The Piglet2016 / First Round, 2016

Gjelina vs. Made in India


Travis Lett

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Made in India

Meera Sodha

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Judged by: Sadie Stein

Sadie Stein is a writer and editor, and a contributing editor for The Paris Review. A longtime armchair cookbook reader and enthusiastic cook, she is also the member of a cookbook club along with Ruth Curry, Emily Gould, and Lukas Volger. She lives in New York with her husband. 

The Judgment

I am purely a home cook; I have never worked in a professional kitchen and my technique is basic. I live in New York City, which means ready access to many specialty ingredients, but an apartment kitchen. It’s also affected how I cook: My unofficial rule of thumb has become that I attempt only those things that taste better at home than when made by someone more expert. (For instance, I don’t go in for at-home sushi and I’d rather source croissants than bake them—but those are luxuries allowed the urban dweller.) I read and cooked from these books—Gjelina and Made in India in late fall and early winter, so was somewhat limited in the available choice of produce. Had I been cooking two months earlier, things might have been different.

Or, indeed, living in California! Gjelina’s subtitle is, “cooking from Venice, California” and it’s an unapologetic love-letter to SoCal. The glamorous, spare photographs showcase not just what the book terms the eponymous restaurant’s “grain-and-vegetable-centric, globally inspired cuisine,” but the fact that Gjelina is “the place to be in a city of hot spots, a destination for people of all stripes, from celebrities to food lovers, and the institution that catapulted a sleepy stretch of Abbot Kinney onto the global food scene.”

One is willing to forgive such business because Chef Travis Lett expresses such sincere passion for his ingredients: hip trappings aside, Lett sees his mission as global and important, “a reflection of  the changing dialogue about what we eat. People just want to know that someone cares at some point in the process of creating food, that someone is concerned with the big picture.” There is genuine appreciation here for producers and farmers, heritage brands and innovation. Lett also takes the time to thank his team and staff.

This is a book about a restaurant, and one in a specific place: Lett never pretends otherwise. The chapter on “Condiments and Pickles” is enticing, but a despair to those of us who know we can never hope for a walk-in’s arsenal of confits, sauces, pistous, fermented leeks. It’s not that any one recipe is intimidating; but the sheer bounty of it can be. Lett writes that ingredients are “unique expressions of art—more so than anything I could manipulate them into. I am blown away every day by the sheer diversity and quality of the product I have access to in California. The ingredients reveal themselves slowly over time and require sensitivity to fully understand and get the most out of.”

So I felt daunted attempting recipes like Seared Okra, Black Olives, Tomato Confit, Pine Nuts & Chile out of season, or making Grilled Eggplant, Mojo de Ajo & Basil Salsa Verde with the sad, squishy specimens I found at the market. It seemed to fly in the face of Lett's uncompromising Cali ethos—and be besides the point, anyway. However, I did try other recipes with great success, including Roasted Yams with Honey, Espelette & Lime Yogurt; a Roasted Acorn Squash with brown butter and rosemary that’s already joined the repertoire; and a mushroom toast, although I’m going to go ahead and admit I didn’t make my own “buttermilk crème fraiche” for that one. Instructions are clear and concise. I loved a lot of the salad and flavor ideas—smoked trout with grapefruit and avocado; grilled chicories with fried eggs—but be warned that many seemingly simple dishes contain restauranty touches that you may not have handy, like the garlic confit called for in anotherwise pantry-staple roasted cauliflower. It can’t be said enough: This is a restaurant cookbook. Gjelina may focus on straightforward California cuisine, but you may need to adapt slightly for day-to-day. Indeed, what I found myself thinking most often as I read Gjelina was not, “I want to cook that” but “I want to eat there.” (I mean, besides the hot spot thing.)

A cozier enterprise altogether is Meera Sodha’s Made in India. While the title sounds expansive, in fact this jolly-looking book is highly specific and idiosyncratic: Sodha herself was raised in the North of England, and her cuisine is a mixture of Indian, British, and Kenyan influences. As the engaging author writes in her introduction, “An Indian kitchen can be anywhere in the world… Real Indian home cooking is largely an unknown cuisine, and it’s my love for what we Indians really eat at home that has led me to share these recipes with you now.” If Lett gives you a seat at the chef’s table, Sodha holds your hand, stating clearly that her book “is written for everyone, from first-timers to seasoned cooks, and for those who love Indian food but don’t know where to start.”

The short list of recommended equipment contains things like “a good knife, sharp enough to make cutting tomatoes enjoyable and easy.” Substitutions and flexibility are encouraged. The author talks us through Indian ingredients and techniques, suggests sources, gives a tempting array of menus for everyday and special occasions and varying numbers of diners, and discusses wine pairings. A section called “Help” troubleshoots problems like oversalted food or watery sauce.

