THOROUGHLY MODERN MOGHUL Fine Indian cooking welcomes the age of the microwave


In India, Julie Sahni says, gourmets are known as "real Moghuls." Those who dine well, like those who appreciate art and culture and elegance, are the true heirs to the luxury-loving aristocrats who ruled India from the 16th to the 19th centuries. The Indian subcontinent may be a democracy these days, but its Moghul heritage lives on, thanks to all those high-living neo-Moghuls who have elevated lifestyle to an art form, and to the large number of braised dishes and stews brought by the original Moghuls from their native Persia, and incorporated into the Indian repertoire.

This style of cooking can be compared to classical French cuisine, explains Ms. Sahni, a Delhi-born, New York-based cooking teacher, food writer, consultant, cookbook author and former restaurateur. Moghul is not only the cuisine of the upper classes, but uses time-consuming techniques and slow-cooking methods that might make it a bit of a challenge for the time-pressed amateur cook.

Until now. In her new newest book, the author of "Classic Indian Cooking" has taken the cooking style that came to India four centuries ago, and transformed it for the electromagnetic-age kitchen. "Moghulstory, Microwave," recently published by Morrow, takes the technology used most often to zap a cup of coffee or "nuke" a slice of bacon, and marries it with the aromatic spices, savory meats and delicate pilafs that once were painstakingly prepared in the kitchens of palaces.

"It all goes back to 1974, when a girlfriend of mine in Washington was one of the salespersons for Amana microwave ovens," Ms. Sahni explained during a phone interview from her New York publicist's offices. "She was showing it in a local Sears, and she said she could get me one at a discount. I was absolutely amazed at the way it cooked. I was attracted by its neatness and its cleanness, and it was fast."

At the time, Ms. Sahni's admiration was rare among food professionals, who were suspicious even of food processors. And she, too, was slow to appreciate her microwave's potential. "I'm such an old-fashioned person, I used to write my interviews with a notebook and a fountain pen," she admitted. "I didn't even use a ballpoint!"

"I didn't think of it as a cook's instrument," she said of the microwave. "I felt that if I went out and showed it to people, they would think it was a gimmick."

It was her sister, Roopa Gir, who encouraged Ms. Sahni to use her "Radarange" not only for simple heating jobs in the privacy of her kitchen, but to try it out on the sensuous, spicy Indian dishes that had made her reputation.

"My sister said 'If you concentrate on Indian cooking, you could do wonders for people in this country. You should tell people that this will be the way to cook in the 1990s.' "

The first Indian specialty Ms. Sahni cooked in the microwave was pappadum, a spicy lentil cracker that is usually deep-fried. She put an uncooked round of pappadum (available in Indian food stores) in her microwave and set the machine for 50 seconds. The wafer sprang to life, rising and bubbling bit by bit, until the whole round was pale, nubbly and toasty. Not only did she have finished pappadum in seconds, without the mess, hazard and calories of fat-frying, but she could actually see how the microwaves worked.

Encouraged, Ms. Sahni went to work adapting her favorite recipes, and discovered that she could create excellent results in a fraction of the time. She also believes that in many cases the microwaved product was superior to the traditionally-cooked original. Moghul dishes, which are often made using the techniques of braising, stewing, poaching and steaming, were especially successful. Stews could cook thoroughly without stirring, so that the ingredients held their shape instead of falling apart. There was no burning, and meats stayed moist. Tricky rice worked flawlessly when Ms. Sahni experimented with the timing and the proportions. Even tandoori chicken, usually baked in a clay oven, was microwave-friendly.

"The spices, which are the pillar of Indian cooking, take on unequaled flavor and toastiness in the microwave, thus giving any Indian dish you cook a fabulous flavor, without adding any butter or cream," Ms. Sahni enthused.

During the five years she spent on "Moghul Microwave," Ms. Sahni saw the appliance gain wide acceptability. Advances in safety features, improved design and more kitchenware made especially for microwaving alleviated much of the public's suspicion about the new technology, and Barbara Kafka's 1987 "Microwave Gourmet" gave ideas for expanding its culinary possibilities.

But the ancient art of Indian cooking gone microwave? Many of Ms. Sahni's food-professional friends -- "Don't use their names," she said, but they include a number of famous chefs and writers -- were not inclined to believe it, until they sampled an Indian feast at her house, and learned that all of the dishes had been made using a microwave oven.

However, microwaves aren't appropriate for everything, the cook warns, and she didn't bother to include recipes in which the microwave doesn't save time and hassle or improve the appearance and flavor of a dish. Fried breads, for instance.

