cookbook club: Classic Indian Cooking by Julie Sahni

Vegetable biriyani

In book three of our four-part spring cookbook club we went on a journey through time and place through the “great and subtle cuisine… from all the regions of India.” This, from the first cookbook to introduce them, in all their refined complexity, to the American home cook. 

“Indian cooking is more of an art than a science. It is highly personalized, reflecting individual tastes. It allows the cook to exercise the full range of her or his creative ingenuity.”

Julie Sahni

Julie Sahni’s Classic Indian Cooking was published in 1980. Last year it celebrated 40 years on our bookshelves and in the hearts of those she introduced to the foodways of India. It was a first of its kind. Painstakingly researched. Recipes and techniques tirelessly tested for the North American kitchen. Hundreds of pages of culinary history, culture, and geography lessons. All presented in the engaging voice of a woman who had already been teaching the intricacies of the Indian kitchen from her own (in Brooklyn) for over a decade.

Classic Indian Cooking by Julie Sahni

For years after its publication, food editors and cookbook authors used it as a textbook, including some editors who later worked with the better-known Madhur Jaffrey. Like Mastering the Art of French Cooking and Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, this book continues to be a beloved reference in my own library, and of chefs worldwide. You can read more about the 40th anniversary of Classic Indian Cooking in this article from Food & Wine Magazine

“Indian cooking is more of an art than a science. It is highly personalized, reflecting individual tastes. It allows the cook to exercise the full range of her or his creative ingenuity.”

Julie Sahni

A traditional Indian meal will usually include a main dish (meat or vegetarian), a staple (rice or bread), side dishes of seasonal vegetables and/or dal (legumes), condiments (chutney, raita…), and maybe a sweet. If a biryani is served, that takes the place of the main and staple, so no other starch is necessary. 

I created a menu with choices to reflect different flavors and dietary preferences. And there was plenty of opportunity to explore and get creative.

Chicken Smothered in Aromatic Herbs and Almonds
Royal Braised Lamb with Fragrant Spices

Glazed Beets with Mustard Seeds, Glazed Cauliflower with Ginger	
Dal, raita, relish/chutney

Choice of rice preparation and/or bread

Carrot Pudding with Cardamom and Pistachio
Almond and Rice Dessert (Firni)

Although most of us stuck to the menu, several people couldn’t stop and played with many other dishes as well.

chicken smothered in aromatic herbs and almonds (Badaami Murgh)

This classic Northern Indian dish is usually for special occasions. The list of ingredients, like many of the recipes in this book, was off-putting. And the recipe is three pages long. But by taking the time to read through, make a few notes in advance, and do some advanced preparation, it came together simply. Yes. It was delicious. Aromatic. And dairy-free. The sauce is thickened with almond butter – yum! 

royal braised lamb with fragrant spices (Shahi Korma)

Korma describes a technique of braising, not the name of a dish on a takeout menu. This is another festive dish from the north and is the base for making lamb biriyani – in this book named “Emperor’s Layered Meat and Fragrant Rice Casserole.” Everyone made this dish at least once. I made it twice and am ready for a third round already. Only suggestions, cut the ghee by about half. Like Julia Child, Julie Sahni shows no restraint with butter. Or cream. I assure you, it’s worth every gram of fat. As for spices, part of the recipe is the blending of your very own Moghul spice mix. This is a simple, sophisticated, subtle blend of flavors. Make plenty and then make this dish a few times to use it while it’s fresh!

Lucknow sour lentils

Dal, but with an extra layer of depth and complexity from tamarind. This recipe comes from the city of Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh. I’m addicted. I use tamarind concentrate (or molasses) instead of working with block tamarind – so much easier and flavor is less watered down. Like all the other dishes I tried, this one freezes well, and the flavor only improves over a day or two in the fridge. 

basmati rice 

You may not think you need a three-page long recipe for making plain rice. But you probably do. Turns out I did. It’s actually not a recipe, per se. It’s in the extensive narrative about technique. Sahni offers several cooking techniques for plain basmati rice. None are simple. But all are worth the effort. I went with stove top one time and the oven another. I prefer the oven to keep space on my stove for other pots simmering. The photo below is from one of my students who, I’d say, has mastered the art of basmati!


The carrot pudding was a hit with most people who made it. The firni, not so much. The big winner in the dessert category was a cashew nut fudge (Kajoo Barfi) with a hint of rosewater.

bonus: royal braised vegetables in cardamom nut sauce (Shahi Sabz Korma) turned into vegetable biriyani

Start to finish, about 3 hours. I wanted more vegetables. I also wanted more salt. That said, I’d still make it again. Bonus points if you make your own paneer for this one!

Whichever recipe you choose, beware the whole spices. Although Sahni is clear that they are not to be eaten, she comforts us with the disclaimer, “If you do bite into them, however, no harm will come to you.” Truth. But a big clove will definitely overpower everything you eat for the next 15 minutes or so! Just one more reason to eat slowly and attentively while savoring the adventure. 

Have you cooked from Classic Indian Cooking by Julie Sahni? I’d love to hear what your favorites were and what you thought. Leave me a comment below!

Our next and last book of this season is… The New York Times Cooking: No-Recipe Recipes by Sam Sifton. This newly released game-changer brings our journey from classic to modern to a fitting close. More on that next time!

In closing, as always, I want to thank Kitchen Arts & Letters bookstore and the 92nd Street Y in NYC. Their beloved live program, Talks & Tastes, had to go virtual and they made it happen in the best possible way. If you missed this season’s club registration, stay tuned! 

We’re already planning our next cookbook club for the summer season! 

The first session will be on May 26 and the last of four will be on July 7 so save the dates – we meet on Zoom at 7 PM Eastern time (4 PM Pacific). The big reveal of the books we’ll be cooking from will be on April 29, 2021! 

Hope to see you there!

You can catch up with my previous post HERE.

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