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Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2008

Simple is Tasty

Indian cooking made easy

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The title of Sukumaran Muralidharan’s debut cookbook, A Short Course in Culinary Experiments: Vegetarian Indian Cuisine for Innovative Non-Experts, sounds a bit like the descriptive heading for a doctoral thesis, and understandably so. Muralidharan is a research associate at the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute, pursuing the development of new photochemical and photophysical probes for applications in biology. Sure, the man knows his way around a laboratory, but what about a kitchen?

With his self-published cookbook, Muralidharan sets out to disprove the perception that Indian cuisine is complicated and hard to create without some ancestral link to the Indian subcontinent. Within the theme “Simple is Tasty,” Muralidharan shows readers that these vegetarian foods can be prepared in a clear and concise manner, using ingredients available here in North America. While A Short Course in Culinary Experiments focuses solely on vegetarian cuisine, its scope reaches far beyond vegans and vegetarians. Foodies, the culinary curious and non-vegetarians looking for a different way to prepare vegetables will also appreciate what this cookbook has to offer.

In the first chapter, Muralidharan endears himself to his audience with a humorous and thoughtful account of the cookbook’s origins, his intentions as the author, and a description of what readers can expect from the book. The next chapter is devoted to the materials most often used in Indian cuisine, offering thorough descriptions of various spices and ingredients used in the book’s recipes. Muralidharan’s substantial science background gives him a unique advantage in dissecting some of the hows and whys of cooking. For example, his description of the chili pepper includes its chemical make-up and the reason it exhibits certain cooking properties, as well as an explanation of the Scoville Heat Units (SHU), the scale on which a pepper’s hotness is rated.

A Short Course in Culinary Experiments is a helpful guide for purchasing a wide selection of spices and ingredients, even those that range outside of vegetarian Indian cooking. In addition to pointing cooks toward Indian grocery stores or regular supermarkets, Muralidharan recommends what form the spices and ingredients should take (fresh, dried, powder, resin, seed, extract, etc.) based on their cooking properties, cost, availability and storage capabilities.

A Short Course in Culinary Experiments is for readers who aren’t afraid to devote some brainpower to carefully reading the recipes ahead of time. While the no-frills cookbook lacks unique text layouts and colorful pictures of featured dishes, it compensates with precise and efficient instructions that won’t leave the cook guessing. There isn’t a step that Muralidharan doesn’t thoroughly explain, which is particularly useful when learning an unfamiliar genre of cooking for which many Wisconsinites have no background.

Muralidharan instructs how to create Indian staples like rice, dosa and uppumaav, as well as curries, chutneys, snacks, desserts and unique preparations like papadams and sambar. Many of the recipes have origins in the southern Indian state of Kerala, where Muralidharan is from. A Short Course in Culinary Experiments is organized in such a way that each recipe is first described in the simplest, most efficient way possible. Ever the academic, the author employs an alphanumeric system to identify each preparation, which allows readers to easily cross reference procedures.

Next is a section called “Variations,” where readers are encouraged to tweak the recipes by substituting or skipping an ingredient or switch ing up the cooking sequence. In the last section, “Experiments,” Muralidharan stretch es the parameters for cooks to discover something new. With this cookbook, Muralidharan not only teaches readers how to make a dish, he explains what happens if you don’t do it right. At times, he even offers a rescue technique if, say, the cook is a bit overzealous with the chili powder. If the mistake tastes better than the intended recipe, Muralidharan urges cooks to take credit for the mishap as a “serendipitous discovery.”

A Short Course in Culinary Experiments: Vegetarian Indian Cuisine for Innovative Non- Experts by Sukumaran Muralidharan Ph.D. can be purchased online at: www.simpleistasty.com.

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