What's hot and not, trendy and ancient, delicious and health-promoting all at the same time?
Though Americans have been looking West and South for food trends in recent years -- Southwest, Tex-Mex, Southern home style and California-Pacific flavors have all had their day -- it's time to look East, at the food of India. It's a vast, varied and dynamic cuisine that's existed for thousands of years, but is attracting new adherents for its range of tastes and versatile preparations.
Even Jean-Louis Palladin, the noted French chef of Jean-Louis at the Watergate in Washington has ventured into subcontinent cuisine, with a dinner last month in New York for the Union Ligue Club, where he shared cooking honors with an Indian chef named Raji. They alternated dishes, but both produced the entree, baby roasted Virginia lamb with mint chutney, curried blueberry sauce, and Indian spiced vegetables.
At Books for Cooks at Harborplace, owner Arlene Gillis stocks more than a dozen cookbooks in the Indian section, many of them part of recent "small rash" of such books -- and there are more in the vegetarian section.
Among new entries in the category are "The Flavors of Madras," by Rani Kingman (Garnet Publishing Ltd., $29.95), film producer Ismail Merchant's "Passionate Meals, The New Indian Cuisine for Fearless Cooks and Adventurous Eaters" (Hyperion, $27.50), and Madhur Jaffrey's "Flavors of India" (Crown, $30).
Indian cuisine is something not easily approached without a guide.
"Most people don't know what Indian food really is," says Ruth Law, a cookbook author who spent 4 1/2 months researching "Indian Light Cooking" (Donald I. Fine, $25). In fact, home-style Indian cooking uses mostly familiar ingredients -- potatoes, rice, shrimp, chicken, carrots, cauliflower, corn -- combined with a range of spices and condiments in simple soups, stews, barbecues and one-pot meals.
"It's light, it's low in calories, and it's easily prepared," Ms. Law says.
Of course, there are a few ingredients that are hardly household names as yet -- tamarind and fenugreek, asafetida and garam masala (spices and flavorings), shorbas (soups), dal (lentil dishes), dosa (crepes) and pilau (rices dishes), for example. But those unusual ingredients are what gives Indian food its kick, its distinctive flavor.
When Karim Lakhani, executive chef at the Latham Hotel, suggested drawing on his Indian heritage for a recent dinner for the Chaine des Rotisseurs, members of the gourmet food and wine organization expressed some reservations about whether they would like the meal.
"I was not sure how the Chaine chapter would react to an all-Indian meal," says Chaine President Duke Goldberg. "But after I got more into it, and after the initial tasting, I was overwhelmed." His reservations were "totally wrong," he says. "The chapter jumped on it, and it was a sold-out event. We could have had 30 or 40 more people."
Mr. Lakhani enticed them with dishes such as makkai shorba (fresh corn and roasted-pepper soup with herbed coconut milk); aloo dosa (a thin, crisp crepe with herbed potatoes and coriander chutney); masala machi (spiced rockfish with basmati rice cakes and red lentil cumin sauce); karai gosht (roasted lamb curry with okra and vegetable curries); and a selection of Indian breads.
While the dinner's presentations were elegant, to match the Citronelle setting, Mr. Lakhani says the recipes were basically standard household formulas learned from his mother. "A lot of recipes I use are my mom's recipes," he says. "When I need something, I call her up, get an idea."
Many Americans don't think of Indian food as something to whip up at home, but one group in the population, vegetarians, has long turned to Indian fare for inspiration. .
"Indian cuisine is interesting because it's the oldest living vegetarian cuisine on the planet right now," says Yamuna Davi, a Washington-based writer of Indian vegetarian cookbooks, including "Yamuna's Table" (Plume/Penguin, 1992, $13.95 paperback). "So we know there's a tremendous amount of inspiring information, lots of creativity to be tapped."
The distinctive flavor, she says, is a mix of salty, sweet, sour, astringent, pungent and bitter. Indian cooks strive for complexity and subtlety in the food, she says, but the flavors work just as well in simpler dishes.
Mr. Lakhani's recipes are influenced by his family's sojourn in Uganda, where his great-grandparents had migrated from India. In Africa the climate was more moderate than in India, so some of the heat of the food was toned down.
Mr. Lakhani says he sees a new interest in food preparation among restaurant clientele, he says. In the '70s, everything was nouvelle cuisine, elaborately presented, "and you never saw the chef," Mr. Lakhani says. Today people want to talk to the chef and find out how something was done. "They're saying, 'I want to go home and try it myself.' "
When he's cooking at home, Mr. Lakhani loves to make Indian food but he also uses Indian flavorings and techniques in other dishes. "Even when I'm doing a simple barbecue, I'll take chicken and marinate it with Indian spices," he says.
He plans to introduce some Indian notes in dishes at Citronelle in coming months. He particularly likes Indian flatbreads, which are baked or fried, and supply a bit of crunch in a meal. He seasons potatoes with turmeric, cilantro and green chilies, and sauces rockfish with tomatoes, ginger, garlic, green chilies, chili powder, coriander, cumin, turmeric and mustard seeds.
Chilies are a common ingredient in Indian dishes, but spices like cumin, cloves, turmeric and coriander are more prevalent. And the advantage of cooking at home is being able to adjust the spices to taste.
"A good balance" is the key to spicing Indian food, Mr. Lakhani says. In general, the spices used are not hot, but "fragrant, pungent and warm." That appealing combination is used to enhance, not overpower, the food.
However, Ms. Davi points out that chilies are a perfect flavor accent. "A small amount of heat brings out the flavor of other ingredients," she says. "Heat is a conduit of flavor."
