One great cookbook: Madhur Jaffrey's 'Vegetarian India'

 The cover of Madhur Jaffrey's 'Vegetarian India' on a background of close-up photo of spices common to Indian cooking.
The cover of Madhur Jaffrey's 'Vegetarian India' on a background of close-up photo of spices common to Indian cooking.

Madhur Jaffrey has been writing cookbooks for more than 40 years. Many of them, including 1973's "An Invitation to Indian Cooking" and 2010's "At Home with Madhur Jaffrey," are deserved classics. "Vegetarian India," published in 2015, might be her magnum opus.

It is a falsehood commonly perpetrated in the West that India is a predominately vegetarian country. In truth, only about 40% of the country's population identifies as vegetarian. But! India does indeed have a robust, electrifying history of vegetarian cooking across its 28 states and eight union territories, and Jaffrey aims to extol it.

Around the subcontinent in 416 pages

"Vegetarian India" does not quite cover all of India, though Jaffrey sure tries. The northern metropolises are featured, of course: Mumbai and its environs are showcased with the iconic toasties and a bowlful of variations of fresh, plucky koshambir, a style of zippy salad; New Delhi has a handful of recipes, like flaky, triangular parathas and a breeze of a green bean dish with cumin, chile and ginger. Then Jaffrey spreads her wings, with coconut-laced beets from Mysore in the southwest; far northeastern Nepalese pickled potatoes and simple fried eggs with fresh chile, shallots and tomatoes from Sri Lanka.

Jaffrey never cooked growing up. Her family had staff doing the kitchen work, and her privileged position shows in the book's recipe sourcing. If you were given a dollar every time she mentions a recipe being gifted to her by a Taj Hotel or a fancy businessperson friend, you could pay for your own extended India adventure. Many an Indian cook has also rolled their eyes at Jaffrey's insistence on using olive oil in her recipes, rather than a more authentic Indian cooking fat like sunflower or sesame oils.

Still, Jaffrey coming to the kitchen later in life is a boon for home cooks. She, being a comparative neophyte herself, writes recipes that make no assumptions. They are clear; they guide with a sure hand; most importantly, they work.

A great cookbook is one with reliable recipes

The book is divided into eight sections: Soups, Appetizers and Snacks; Vegetables; Dals: Dried Beans and Legumes; Grains: Rice, Semolina and Quinoa; Grains: Breads, Pancakes, Savories and Noodles; Eggs and Dairy; Chutneys, Relishes and Salads; Drinks, Sweets and Desserts. Seems obvious, no? Perhaps not.

Say you have potatoes around. Say, also, you have stocked your Indian pantry well. You could jump to the Vegetables chapter, find the "p" section and choose from six potato recipes from all over India, based on your cravings. A different book might have organized the recipes by region, an approach that has its allure but less functionality.

Best of all is the book's breadth. Yes, it covers a lot of the subcontinent's territory. It also shows how creative and diverse Indian cooking is. Common vegetables are seasoned in uncommon ways; legumes are cooked into the familiar dals but also soaked and whirred in a blender before being swirled onto a hot griddle for savory pancakes that upend everything you might have thought you knew about the humble bean.

"Vegetarian India" is both comforting and inspiring. It soothes as it reshapes your thinking. A cookbook that can accomplish one of those goals is a feat. When it achieves them all, you have a masterpiece near your stove.