In my childhood, entertaining at home was the norm while taking one’s guests out was an occasion. And as for ordering in, everyone involved would be insulted unless of course it was the Grand Hotel from where the food had been ordered.

Doi-mishti would be bought, people could live with that. But the rest – bhaat, mooger daal, jhiri jhiri alu bhaajaa, pulao, kasha mangsho, doi maachh or chhaanaar dalna – had to have, simmered and ground in with the spices, the peculiar neuroses of the hostess whose grandmother’s recipes they were, the cook who was sparring with the hostess constantly, and the host, who had gone to the baazaar at the crack of dawn to get the freshest ingredients. My generation, meanwhile, was meant to be solving advanced mathematical problems in our rooms, sniffing the air for clues.

Now that for most singletons and DINKS the situation is neatly reversed these days – people eat out with friends and colleagues while talking shop all the time – the dinner party has made a comeback, dressed up in fancy clothes. Especially if, for whatever reason, the host or hostess needs to prove to themselves they have grown up (Bridget Jones deciding to cook on her 30th birthday is symptomatic of this), is in a new relationship, has just returned from Australia with great knowledge of cheese, or simply, is in the grip of a cooking or matchmaking spree. Consequently ,they feel a compelling need to invite a few of their friends and colleagues home and inflict upon them a certain brand of torture that, at the end of the day, leaves all parties slightly rattled.

Anyhoo, long story short, food is the new sex. So it is mandatory for you to get all anxious about it and keep up with trends: eat brown eggs, champion organic ghee, and throw at least one luncheon or dinner party a month.

In One’s Experience (and by ‘one’, I mean ‘me’)…

The annoying thing about said luncheons or dinner parties is that several things can go wrong at once – and do. The guests can start heatedly disagreeing with each other (a common phenomenon before the 2014 elections); worse, one’s spouse can start heatedly disagreeing with his guests; and the very pits, one ends up having an extremely heated discussion with one’s spouse while the rice is getting soggy and the kitchen is steaming and guests are nervously perched on the sofa gingerly gulping wine. But the ultimate enemy of dinner parties, truly, is the food going wrong.

Cookbooks to the rescue? But of course!

No matter how many people told me it’s all on the blogs (for freeeeee!) and all on You Tube (for freeeeeee!!), I knew I needed to part with some money and read in bed in my pajamas – 10,000 hours if we’re to follow Malcolm Gladwell’s doctrine – and only then would results would show in the kitchen.

My first cookbook

I may as well confess that my first cookbook was bought from the airport bookstore in Calcutta on the way back to Delhi after our wedding. It was a most un-feminist moment. I am not proud of it. But what is a girl to do if her friends and relatives are so superior that they go about gifting Orhan Pamuks and Tagores and other literary gems at weddings? I mean, I would have really cherished Bela De’s Grihinir Obhidhan (The Homemaker’s Compendium). It is a possibility though my mother might have disowned the gifter. It was bad enough I was marrying so young.

So at the airport, feeling very grown up and harbouring dreams of entertaining friends at our dining table (we were yet to buy a dining table though), I slunk into the cookery section – for the first time ever – and bought a large hard-bound sky blue book which had the following pictures on the cover: a helping of pasta arrabiata, a round vanilla cake with an authentic slightly cracked surface, and two chicken legs in a dark brown gravy on top; a medley of vegetables, including bits of baby corn, broccoli, bell peppers and mushrooms in red sauce at the bottom; and in the middle, between an egg beater and the author’s angelic neighbourhood-aunty face, the words: Learn to Cook With Nita Mehta. In the flight, I read it with great excitement. By the time we landed, I could hold forth on “julienned” vegetables, though it was to be a long time before I could stand the thought of actually julienning anything.

(Now, one important clarification. Nita Mehta is no usual neighbourhood aunty. She owns a dizzying franchise, an empire, really, and her books, filled with handy tips about every kind of cuisine – in helpful vegetarian and non-vegetarian versions – like those of Tarla Dalal and Sanjeev Kapoor, are widely translated in the Indian languages and sell in huge numbers. Every small town bookshop stocks her. Full disclosure: I even took a two-day “Everyday Cooking” course at the Nita Mehta Academy at the AWWA institute.)

I learnt many things from this first cookbook, including how to fold napkins into swans (though I never tried it), how to store vegetables (I am too slapdash to follow the rules, alas!) and how to make a proper roux (I continue to use her formula to this day). But as is the nature of these things, I outgrew my first cookbook one day.

Your dinner party

I have compiled here, for you, a list of cookbooks that I can swear by, and some of my other vague women friends also swear by. If you cook from them, the likelihood of food being the enemy of your dinner party is pretty low. Of course, there is no book on earth that can fix a spouse given to heated discussions or a tendency miscalculate the number of parathas.

But for everything else, there are these.

The Sood Family Cookbook, Aparna Jain
Every family has these food stories. Aunty A’s ras malai or Uncle B’s chicken biriyani or Cousin C’s Portuguese-fish-with-rice or the whole new fusion cuisine developed by Mallu sister-in-law who’s lived in Thailand for years. (My mother has a collection of such recipes written down in exercise books that, apparently, I am yet to earn.) The signature recipes are often traded within the circle and their legendary descriptions carry out of the family fold to become storied things – but what Aparna Jain has done in The Sood Family Cookbook, collecting the most favourite recipes of her family and sharing it with the world at large, is a very generous and rare gesture.

