Wednesday, November 14, 2001

At home with Indian food

Cooking this cuisine sounds more difficult than it is . . . well, except for the bread

By Chuck Martin
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Geeta Mehan promises an Indian meal of lamb curry, spicy eggplant stew, tamarind-flavored chickpeas,black lentil soup or dal, and grilled and fried bread — all made in her Mason kitchen.

        Now, if only the phone would stop ringing.

        “Telemarketers,” she says, hanging up, with the universal tone of annoyance.

[photo] Geeta Mehan with some of her traditional dishes.
(Enquirer photo)
| ZOOM |
        Indian cuisine has been shaped by centuries of climate, geography, religion, invaders and occupiers. And to those of us who only order it in restaurants, the idea of cooking Indian food at home seems daunting.

        But Ms. Mehan, a native of northern India who has lived in the United States for more than 20 years, is determined to convince us otherwise. Not even the pesky telemarketers will deter her.

        “Indian cooking is about as difficult as Italian,” she says. “A little different, maybe. You make a little effort and if you like it, you'll soon love it. Make it twice, and you'll need no recipe.”

Adding "one's touch'

        Ms. Mehan works at the stove with no written instructions, having watched her mother and grandmother cook since she was young. Watching her, it does look easy. To make lamb curry, she begins gently sauteing a basic masala (ma-SAH-la), or mixture, of finely chopped and lightly browned onion, garlic and fresh ginger in a pot. Then she stirs in hot water and adds whole spices pulled from a round, jewel-box-like tin — clove, cumin and large pods of fragrant cardamom.

        “If you don't have a couple of spices, it's OK,” she says. “And you can add them to taste.”

        This artistic touch — adding a little more of this, a little less of that — in Indian cooking is called Hath ki bat — meaning “one's touch.” And like other Indians, our instructor doesn't use a bottled commercial curry powder.

        Ms. Mehan, who also enjoys preparing Italian, Chinese and American dishes, is a tolerant cook. There are no firm rules to making curries and other Indian dishes, she says. And it's perfectably acceptable, within reason, to use modern equipment and ingredients.

        She uses a food processor to chop onion, a crock pot to simmer lentils and chickpeas, minced garlic from a jar and olive or vegetable oil instead of the Indian clarified butter called ghee (kee).

        “I use the oil mostly because of health reasons,” she says.

        Indian food is naturally low in fat, but Ms. Mehan makes it more healthy by using little oil and substituting skim milk or yogurt for cream in some dishes.

Spices easy to find

        She watches the simmering masala-spice mixture (she calls it “gravy”) closely until the oil separates from the rest of the liquid. This signals time to move on to the next step.

        She adds cubed lamb, marinated in yogurt, to the pot and stirs with more hot water. Without measuring, she sprinkles in ground cumin and bright red chili powder. These spices come from a cabinet packed with bottles of assorted sizes, holding coarse and fine ingredients in an array of brown, red and mustard-hued colors. Indian cooking can be intimidating for many people, Ms. Mehan agrees, because the recipes sometimes call for exotic-sounding spices.

        “A few years ago, we would have to go to Chicago to buy the ingredients,” she says. “But now we can easily find them here.”

        After stirring in more spices, Ms. Mehan grinds a few cashews (nuts are optional in curries, she explains) and adds the paste along with diced tomatoes. She sets the pot of covered stew aside to simmer. Later, she will add chunked potatoes and garnish the curry with cilantro and fresh onion.

        Ms. Mehan makes other dishes in a similar fashion: For the chickpea stew called chanas, she sautes the onion-garlic-ginger masala (she makes this ahead and keeps it covered in the refrigerator), seasons it, adds water, cooked chickpeas and then a spoonful of the gooey, molasses-black tamarind concentrate.

        “Done,” she pronounces, waving her hand over the pot.

Now the hard part

        To this point, everything looks doable — perhaps with recipes and a nudge from an experienced Indian cook. But then comes the bread.

        From her refrigerator, Ms. Mehan pulls a plastic container of whole-wheat dough, made with nothing but flour and water, the texture of soft clay. She pours vegetable oil into a wok on the stove over medium heat. She presses out a small disk of dough in the palm of her hand and dips one end into the warm oil. Then she rolls the dough out into a thin circle, about 6 inches in diameter, and places it in hot oil. In less than a minute, the dough magically puffs up into a crispy, golden brown pillow.

        Ms. Mehan demonstrates another bread by toasting the dough disk quickly in a hot iron skillet, then “grilling” it on a wire rack set over an electric burner. The dough puffs up like the one sizzled in oil. The fried bread is called poori; the grilled is chapati.

        The cooking complete, it's hard to believe any restaurant could match our Indian feast: The silky, black lentil soup ordal, creamy saag paneer, tasting earthy of stewed mustard greens and spinach with rich cubes of fried cheese; spicy eggplant bharta, tangy eggplant stew, and the incomparable lamb curry. And of course, the bread.

        But making the poori and chapati, so perfectly round, light and airy, seems impossible — unless you watched your mother and grandmother make it in India.

        “It's OK,” Ms. Mehan says with a smile. “You can buy the bread.”


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