Contrary to popular opinion, renowned economist Abhijit Banerjee believes his gourmet cookbook isn’t too much of a departure from his previous work
As the pandemic makes an unfortunate promising return to our daily lives, there’s no time like today to pick up a copy of Abhijit Banerjee’s latest literary venture, Cooking To Save Your Life.
An ardent believer in cooking daily at home, the Nobel Prize winning economist has taken his love for the craft and melded it with some deliciously insightful commentary. A professor of Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Abhijit Banerjee has gained much acclaim since sharing the 2019 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences with (wife) Esther Duflo and Michael Kemer for their experimental approach to alleviating global poverty.
Now as a gourmet chef, Banerjee takes us through several of his favourite recipes in this playful, erudite and sensationally delicious cookbook. Separated into distinct sections such as soups, salads, pastas, mains, and more, it’s a reflection of how true Bengali cuisine is served and consumed.
It’s not just a bland throwing together of recipes either. Along the way, Banerjee’s riffed on Karl Marx, Bengali vegetarian cooking, and why soup is so consoling among other delightful anecdotes and thoughts. You wouldn’t be able to tell that it’s his first cookbook outing, with the pages containing insightful information for both the novice and experienced cook.
The book initially began as a Christmas gift idea for Abhijit Banerjee’s brother. After stringing together several recipes with very specific ingredients, he realized that this would make just as good a book as any. Add to that some superb illustrations by Cheyenne Olivier, and you have a book to both read and cook outstanding meals from. While most cookbooks come rife with images of perfected end results that one might not always achieve, the book circumvents that problem with colourful, geometrically inspired illustrations.
Everyone involved with the creation of this book understands the constraints that come with preparing meals at home on regular days. From time and attention constraints, to ingredient, money, and machine constraints, there’s a lot to be accounted for while preparing meals. Which is why Banerjee’s categoric specification of expensive ingredients to avoid compromising on quality, and other stunning recipes that call for very basic ingredients makes this book that much more appealing.
The book is a healthy mix of exotic and simple, from Charred avocado to Andhra pork ribs, Ambur biryani that a pressure cooker can bring together in 40 minutes, Deconstructed salade niçoise and even a Trifle made in under 20 minutes.
Another whimsical win for the book is the dishes being tailored for specific occasions. From raspberry ceviche for when ‘you invite the boss home’ to masala chips, tossed with minced onions, green chillies and chaat masala, for ‘the kind of enemy you have to invite home from time to time’, Banerjee understands that every cooking experience is inspired by completely different motives.
So if the unprecedented rains and cold weather make you want to experiment with a fruit chaat, or if you’re looking to whip up a simple pasta, there’s something from everyone in this book. For quieter, homebound weekends that bring out your inner chef, mains like Chicken with Almonds and Raisins, Yakhni pulao, Stir fried Brussels Sprouts (South Indian style), or even the Sesame Crusted Potato guarantee a filling and sumptuous meal.
Of course, it’s hard to shake the economist off, and fortunately Banerjee doesn’t try. There’s a good dose of thought-provoking nuggets on larger political and social issues pertinent to society today. There’s plenty of suggestions on how one can make the best of limited but high-quality resources. There’s also ample recipes that make the most of the cheapest ingredients, the point being in the author’s words “not to save money but to underscore the pleasure of getting something wonderful from (almost) nothing”.
In an India that continues to politicize food, where most people don’t have enough food to eat and eat what they can, this book provides a great deal of perspective. It’s not really your religion or community that defines your culinary choices, but rather whatever is cheaply available and easily accessible.
In spite of access to the best gourmet ingredients, it’s the Bengali masur dal with oodles of lemon that provides comfort to the Nobel laureate. Even as aloo posto is a dish easily associated with Bengal, Abhijit Banerjee’s book speaks of an eggplant posto instead. While all of India continues to hail tomatoes as a souring agent, here’s a man looking to experiment with ingredients like tamarind, kokum, and more. Which proves that food can be as versatile or familiar as you may like it, with little to no political affiliation needed. At the end of the day, it’s just about the easiest things to throw together while still yielding the most stunning results.