THE SPICE IS RIGHT: Easy Indian Cooking for Today by Monica Bhide. Callawind Publications. www.callawind.com. $18.95. Soft cover.

Monica Bhide’s cookbook is down-to earth with interesting anecdotes and a touch of humor. There are over 150 simple, calorie-conscious Indian recipes as well as Western recipes with an Indian twist—suitable for Americans as well as Desis! Accomplished Indian cooks as well as rookies can benefit from the easy-to-follow recipes.

Bhide is a new voice in Indian cooking for whom cooking has been a lifelong passion. An accomplished caterer and home chef, she specializes in Indian cuisine and has catered everything from intimate dinners to large parties. Having been trained in formal cooking in her native India, she is a voracious cookbook reader and boasts a huge collection of publications.

I was amused by what she has to say in her introductory paragraph, “Necessity is the mother of invention, or in my case, documentation!” Bhide says that her life’s work is in this book. Her little journal grew into a binder, then into a wedding present for her sister, and now this book.
It is rare to read a cookbook that has humor in each well-organized chapter. It is divided into 15 menus with familiar Western themes such as “The Boss is Coming,” “A Picnic Basket,” “Backyard Grilling” and “An Indian Super Bowl Party.” Bhide says that these are perfect occasions to cook and enjoy healthy, home-style recipes. This division of chapters also takes the guesswork out of planning an Indian meal. Each menu features drinks, appetizers, main dishes, side dishes, and desserts. For the busy cook, there is an express menu suggestion in each chapter to help you zero in on three or four key dishes.

The Spice Is Right includes valuable cooking tips, leftover suggestions, and recipe variations for most dishes. I particularly liked the leftover section. Her tips will definitely help me as I expand my culinary skills.

Newcomers to Indian cooking will delight in reading interesting trivia about Indian spices, legumes, and other basic pantry staples. For example, did you know that Cassia bark is a much stronger spice when compared to true cinnamon? There is also a section about basic cooking techniques such as dry roasting spices. Paneer (Indian cottage cheese), garam masala, and other essentials for Indian cooking are explained in a separate, easy to read section.

Bhide has also mentioned several websites that elaborate each recipe or a particular ingredient. She aptly names this section “web bites” for her cyber fans.

Have you heard of spinach filled mushroom caps? Spinach, an integral part of Indian cooking, is rich in iron and is a wonderful addition to other “stuffed” Indian entries. Here’s a recipe from the cookbook:

Mushroom Caps with Spinach Filling
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: 35 minutes
6 mushrooms
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 small onion, chopped
2 green chilies, chopped
1 cup chopped spinach
For the sauce:
2 tablespoons/25 ml butter
2 tablespoons/25 ml all-purpose flour
1 cup/250 ml 1% milk
salt and pepper

Garnish: Shredded mozzarella cheese

Clean the mushrooms. Discard the stems. In a nonstick saucepan, heat 1 tablespoon oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion; sauté until golden brown. Add green chilies; sauté for another minute. Add the spinach; sauté for 2 minutes. Remove from the heat.

To prepare the sauce: In a nonstick pan over low heat, melt the butter. Add the flour and cook for 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from the heat and slowly whisk in the milk until well blended. Return to the heat and cook, stirring constantly, for 2 to 3 minutes or until the sauce thickens. Remove from the heat. Add salt and pepper to taste. Stir in the spinach until well mixed.
Stuff each mushroom cap with a small spoonful of the spinach mixture.
In a medium skillet over medium heat, heat the remaining 1-tablespoon oil. Sauté the mushrooms for 3 to 4 minutes or until they are almost cooked. Lower the heat to the lowest setting, cover the pan, and steam the mushrooms for a few more minutes until they are cooked through. Top each mushroom with shredded cheese and serve immediately.

Variations: For a spicy version of this dish, omit the white sauce. To the chopped onion, add ¼ teaspoon turmeric, ¼ teaspoon red chili powder, and 2 tablespoons grated paneer. Sauté for 4 minutes.

Each serving provides: Calories: 115; Protein: 3 g; Carbohydrates: 9g; Fat: 5 g.

I liked the fact that every recipe in this cookbook had nutritional guidelines for weight-watchers. Indian cuisine is traditionally rich with ghee (clarified butter), coconut milk, full-fat paneer, etc. But in her book, Bhide has tried to select recipes that provide the full flavor but not the high saturated fats and cholesterol. That’s a great feat!

Here’s another recipe for a drink that I thought was exotic and can be made in a jiffy.

Papaya Passion
2 cups/ 500ml peeled and cubed fresh papaya
2 cups/ 500ml water
1 tablespoon/15ml light (5% cream)
10 fresh mint leaves
sugar to taste
5 ice cubes
In a blender, combine the papaya, water, cream, mint, sugar, and ice. Blend until smooth. Serve immediately.

Variations: Add about 1 teaspoon of grated fresh coconut to the drink for a more exotic flavor. Each serving provides: Calories: 57; Protein: 1 g; Carbohydrates: 13 g; Fat: 1g.

A couple of things that otherwise caught my eye: Lack of color photographs or illustrations of recipes. Having pictures would visually tempt readers to try them out. Also, one does not generally refer to Rasam as “Spiced Tomato Juice.” A closer term would probably be Mulligatawny Soup (much talked about in Seinfeld and Soup Nazi). The origin of the word Mulligatawny is from Tamil “Milagu Thanni” (meaning black pepper water). The British adapted the word during colonial times. While one can use imagination to make terrific variations of the traditional Rasam, what Rasam is without the most fundamental of ingredients—the black pepper?

I have singled out an appetizer and a drink from this captivating cookbook but The Spice Is Right has much more to offer! I enjoyed this book very much.

Vaidehi Madabushi loves cooking and is a connoisseur of great-tasting vegetarian food.