It must be said: There were a couple of moments when the cutesiness line was approached. The jokey “Eat like an Indian, think like an Indian” section – “spend at least an hour at the door when saying goodbye to people you’re visiting,” “treat cricket as the second religion”—I could have done without. 

But I loved everything I cooked, particularly an eggplant and cherry tomato curry (which I did not feel bad making out of season), a roasted butternut squash curry with garlic and tomatoes, and “mum’s chicken curry.” Yes, any menu would have benefited from the arsenal of chutneys and relishes the author provides, but going without (or using a good bottled brand) did not seem to defeat the purpose. 

Normally my criterion for whether I want to own a cookbook is four appealing recipes; in the cases of Gjelina and Made in India, both volumes were so dog-eared with turn-downs after one reading that I had to develop a new sub-system of double-folds to indicate VIR status. Both books are glossy and beautiful. Recipes from both worked and inspired. I found myself turning for each as armchair reads and also dinner inspiration. I’d be very happy to be left on a desert island with a copy of either one (well, and a fully-stocked pantry). And both are intensely personal. There are two very specific reasons one book won my round, and here is what they are:

Made in India taught me how to cook perfect rice, every time. I’ve always been one of those rice-phobes, otherwise competent in the kitchen but unable to turn out a batch that wasn’t crunchy or gluey or some horrid mixture of the two. But Sodha’s “Perfect Basmati Rice” was exactly that. And using her “grains of wisdom on cooking the perfect rice” (yes) I have replicated the achievement again and again, making rice constantly and on the slightest pretext. It seems like a small thing, but a book that can demystify a process, lay it out and ensure consistency, has managed a lot.

What really ensured victory, though, was the chapter on ice creams. For years my heart sank when I read the words, “chill according to manufacturer’s instructions.” Like many people, I can only dream of the space for an ice-cream maker. So imagine my disbelieving delight when, after reading an appealing recipe for a cinnamon ice cream, I saw these words: “Churn in an ice cream maker until done…or pop it into a plastic box and then into the freezer, whisking it vigorously after 45 minutes to break up any ice particles. Keep whisking it every 30 minutes for 2 to 3 hours, or until frozen.” It might as well have been an angel’s chorus

And the winner is…

Made in India

Made in India

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Do you Agree?


Lisa W. March 18, 2016
The food at Gjelina is worth a trip (ignore the pretense of your actor-server) and make a special stop at her sister-- Gjusta (you can find all her delicious condiments there!). It is all fantastic. Gjelina, the restaurant, has touched on so much that is truly California Cuisine; and I can't help but recognize a long tradition of California ingredients, and marriages of them, found as far back as I can remember, at California's mother restaurants-- Chez Panisse; Jeremiah Tower's Stars; Paul Bertolli's Oliveto; Judy Roger's Zuni Cafe; Donia Bijan's L'amie Donia… Legendary restaurants setting the stage for this cuisine. Classic marriages of smoked trout, avocado and grapefruit were fresh "starters" on so many of their winter menus… among others. I suppose Gjelina's book will be another one to sing about. Can't wait to pick it up!
helicopterina March 6, 2016
Great review / but please - what does VIR mean? I've googled it w/o success.
Sadie March 6, 2016
Reasonable question ;) I meant "Very Important Recipe"! Thank you -- and everyone -- for such thoughtful comments1
helicopterina March 6, 2016
Ah. OK. Just for kicks, you should check out the definition noted on
Sadie March 6, 2016
The more you know!
Rhondamcm March 4, 2016
Wow. Gjelina is one of my favorite cookbooks not just of this year but of all time. I can't remember a cookbook I cooked from so much so quickly. It seems to perfectly capture the zeitgeist of the times. -- amazing vegetables with meat as a companion -- and I live in Canada not California! While I found the Tartine books similar yet impenetrable and overwhelming, Gjelina is actually quite the opposite. (Sure, sub in grocery crème fraîche and quarter the garlic confit recipe ...) But I find myself wanting to go to the restaurant just to see if the dishes taste any more spectacular than my versions. So sad.
cookbookcollector March 5, 2016
I agree 110%, I have over 900 cookbooks & Gjelina is one of my top 10.
Stephanie R. March 4, 2016
I totally agree about the rice. I now make basmati rice far more often than I ever did before now that it isn't a crapshoot with the results - no rice cooker needed.
Alison March 4, 2016
Definitely agree! I own both books, and have yet to cook anything from Gjelina bc it all seems so complicated. Beautiful book, lovely ideas... but Made in India was so much more practical and accessible. Lots of recipes besides rice and ice cream, btw! Tons of delicious veggies, fish, and meat.
Victoria C. March 4, 2016
I am not generally crazy about chef books - although there are exceptions (I especially like Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Cooking at Home with a Four-Star Chef) - and these books seem so different from each other that a choice seemed almost impossible to make. However, Ms. Stein wrote an intriguing and interesting review, and thoughtfully explained how she made her decision. I don't have either book, but based on this review AND the comments by Food52 followers, I'm going to check both of them out.
Teresa @. March 3, 2016
I was sure that the buzziness around Gjelina (which is a great cookbook) would make it a shoo in, but I was happy that Made In India won out. It's one of my favourite cookbooks of 2015. It's so full of great recipes and ways to stock your fridge and pantry with great flavour.
Dana V. March 3, 2016
I have not cooked from Made in India so I cannot speak to the comparison here but I think, in the long run, that I prefer to to be inspired and challenged by Basil Salsa Verde or Roasted (Anything!) with Honey, Espelette & Lime Yogurt rather than discover a formula for making rice. Don't get me wrong. I get the appeal of the rice trick and the ice cream trick, I really do. Understanding the basics is absolutely key to kitchen happiness. But every now and then I want something to push me a little. I want to make a special effort, hunt down a new ingredient, step outside my basic knowledge. And I want the payoff to be worth the effort. I own Gjelina and I cook from Gjelina and it does exactly that for me, every time. Yeah, it makes me earn it with extra recipes like Mojo de Ajo (which, by the way is a not very complicated yet very awesome garlic sauce that keeps in the fridge and can be used everywhere -- check out the 101 Cookbooks article on 10 ways to use it) but I'm willing to sweat a little for that extra sparkle. I respect Ms Stein's opinion but I'm sad Gjelina was cut. It has a lot to offer.
SNNYC March 3, 2016
Love this and I agree! Also you certainly can make that eggplant dish with out of season eggplant! It's really not that demanding of a book!
Sarah March 3, 2016
If this cookbook can teach me how to make rice... I am fairly accomplished in the kitchen, but rice is something that never comes out as well for me as it does for my mother. Mom says I cook it too fast and should do it in the oven. My mom-in-law says I should use a rice cooker. To paraphrase: Like many people, I can only dream of the space for a rice cooker...