When it comes to sorting out the spices of India, a little education is a big help. There are various types of garam masalas ("masala" means mixture), depending in part on what region they are from. Chat masala is another kind of spice mixture. Pickles and chutneys of myriad kinds are used as condiments.
When cooking Indian food at home, Ms. Law says, "It helps to have an Indian grocery nearby." There, cooks can buy garam masalas and other spices, foodstuffs such as tamarind lentils, and prepared foods such as mango chutney and various types of pickle. They can also buy mixes for dosai (crepe-like pancakes) and other breads; or you can buy packaged breads that are ready to cook. Ms. Law recommends finding a cookbook that has both Indian and English names for things, as hers does, and taking the book to the store with you, so you can be sure of getting what you want.
To get involved in Indian cuisine, she suggests starting with a single simple recipe, maybe a grilled tuna with black mustard seeds, or chicken kebabs, and serving it with rice and a green salad. One of the simple vegetable dishes, such as spiced green beans, is a good start, too.
Ms. Davi suggested that cooks interested in trying Indian cuisine start with one element.
"Experiment with rice as we do with pasta," she says. Rice is easy to cook and extremely versatile. "You can put sauce over it, or put it in a sauce, or use it in a kedgeree," a dish similar to risotto, she says. Indian flatbreads can be used like the tortillas with all sorts of fillings.
Here are some Indian recipes to try at home. They are from the menu Mr. Lakhani served May 8 at Citronelle to the Chaine de Rotisseurs. The first recipe is adapted from "Lord Khrisna's Cuisine, The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking," by Yamuna Davi (E. P. Dutton, $35.)
Serves 4 to 6
2 tablespoons ghee or cooking oil (see note)
1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
1/2 tablespoon hot green chilies, seeded and minced
2 medium-sized boiling potatoes, boiled, peeled and coarsely chopped
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon garam masala
1/2 teaspoon chat masala or black salt
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
2 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3 tablespoons chopped fresh coriander (cilantro) or other herbs
up to 3/4 cup ghee or vegetable oil
Heat ghee or oil in a large frying pan over moderate heat. When it is hot but not smoking, add black mustard seeds and partially cover. When the seeds sputter, pop and turn gray, stir in chilies and potatoes. Add turmeric, garam masala, chat masala, ground coriander and 2 tablespoons of water. Stir-fry for 2 to 3 minutes, then reduce heat to very low and stir in lemon juice and fresh herbs; heat through.
The potatoes can be served as a side dish, or spooned into a dosa, a thin, crisp pancake. Look for dosai (pancake) mix at Indian grocery stores and follow directions on the package. (Ms. Davi's and other Indian cookbooks contain recipes for making the pancakes from scratch.)
Note: Ghee is clarified butter. You can make it at home by heating butter until it separates and straining out the white solids, or you can buy it in Indian grocery stores.
The next recipe are from "A Spicy Touch," by Noorbanu Nimji (Spicy Touch Publishing, Inc.). The recipes in this book are from the Asian community that was forced by the government to leave Uganda in 1972.
1 1/4 pounds halibut (see note)
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 to 6 tablespoons oil
1 cup chopped fresh tomato
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/8 teaspoon crushed ginger
1 teaspoon crushed garlic
1/2 teaspoon crushed hot pepper, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon chili powder, or to taste
1 1/2 teaspoons coriander powder
1 teaspoon cumin powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1/4 bell pepper, crushed
1/2 teaspoon mustard powder or crushed seeds
1/4 cup water
Clean fish well and rub with salt; let sit for 1/2 hour. Grill or lightly fry fish on both sides (about 5 minutes per side per inch of thickness; fish should be tender and translucent but not dry).
In a frying pan, heat oil and add all the other ingredients. Cook until all the liquid is evaporated and mixture is quite dry. Use a pastry brush to coat each piece of fish well with sauce and arrange on a plate. The fish is traditionally served with fried potatoes also coated in the sauce.
IN SEARCH OF SPICE?
Most of the spices and ingredients needed for authentic Indian cooking can be found on the shelves of ordinary supermarkets. Even the mysterious-sounding garam masala -- which means "warm blend of spices" in Hindi -- is a combination of familiar spices, including cumin seeds, coriander seeds, cardamom seeds, cinnamon, black pepper and cloves. Here are some area Indian grocery stores:
*Shayam Foods, 17234 Woodlawn Drive, (410) 265-5119. Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday, closed Monday. This is one of the larger stores offering Indian foods, and it sells other Eastern ingredients as well. Good selection of lentils and basmati rice, spices, fruits, vegetables and frozen goods.
*Bombay Bazaar, 1524 W. Pratt St., (410) 233-6303. Hours: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday, closed Monday. Good selection of lentils and spices, plus lots of canned goods and frozen entrees. Some fresh produce and snacks.
*India Bazaar, 8600 Harford Road, (410) 665-6493. Hours: noon to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 6 p.m. Sunday, closed Monday. Spices, flours, lentils and frozen entrees.
*Himalaya Spices & Gifts, 8411 Harford Road, (410) 661-5259. Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday, closed Monday. Good selection of spices and spice blends.
*Muskan, 956 Thayer Ave., Silver Spring, (301) 588-0331. Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday, closed Sunday. Karim Lakhani, executive chef at the Latham Hotel, shops for Indian ingredients in this spotless small store just off Georgia Avenue. There's a wide selection of spices and condiments, plus breads, flours and lentils. Owner Ashok Lodha is helpful in explaining ingredients and their uses.