Prema Srinivasan’s Pure Vegetarian takes a scholarly approach to traditional Indian vegetarian cooking and lists over 100 recipes that are popular to this day

Food isn’t just food. It’s the product of geography, history and culture. Influenced by people, trends and world affairs, food is never stagnant. Its very nature means that it changes constantly. Because ultimately the food we eat is shaped by the times we live in.

This is what makes Prema Srinivasan’s newly launched book, Pure Vegetarian interesting. On the surface, it is devoid of all the bells and whistles now considered obligatory for any cook book. Instead of the customary glossy lushness, there’s a Spartan air about the unassuming predominantly-white cover. There’s no hand holding for beginners. No pruning of ingredients to ensure the recipes travel better. No easy short cuts for impatient cooks. Instead the book takes a scholarly approach to traditional Indian vegetarian cooking, investigating the key factors that moulded some of today’s popular recipes: from temple kitchens to spice routes.

While Srinivasan’s meticulous research will be of particular interest to professional chefs and academically-inclined cooks, hobby gourmands can also pick up a thing or two from the hefty compilation of more than a 100 recipes. Even if you don’t cook, it’s an informative — if ponderous — read. The story begins with the temples, providing timetables for daily offerings. At the Srirangam temple, for example, the day starts with roti served with jaggery and ghee at 7 a.m. At the Tirumala temple, it’s freshly churned butter with a little sugar at 3.30 a.m. While at the Jagannath temple in Puri, 56 items are offered everyday, from kichadi to ladoos.

At the book launch, at Taj Coromandel, the evening began with verses from the Upanishads, talking about how important it is to respect the food we grow. Appropriately enough Alain Passard released Pure Vegetarian. Passard scandalised Paris when he banned red meat from the menu of his award-winning restaurant L’Arpège. Moving away from the idea of meat as a main course, he worked on ways to make vegetables exciting. For truly spectacular vegetable creations L’Arpège even acquired three kitchen gardens in geographically different areas, just to ensure that all the vegetables harvested had a “soil-suffused signature.” The carrots, asparagus and leeks came from the sandy Sarthe. Celeriac and cabbage were grown in the clay of Eure. And aromatic herbs were planted in the alluvia in the Manche.

At the event, the chef, now known for his ‘vegetable focused progressive French’ cooking, spoke of his ‘vegetable cooking as an artistic form of cooking,’ explaining how important it is to create vegetable dishes that ‘approach the quality of painting, sculpture, embroidery.’ He added, “So far, we’ve really done nothing much with a carrot or a tomato. There is so much further we can go. So much left to do.”

Stating that she took many years to write the book, Srinivasan said her inspiration was the inscriptions on the walls of Indian temples, reminding people to be generous with food. Talking of “food as the medium of cultural and social benevolence,” she spoke about how temple cuisine, cooked to feed the hungry and less fortunate, is what anchors South Indian vegetarian food. Change, of course is inevitable. Srinivasan also believes it’s necessary. “Food must find a new language to express itself… This is not a narrative of loss or decline.” She added, “New arises in place of the old. But not without strong ties. The old ways persist. So treat this book as a record. Then, experiment, innovate.”

It’s not all curd rice, dosas and idlis, of course. Even among the traditional recipes, the book includes unusual items: orange peel thogayal, jackfruit idli and a salad of Indian water chestnut with red chillies. Like Passard, she celebrates variety, explaining how a single crop can have a thousand variants. Rice, for example: “India during the Vedic period had as many as four lakh varieties of rice.” The book adds that even today there are two lakh varieties, each of which displays specific characteristics: cumin-flavoured jeeraga samba, sirumani (tiny jewels) and badal pughi (a drop of cloud). Also the charming toppi camba, which translates into “that which curls up like a hat when boiled.”

It makes it easier to understand Passad’s line of thinking when he says, “Between the gardeners and me, we discuss carrots and beetroot like others speak of Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc!” Vegetables as vintage wines? Why not?

(Pure Vegetarian by Prema Srinivasan, published by Westland, is priced at Rs. 695.)