What We’re Reading: ‘Modern Spice’

Northern Virginia writer Monica Bhide gives Indian cooking a fresh spin.

Food writer Monica Bhide has lived around the world, and her new cookbook, Modern Spice: Inspired Indian Flavors for the Contemporary Kitchen (Simon & Schuster, $25), gives readers a peek into her travel diary. Born in New Delhi, Bhide grew up in the Middle East before settling in Northern Virginia. While her childhood memories are scented with the perfume of cardamom and the tang of tamarind, these recipes reflect the needs of a modern cook who’s usually crunched for time.

The book calls itself “inspired Indian,” and indeed many dishes have a subcontinental bent, such as the appetizer section’s delicious peanut tikkis. Tikki means “patty” in Hindi, and Bhide’s pan-fried, bite-size disks of smooth mashed potato are heightened by the sweetness of corn and delicate crunch of crushed peanuts. Drizzled with sweet-and-sour (and store-bought) tamarind chutney, they’re the perfect cocktail snack.

Conscious of a busy home cook’s limited schedule, many of Bhide’s recipes rely on make-ahead chutneys or marinades, such as the mint-cilantro chutney, a heady combination of fresh herbs and chili that reappears in Bhide’s green-chutney chicken. This is a fresh-tasting dish full of bright flavors, but I also found it unattractive, the sauce turning into an unappealing green mush against stark white chunks of chicken. Other dishes, such as a tomato-and-coconut fish curry or “hot, hotter, hottest shrimp” were deep with heat and nuance but use only a few well-chosen spices. Unlike many Indian cooks, Bhide doesn’t rely on too many special ingredients. She freely recommends pre-ground or packaged spice mixes—welcome news to cooks like me.

At the heart of Modern Spice are Bhide’s personal essays, moving, funny pieces that illustrate the way food has shaped her life and that link her memories with her recipes. Reading about how Bhide once assuaged her homesickness with cardamom rice pudding, I—a former DC resident who moved to Paris last year—was reminded of the ways in which familiar scents and tastes sustain and connect us. And then I made the rice pudding, stirring the grains through the sweetly scented milk as she had, and as centuries of women had before us.