Sunday, January 3, 2010

Talking with My Friends about the Books They Wrote this Year

There are several things about my life that haven’t turned out the way I had planned: I am not a crime-fighting ballerina (life goal, age 5), nor do I live in a house with a fireman’s pole that goes from the bedroom straight to the breakfast table (life goal, age 9), and somehow, unaccountably, I have never become a member of the B-52’s (life goal, age 20 - the present).

Other aspects of my life, however, have turned out even better than I could have imagined. I love to read and I had hoped that I might one day spend time around other people who liked to read too. Never in a million years did I think that I would end up becoming friends with people who actually wrote books as well as read them, and I certainly never thought that I would become a writer myself. Through sheer luck I ended up living in a community populated by many writers, and I have also met many writer friends at classes and conferences.

This year several of my friends published books. I decided that it would be fun to interview them about their books and also about the writing and publishing process. Being a food writer, I have many friends who have written cookbooks, but I also have friends who have written non-fiction books this year as well.

January is the perfect month to curl up and read and to stay home and cook. I hope that this series of interviews will inspire you to check out these books.

First on the list is an interview with Monica Bhide, author of Modern Spice.

For many years I worked in Cambridge’s Central Square, a hotbed of political radicals, indie music, MIT students jaywalking unselfconsciously into oncoming traffic, and Indian restaurants. No matter what I had packed for lunch or planned to eat at any of the neighborhood cafés, I was irresistibly drawn to the Indian buffets because of the fantastic aromas that filled the air. It was impossible to do any errand in the area without instantly salivating and deciding, “You know what? I think I am going to take that sandwich I brought for lunch home for dinner because I have got to have some Indian food right now!”

I was overcome by a similar feeling as I read Modern Spice, by my friend Monica Bhide. She writes about food so vividly and evocatively that I once again felt compelled to eat some Indian food immediately, and I felt frustrated that I couldn’t instantly cook and taste every recipe in the book. These are – just as the book title suggests – modern recipes created for the way that people cook now: they are lighter than most traditional Indian recipes and easily prepared by busy people who want to enjoy a great dinner without spending hours in the kitchen. The flavor to work ratio is just right.

Modern Spice was just named one of the best cookbooks of 2009 by AOL and it was cited as one of the “Best.Books.Ever” by Top Chef’s Padma Lakshmi in Newsweek. The first printing of the book sold out in a month and a half, and I can easily understand why.

Monica had already authored The Spice is Right and The Everything Indian Cookbook, so I asked her how she got the idea for Modern Spice.

MB: I love to cook Indian food, as do many folks here in the U.S., but I always felt that the way I cooked and the way many of my Indian friends cooked was not yet reflected in any Indian cookbooks. Our new cuisine is a reflection of our lives today, here and now. Just as traditional curries and dishes cooked painstakingly from scratch reflect our mother’s and grandmother’s generation, our dishes reflect our modern lifestyles. They are easy, fun and intensely flavorful.

Modern Spice is about capturing the cuisine of this new generation. The dishes are vibrant and have enticing flavors, yet they are simpler, refined, and adapted to modern lifestyles. This is Indian food as it is cooked today. This book takes my mother’s cooking and translates it for my generation, which embraces the same flavors but is not stuck on any absurd marker of authenticity that no longer exists.

This book shies away from mango lassi—there are 200 books out there (including two of my own!) that you can read for that—instead it brings you a Lychee Martini. It doesn’t offer chicken tikka masala; it provides a recipe for chicken gently simmered in fresh cilantro and mint. This is Indian my way, reflecting the modern Indian cooking of today, reflecting the modern Indian.

RC: What kinds of research did you do in order to write this cookbook?

MB: I talked to a lot of people who cook Indian-inspired foods. I have traveled the world in search of modern Indian food and recipes. While I wrote the book in a year, I feel like I have been researching for it my entire life.

RC: What recipe required the most test runs? How many times did you have to test and tinker with it, and what was the thing that made it so time-consuming?