Admittedly, the reception to Ms. Sahni's innovations has not been unanimously positive. One writer found that the microwaved dishes did not have the mellowness or depth of flavor that comes from long cooking. But other reviewers have been enthusiastic, and, to the author's surprise, "Moghul Microwave" has been received with enthusiasm in New Delhi.

jTC For best results, the right oven and utensils are essential, as are safe cooking practices.

The author recommends using a mid-size, 650- to 700-watt oven, with a "carousel" or turntable. Not recommended are microwaves with broiling or roasting features, such as micro-convection ovens. Not only are they expensive, but they tend to get dirty, resulting in expensive service calls, she says.

Glass or ceramic microwaveable cookware should come equipped with tight-fitting covers. Her most-used items include a 2 1/2 -quart covered casserole and an 8- or 10-inch covered skillet. She uses the term "skillet" to mean a casserole with short handles on each side, rather than a long-handled frying pan.

Ms. Sahni disagrees with certain other microwave gourmets who advocate the use of plastic wrap. It can leach plastic into the food, often doesn't form a complete seal, and the "bubble" that forms from steam gathering under the plastic can burst, scalding the cook.

"I don't like dramatics in the kitchen," she explained. "What with our work and our families, there's enough anxiety in our lives."

"It takes time for people to accept this technological change. But we all have this constraint of time, we want an easier and faster way to cook without compromising our palates. We like good food, healthier food, fresher-tasting food. The microwave is able to produce all that. I've found that as far as Indian food is concerned, I can cook much lighter in a microwave, and the flavor is better than ever."

Garlic-braised eggplant

casserole (Khatti Bhaji)Serves 6 to 8.

Ms. Sahni uses the term "skillet" to mean a covered casserolwith short handles on each side, rather than a long-handled frying pan.

2 cups cooked chickpeas with liquid, or 1 19-ounce cachickpeas with liquid

6 tablespoons light vegetable oil

1 1/2 teaspoons cumin seeds

1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds

12 large cloves garlic, peeled and thickly sliced

1 teaspoon whole peppercorns

1 teaspoon red pepper flakes

2 teaspoons dry mustard

2 medium-size onions ( 1/2 pound), peeled and sliced into 1/4 -inch thick wedges

3/4 pound eggplant (with skin), cut into 1/2 -by-1-by-2-inch pieces

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste

6 tablespoons chopped fresh coriander or mint

5 (1 1/2 pounds) red ripe tomatoes, cut into 1 inch-thick wedges

Process half the chickpeas with the liquid in a food processor oblender until coarsely pureed. Combine whole and pureed chickpeas and set aside until needed.

Heat the oil in a 10-inch microwave-safe skillet, uncovered, at 100 percent power in a 650- to 700-watt carousel oven for 3 minutes. Add cumin, fennel, garlic and peppercorns. Cook uncovered, at 100 percent power for 1 minute 30 seconds (or until spices are puffed and garlic is light golden). Remove from oven.

Stir in red pepper and mustard. Fold in onions and eggplant. Cook, uncovered, at 100 percent power for 5 minutes (or until eggplant is slightly soft). Remove from oven.

Add chickpeas, tomato paste, salt and half the coriander and mix thoroughly. Spread the tomato wedges on top and cover with the lid. Cook for 13 minutes (or until vegetables are cooked and sauce is slightly thickened). Remove from oven. Uncover and serve garnished with the remaining coriander.

Ginger chicken kebabs

# (Murgh tikka kabab)

Serves two to four.

Ms. Sahni uses the term "skillet" to mean a covered casserolwith short handles on each side, rather than a long-handled frying pan.

1 1/4 pounds skinless, boneless lean chicken breast meat

1 teaspoon ground cumin

2 teaspoons crushed or grated fresh ginger

1/2 teaspoon dry mustard

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

2 fresh hot green chilies, stemmed, seeded and minced

1 1/2 tablespoons mustard oil or olive oil

1/3 cup finely chopped fresh coriander

Place chicken breasts between two layers of plastic wrap and pound lightly to an even thickness. Cut chicken along the grain into 2-inch wide strips. Place chicken meat in a small bowl. Add all other ingredients except coriander and mix well. Let chicken marinate for 15 minutes at room temperature or refrigerate for up to 2 days. Roll chicken pieces into pinwheels.

Arrange chicken pinwheels in a microwave-safe covered skillet. Cook at 100 percent power for 2 to 3 minutes (or until chicken is just cooked through and clear juices run when pierced with a skewer), uncovering and turning them with tongs once. Remove from oven and let meat rest for 2 minutes, then lift, one at a time, and generously coat with chopped coriander and arrange on a heated serving platter. Accompany with the accumulated juices, heated at 100 percent power for 30 seconds (or until piping hot), in a small bowl.

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