The hardest part of producing Rasika: Flavors of India, the new cookbook out tomorrow from renowned restaurateur Ashok Bajaj, James Beard Award-winning chef Vikram Sunderam, and co-author David Hagedorn, may have been conceiving to do so at all.
“You’ll not find a Larousse Gastronomique for Indian food that lays out exactly what the ingredients, preparations, and accompaniments of a dish should be,” Sunderam writes, noting that his own cooking is informed by family, seasonality, and current trends.
The fluidity of the curries, garam masalas, and chutneys passed down from generation to generation in his native India makes standardizing things all the more important, and this trio does its best to break things down into easily digestible steps.
Hagedorn, a seasoned chef turned restaurant critic, tells Eater the deep dive into spice-driven dishes exposed an ugly truth: When it comes to home cooking, Americans are doing it wrong.
“We tend to like dumping things in the pot or pan (or slow cooker or Instant Pot) all at once and call it a day. That’s not how Indian cooking works,” he says. It’s the layering of different but complementary ingredients that makes Indian cuisine so distinctive.
Sunderam concurs, stressing that mastering the basics — properly toasting raw spices; slowly sautéeing vegetables; meticulously marinating ingredients (“So all of the flavors permeate into the protein”) — is critical to building the complex flavors at the heart of some of his most beloved dishes. Those top performers include: the fried spinach dish known as palak chaat (“We sell over a hundred orders a day now and we wouldn’t dare take it off the menu,” Bajaj writes); black cod with honey and dill; grilled mango shrimp; and Thai chile pepper-powered chicken green masala.
One of his personal favorites, however, is the vegetarian lasagna Sunderam created in 2014 for visiting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “It’s got everything. Vegetables. Some starch. Yogurt sauce,” he says of a production that looks like Italian pasta but draws inspiration from traditional ratatouille.
Try as he might, Sunderam says there’s something he’s been unable to share with D.C. diners: a species of butterfish indigenous to the waterways around Mumbai. “It’s better than Dover sole,” he says of silver pomfret, adding, “I would die to get it here.”
For his part, renowned restaurateur Ashok Bajaj traces the origin of his critically acclaimed Knightsbridge Restaurant Group back to the teenage lunches he enjoyed at the Indian hotel where his uncle worked. “These were elegant restaurants, and the experience made a lasting impression,” Bajaj says.
Excerpted from Rasika: Flavors of India. Copyright © 2017 by Ashok Bajaj, Vikram Sunderam and David Hagedorn. Used by permission of HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.