MB: There was a recipe for amaretto cookies. No matter how many times the various testers made it, it was hit or miss. Basically, if the butter in the cookie wasn’t at the right temperature, the cookie dough wasn’t the right consistency. So we finally decided not to keep it in the book.

RC: Which recipe was the most fun to test?

MB: There is a recipe in the book for vodka shots served in an Indian savory crisp. We tested those several times, mostly just for fun!

RC: Did friends and family try some of the dishes for your book? How do you distinguish between useful feedback regarding whether a recipe is a success or failure as opposed to how someone feels about a recipe based on his or her personal likes and dislikes?

MB: Great question. What I did for every recipe was to test it with my family at home since I know how their tastes go and then re-test it on neighbors and friends to get their opinion. Finally, I would match that with the feedback from the recipe testers.

RC: Do you have a favorite recipe from the book?

MB: I love them all, but I am beginning to show some partial tendencies towards the cover dish – Shrimp with Pomegranate. It is such a simple dish to prepare and I love that all my son’s young friends who try it love it so!

RC: Do you have a favorite category of recipes in the book?

MB: Without a doubt, the cocktails!

RC: Which recipe has gained the most attention?

MB: Hmm… this is a hard one. I think the Rice Pudding with Mangoes and the Pan-Fried Zucchini and Squash have gained the most attention.

RC: Is there an emotional or cultural aspect to the recipes in your book?

MB: Yes! Many of the recipes are tied to stories about where they came from. I think that is what makes this book standout from other cookbooks on the market.

RC: What was the most difficult aspect of writing your book?

MB: I think timing. I had just delivered a baby and so making sure I had enough time for everything was rough.

RC: What was the most surprising thing that happened?

MB: Once I started writing, the words began to flow and it was so much easier than “thinking about the book.”

RC: What was the most unexpected thing that you learned?

MB: Simplicity in recipes is underrated.

RC: I agree with you completely about that. What was the most fun aspect of writing your book?

MB: Eating all the food!

RC: What has it been like seeing readers’ reaction to the book?

MB: Overwhelming. I have to say that I never expected the book to hit such a chord and I have been inundated with emails and fan letters. It is so gratifying.

RC: What has your overall experience of going through the process of writing and publishing this book been like?

MB: Since this is my third book, I have to say that the process overall was very pleasant. We had a few rough spots, and who doesn’t! I remember one time the paper manuscript with all the edits on it was misplaced for a day or so. That was ROUGH.

RC: What kinds of things are you doing to publicize your book?

MB: Everything from radio to TV to the internet to cooking demos to book signings to cooking classes and all else in between.

RC: Have you been using social media to publicize your book or communicate with your readers?

MB: Yes, very much so. I tweet and have a Facebook page that has been so very helpful.

RC: Have you been using video to communicate with your readers?

MB: Yes, we did a book trailer and a few live videos but not a lot yet! But I am hoping that I will with my next book.

RC: How did you feel the day the galleys were in your hand?

MB: Really anxious… wondering how the world would react.

RC: I love your column, iSpice, in the Washington Post. How do you decide what spice to focus on each week? Will you be covering fenugreek or asafetida anytime soon?

MB: Thanks! I really have fun with that column. I love to read about different spices and I pick spices that are both well known and some that are not. Readers also write in asking for spice profiles. Yes, fenugreek and asafetida are coming up, but the column does focus on spice and herbs from all around the world (and sometimes other seasonings that don’t fall in those categories – we have covered red hots and Sriracha!)

RC: How did you recruit recipe testers? Did you use professional testers? Friends and family? Where the testers cooks who had done any Indian cooking before?

MB: I used professional testers for any recipe I thought needed an extra set of eyes. Friends and family of course helped test. I made sure many of the testers had never used some of the spices, weren’t familiar with the techniques and in some cases the cuisine – this really helped show me how to simplify and modify the recipes.

RC: If readers want to get in touch with you, how would they do that?

MB: All my contact info is on

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