Though cookbooks have all the information you need, take time to pick and choose!

Last Sunday my husband volunteered to buy some fruit. I was grateful. He came back almost two hours later with a huge Midlands bag – so he's obviously gone book shopping. I ignored the bag, because I am not interested in his kind of books. After a while he came and plonked a book down beside me, with a smile that was part smug and part seeking a pat on the back. It was a cookbook, an Indian classic, first published circa 1950, with contents like “a kadahi is a shallow vessel in which to stir-fry vegetables or deep-fru pooris”, “to make chapatis knead whole wheat flour with an adequate quantity of water and press with knuckles” and “temper pulses with a spoonful of ghee and some spices”.

Where's the place

I'm touched and thanked him - after all, how thoughtful and sensitive of him to buy me a cookbook. But I have many problems with this. One, he never cooks, so he doesn't know what to look for. Two, he obviously has no idea what my capabilities are, thence the definitions of kadahis and atta. Three, our bookshelves are creaking under the weight of too many books – the children have commandeered two entire cupboards, departed, and left the shelves full of Irvine Welsh and Haruki Murakami. So where's the place? There are already piles teetering ominously on every flat surface, threatening to come crashing down. Four, and this is the most important, may I have the satisfaction of browsing through I bookshop and choosing what I like? Or must I have what he thinks I should like? There's a history.

Many a time and oft he presents me with cookbooks. Eight times out of ten, they're not my kind and ten times out of ten, there's no place to keep them. I buy cookbooks very, very carefully; if I'm sure I'll love and use them forever. Never do I pick a five kilo “One Thousand Vegetarian Platters from the Royal Kitchens”, with photographs of over-embellished pulaos strewn with cashew nuts, silver varq and tortuously carved tomato roses. I was so infuriated that even though I vented a bit, many past transgressions kept bobbing about in my head, like a partially deflated balloon that, the day after a party, keeps bumping into the ceiling, refusing to collapse and disappear. I remember how one day at a fancy vegetable shop I went to the back to pick up some lemon basil they said they did have. I returned to the check-out counter where he was lining up our purchases and paying the bill, and stood silently eavesdropping. This man was not only explaining to some strange woman what we had bought - yellow zucchini – but telling her how to cook it: “just sauté it in olive oil with a little garlic”. He was probably right, that's a simple, basic way of making it. What got me was the persona he presented, a true Renaissance man. While at home he's the sort who asks where the ice is kept.

There are three kinds of cookbooks I like. One is the culinary travelogue, which describes how a place looks, what grows and how it's cooked, what are the influences that shape the cuisine, and gives some recipes as well. Chitrita Banerji's Life and Food in Bengal is an intimate view of a Bengali household, where she creates a flavourful picture of what goes on through the seasons and through a day, from dawn to nightfall. Her recipes are a bit difficult at first glance, but that's largely on account of the formatting – they are part of the narrative and ingredients and directions don't leap out at you conveniently. Madhur Jaffrey's A Taste of India is similarly evocative, and the recipes cover the whole country.

Dependable sorts

The other kind I have kept safely for years and refer to often is the Penguin series. Some are based on region, like Priti Narain's The Essential Delhi Cookbook, Maria Teresa Menezes' The Essential Goa Cookbook and Bilkees Latif's The Essential Andhra Cookbook. Teresa Menezes' Goa book is not just encyclopaedically full of recipes, it also describes the culture behind the food. Renuka Devi Choudhurani's Pumpkin Flower Fritters, published by Permanent Black's Black Kite imprint, has hundreds of traditional Bengali recipes with unexpected combinations.

As far as Indian food goes, I'm looking for new ideas of how to flavour everyday vegetables and curries, but processes are down almost pat - I'm never going to make chicken or even roti in a tandoor or appams in a chatti.

The third kind I cherish is the basic, step-by-step cookbook for idiots, which is what I need for baking. Some people I know have the confidence to play around with cake ingredients, but I don't dare. I asked my mother to help me select a baking recipe book when I got my first oven, and she picked Betty Crocker. Years before I had gone to a book fair with her and I remember her thumbing approvingly through McCall's Cookbook. It didn't excite my taste-buds – hardly any pictures in almost 800 pages – but she said she distrusted too many pictures. She used it for years, and now that I've inherited it I realize that both are businesslike, precise and foolproof.

The author is a food writer based in Delhi. She is with the ASER Centre.

HOT-MILK SPONGECAKE

Ingredients

1/2 cup milk

1 cup sifted all-purpose flour

1 tsp baking powder

1/4 tsp salt

3 eggs

1 cup sugar

1 tsp vanilla extract

Method

Heat milk in small saucepan until bubbles form around edge of pan; set aside. Preheat oven to 180°C (350°F). Sift flour with baking powder and salt; set aside. In small bowl, beat eggs at high speed until thick and pale lemon coloured. Gradually add sugar, until well-blended – about 5 minutes. At low speed, blend in flour mixture just until smooth. Add warm milk and vanilla, beating just until combined. Pour batter into un-greased 9-by-9-by-1¾ inch baking pan; bake 25-30 minutes, or until toothpick inserted in centre comes out clean. Let cake cool in pan 10 minutes, then remove from pan and cool thoroughly on wire rack. Serve plain, or with frosting.