For Anita Jaisinghani, variety truly is the spice of life. A five-time James Beard nominated chef, Jaisinghani is the owner of “non-traditional authentic” Indian fusion restaurant Pondicheri in River Oaks. She is also a cooking instructor, a Houston Chronicle columnist, a mother, a microbiologist (yes, really), and now a cookbook author. Masala: Recipes from India, the Land of Spices, released in August, shares 100 iconic recipes from Jaisinghani’s life, career, and the history of India.
Early on, the book introduces readers to Jaisinghani’s simple but effective cooking philosophy: just cook. “I’m not a good cook because I talk about it,” Jaisinghani said. “I actually cook all the time. The more you cook, the better and more comfortable you get.” For the self-trained chef, experimenting with food by cooking daily is what led her to the unique, internationally-inspired flavor combinations she’s become known for. “Indian recipes are not to be followed exactly,” Jaisinghani said. “It's really about cooking with your senses. No recipe is going to turn out the same if five different people make it. That’s the beauty of cooking, and why it’s so exciting.”
The title Masala comes from the Indian term for a blend of spices or seasonings, of which the combinations can be endless. “You can have a million different masalas.” Masala covers every corner of the kitchen through detailed chapters dedicated to Indian history and the evolution of its cuisine over centuries; spices (which ones are essential, and how to locally source them); street food, pantry staples, and much more. “There are so many Indian cookbooks, but very few really cover everything. Masala was going to be a book that, to me, was going to stand the test of time, because this knowledge is not new, I’ve just put it all down in a very comprehensive way.”
For Jaisinghani, the most important sections of the cookbook are about Ayurveda, a 5,000-year-old Indian philosophy, and “the ethos behind Indian food.” Ayurveda teaches that mindful eating can prevent health problems (examples from the book include little things like drinking room-temperature water and not going to bed on a full stomach to help with digestion). There’s also a chapter about elemental food groups, and how our emotions affect the meals we eat and cook.
It doesn’t require a total lifestyle change, Jaisinghani says, it’s more about finding aspects of ayurveda that work for you and “leaving the rest. If people just take away one thing from Ayurveda, that’s great.”
With both vegetarian-friendly and meat-lover options for dishes like cactus curry, oxtail nihari, naan pickle pizza, and sweet treats like mango rice pudding and Jaisinghani’s famous Indika cookies, Masala provides readers with their own variety of ideas and options for daily experimentation with Indian-infused recipes.
Now all you have to do is just cook!