Thanks for the great review!!
David March 11, 2016
Rice, the absorption method is what you need is where you start!
Radish March 3, 2016
I have bought a lot of cookbooks this year including Gjelina. I will say that I am not that fond of Indian food. I bought Gjelina because I read great review, and I live in Florida, and was trying to buy a warm weather cookbook. Gjelina was not especially warm weather cooking. It could be great anywhere, but it is my cookbook of the year. The vegetables are very good, He features ingredients you can get at your grocery store. The are relatively simple without a long list of ingredients. I was counting on it to win everything.
kathy March 3, 2016
Where's the copy editor? It should be "my heart has SUNK."
James F. March 3, 2016
Enjoyed the review - especially as someone cooking in a small kitchen. I have been cooking from the Made in India book for months, and love it. It's one of those books where if you get a few basic ingredients you can make a LOT of recipes in the book easily. One of my faves.
LauriL March 3, 2016
Very thoughtful had me at "Sodha holds your hand"!
Tippy C. March 3, 2016
I love Sadie Stein's writing for the Paris Review, and it is fun seeing her as a reviewer here. No surprise that her review is beautifully written and thoughtful. I like to check cookbooks out of the library to see if I love them before adding them to my already overpacked kitchen shelves, and the Gjelina cookbook, while gorgeous, was ultimately not a keeper for me. I am looking forward to trying Made in India.
aargersi March 3, 2016
Uh Oh. I swore I was NOT going to buy any more cook books. But I don't have an Indian one. And I love this review.
Pastraminator March 3, 2016
I've been working and reading my way through Madhur Jaffrey's Vegetarian India cookbook and was reticent to buy another cookbook which i assumed, wrongly, would be close to the same recipes. I greatly appreciate this review and am excited to be inspired Meera Sodha.
healthierkitchen March 3, 2016
I picked up Made in India last spring in the UK before it was out here. I thought about waiting to buy it here with US measurements, but was so taken with it that I brought it home in my suitcase. It's a lovely book filled with great recipes for home cooks.
Ginger S. March 3, 2016
I really enjoyed your writing and review. I too have difficulty with cookbooks written by chefs with a lot of extra pantry items to prepare.I love reading the cookbooks and usually get inspired by them but, because I only have two mouths to feed, the amounts of food are hard to consume before they go bad. Regardless your review has made me curious about both books and will check them out.
MRinSF March 3, 2016
Another thorough, thoughtful review that left me with a clear sense of each book. Thank you!
SpringUp March 3, 2016
I have not read either but am looking forward to checking both out thanks to the reviewer's honest and no drama analysis. Awesome review!