (well, if my assumption that these are not Swamy’s recipes is correct) or entrancing backstories, but on largely fool-proof recipes.
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 stalks fresh lemongrass, crushed lightly with a wooden spoon
3 inch piece galangal
3-4 kaffir lime leaves
4 tablespoons rempeh paste
4 tablespoons sambal paste
200g prawns, shelled and deveined
2 and half cups fish stock
1 and half cups coconut milk
Salt to taste
2 cups Asian noodles, cooked
1 cup julienned mixed vegetables
■Heat oil in a wok over medium-high flame and add the lemongrass, galangal and lime leaves.
■Stir-fry quickly and add rempah and sambal pastes.
■Stir-fry till the pastes are cooked and very fragrant, and remove onto a plate. Set aside.
■In the same wok, add prawns and stir-fry till half-cooked. Add the stock and coconut milk and bring to a boil. Add salt.
■Add cooked paste to the wok and cook till well combined.
■Mix the noodles with vegetables and divide into 4 equal portions. Place each portion in a serving bowl. Pour the prawn-spice paste broth over the noodles and serve hot.