I've had many such experiences. Experiences that, I feel, have made me understand food better, made me cook better. Sometimes the taste of a simple daal is etched across your mind. Or a mutton roast so succulent that you want a recipe there and then.
That's what happened to me at my ex-boss's house several years ago. I ate a meal so spectacular but simple, quaint but so explosive that my taste buds were going all over the place. Her husband, Arun, is one the most fabulous cooks I ever know. He's more of a, what do you call it, an instinctual cook. Someone who dreams up recipes, someone who can connect the dots between ingredients, someone who just knows.
So when my (ex)boss told me that the one cookbook he swears by is Camellia Panjabi's 50 Great Curries of India, I was curious. I mean I didn't own that many Indian cookbooks apart from the token Sanjeev Kapoors and Nita Mehtas. Plus, whatever I needed to know about curries, my grandmother had taught me all. I decided to look for it anyway.
Strangely, it wasn't a book that was readily available. We hadn't embraced online shopping as yet, and bookstores didn't seem to keep her book and despite me asking them to stock it, I'd return home, most times, with another cookbook. Finally in a tiny discount store in Delhi, I spotted the book. Covered in plastic wrap, the book contained a CD - of three of her most popular recipes. Could I get an open copy to browse through the book, I asked the shopkeeper. A good 15 minute hunt later, I was told it was the only copy. Obviously that meant I had to pick the book.
Even then, it lay on my shelves for at least an year before I decided to skim through it. I barely even glanced at it, I was busy marking out my favourite recipes with post its. Then one fine day, I wanted to make a chicken curry unlike the curries I had made before. Google called out to me. I searched for several recipes, until I chanced upon one that I liked. Black-spiced cashew nut chicken. Oh quite simple, I thought to myself and I have everything lying at home. I looked for the source - turned out it was a Camellia Panjabi recipe.
Oh, I have her book! Reaching out for it, I realised what a fool I'd been. This book had an answer for nearly everything. What really is tandoori chicken? Why do Indians like the clay oven (tandoor) , why spices must be roasted. Camellia had broken down all the processes and the pairings right at the beginning of the book, so I could skip all that easily and just go ahead and read the recipes.
There were egg curries that I couldn't wait to try. Lamb dishes which had to be made there and then and ideas with vegetables that were simple, regional and wholesome. But one recipe caught my eye and I felt I needed to give it immediate attention. A watermelon curry.
Just large watermelons cut into chunks and tempered with red chilli powder, salt and some other spices. A Rajasthani dish, eat it as an accompaniment the book suggests. When I made it for the first time, this curry totally boggled my mind. I ate it as my main course, I ate it as a dessert and the next morning, ate it for breakfast. It was so good.
Next, I tried the Malabar omelet curry - and it tasted straight out of God's Own Country (and I don't even like eggs that much) and then the chicken korma - quite fabulous!
Camellia had made a lot of effort, telling you how to grind your garam masala - telling you the difference between chillies and even explaining, rather simply why you should use what you should.
The photos are lovely. Well-styled and beautifully presented. And it's really difficult to make Indian food look pretty, let alone back in the nineties, when styling was a bit bizarre.
The edition I have at home, is a reprint. Story goes, within years of Chutney Mary, the book was sold out twice over. And today as I surf on the net, I can see three more reprints.