Her recipes are drawn from around the world (there’s “Diabolical Mulled Wine”, “The Unbeatable Pahaadi Mutton”, “Sindhi Fenugreek Bhetki”, “I-won’t cook Tagliatelle” and “Dushmani Chicken”) as are her relatives, and the instructions are as precise as the anecdotes, divergent. Combining contemporary with comfort and candid, this is a book that offers you dependable delights for many a dinner party.

Cooking with Colleen McCullough & Jean Easthope
Elsewhere I have confessed how Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds played a pivotal role in my sex education, but here’s the time to champion her wonderful “colonial” cookbook that she co-wrote with her former teacher and long-standing friend Jean. The two of them rented a flat in a harbourside suburb of Sydney for three months to personally try out each of the recipes (“Tahitian fish”, “Roast duckling with cherry stuffing and orange-mango sauce”, “Mourinjarie salad” and “Fluffy ginger pudding” to name a few) on a 1952 four-burner single oven Metters Early Cooka (minus one knob) and a cantankerous oven that never allowed more than one tray-rack in it.

Both were trained in science – Jean Easthope was McCullough’s teacher in the techniques of neurophysiological research – which is why the recipes have a fastidious exactness that is bewildering in the beginning and afterwards, absolutely enchanting. From tuna mushroom pie (simple and delicious) to strawberry lamingtons and homemade tomato juice for a perfect if fiddly cream of tomato soup, this book is the star of an offbeat long lunch in winter, preferably on someone’s birthday.

Bangla Ranna: The Bengal Cookbook, Minakshie Dasgupta
I knew how to eat Bengali food but I had no idea what it was like behind the scenes (didn’t I tell you I was solving maths problems?). In Delhi, in my first ever job at the Sahitya Akademi, I had this colleague who would ask me these genuine questions – “What is the difference between jhol and dalna?” “What is paanch phoran? No, I know it’s a spice mix. But what’s in it?” “How do you make Alu-Posto?” I would have to ask my mother. Then, on a trip to Calcutta, I got the centenary edition of Minakshie Dasgupta’s 1982 book on Bengali cuisine. It had everything.

This book continues to occupy pride of place in my bookshelf. From neighbourhood snacks, such as, alu chops (potato cakes) and beguni (aubergine in a chick pea batter) and the everyday lunch items, rui machher jhol (spiced carp stew) and the vegetarian staple alu phulkopir dalna (potato and cauliflower curry), to the fancy daab chingri (coconut prawns), elish maachher paturi (hilsa with mustard smoked in banana leaves) and chhanaar payesh (fresh cottage cheese pudding): you will rock it. If, say, you are an IT professional in Gabon, you can even steam your own rosogollas. (I’m guessing as an Indian you would have lugged a pressure cooker with you.)

For your party, get ingredients beforehand and follow the instructions to the letter. Don’t try to mix and match with other Bengali recipes – as you know, no two Bengalis can agree on anything. Read the book through for appropriate trivia dropping. Your guests will go home thinking you’ve invented Bengali cuisine!

Classic Indian Vegetarian Cookery, Julie Sahni
Julie Sahni, who runs a critically acclaimed cooking school in New York, is the author of two fantastic books Classic Indian Cooking and Classic Indian Vegetarian Cookery. The latter has recipes from different parts of India and because it is written for a non-Indian readership it gives very detailed instructions (extremely helpful for beginner cooks) for rather advanced recipes, and will soon become your go-to book to impress vegetarian and vegan friends. Also: this is the book which finally taught me how to get the dang kulfee right.

Katy Dalal’s Seafood Fiesta
I was hovering around the cookbook section of Starmark, Kolkata, looking for something specifically piscine (the spouse had suddenly given up meat) when this book turned up. I bought it purely on the strength of the author’s bionote:

“Dr Katy Dalal had a distinguished academic career having won the Wordsworth Scholarship and a gold medal for the highest marks at the Inter Arts Examination of the Bombay University.”

(This is how Bengalis in general and specifically relatives from my maternal clan right down to my mother describe people they are in awe of.)

“She completed her PhD in Archaeology from Pune University and is a specialist on the Pre-Harappan pottery industry. Her site Binjor 1 is today one of the earliest chalcolithic sites in India. She has taught Ancient Indian Culture in different Mumbai Colleges. Having special skills in cooking and a wealth of family recipes, she decided to pass on this legacy to people of all communities, Indian and foreign, by authoring cookbooks.”

(Katy Dalal has also written two books on Parsi cuisine, Jamva Chaloji and Jamva Chaloji 2, though I think the book I own on Parsi cuisine is by the legendary Bhicoo J. Maneckshaw. I must get these.)

The note is accompanied by a photograph of a darling matriarch in a pair of black glasses and a Parsi saree. It is a possibility the photo was taken at a wedding since she’s wearing an elaborate gold necklace and a brooch.

Later on, back in Delhi, when I tried out the recipes, I found them to be absolutely superb. It is a very Bombay book, and that means, all the many diverse cultural strains that have gone into making Bombay what it is, are present. From Saraswat style Fresh Bombay Duck curry to ‘Goanese’ prawn cutlets, and my favourite, salmon pulao, adapted recipes from this book will give you your signature seafood staples. A charmingly unselfconscious book, somewhat generous in the use of butter.

Devapriya Roy’s most recent book The Heat and Dust Project is co-written with husband Saurav Jha and tells the story of an eccentric journey across India on a very very tight budget. They did manage to eat interesting things on this tight budget though, including a delicious cheese ravioli in Pushkar and a sabji made of desert eggplants in Barmer.