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I seem to be in a food mood.

Ismail Merchant is widely known as the Merchant of Merchant-Ivory Productions; along with his lover, the director James Ivory, and their friend and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, he made more than forty movies, including A Room with A View and other famous adaptations of E.M. Forster. (I've always thought Merchant and Ivory showed great sense in putting their names that way round...)

Apparently cooking was a great passion of his life, and he seems to have enjoyed food and hospitality both for their own sake and for their uses in discussions with the artistic, temperamental, or financially necessary-- many of his recipes are annotated with the names of the actors he bribed with them. Merchant, a Muslim from Bombay, also seems to have been at the forefront of the introduction of Indian cooking to America, along with Madhur Jaffrey (a friend of his). He mentions cheerfully that when he started serving Indian food to New York City theatre circles there were two Indian restaurants in Manhattan, both of which were terrible.

His book is not incredibly well-written in its prose interludes, though it has its moments (one recipe notes 'This is what you should have for lunch while arguing about what to make for dinner'), and it has the celebrity cookbook nature in that it is very name-droppy and does not give much context for the names it drops. He is also very proud of having managed to learn to cook despite it being a thing men in his family Did Not Do, which is a reasonable thing to be proud of, except that he mentions it so frequently that it becomes a tad annoying.

But the recipes, which are primarily Indian but with strong French and American influences, are obviously and beautifully sound. He really thinks in both Indian and French idioms, and suggests seasonings that can be tipped toward one nationality or another by changing the ratio of the spices. I have never seen anyone quite so fond of mustard, or remotely so original with it, nor have I met other curries containing tarragon vinegar. He also highly values quick preparation, and if you are fast at your knifework and can keep up with the chopping, you can make most recipes in this book within half an hour, including the gigantic ten-person special-occasion expensive-meal productions like lobster tails in coconut sauce. It's not a terrible book for vegetarians, either, though not spectacular, but if you can't handle capsicum steer clear, because Mr. Merchant is incapable of making tuna salad without throwing in both diced green and red chilies (a mindset I sympathize with but do not consider workable on a day-to-day basis).

This is not a cookbook for reading, really; it's a cookbook for use and inspiration, one of those books that winds up tattered and covered in sauce, adding a few things to your regular repertoire and a few to special occasions and several to the list of things that if you ever go totally crazy you'll devote a week to. In short, it's neither a revelation nor a disaster, but a good workmanlike solid thing.


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March 2017

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