Washington Cooks: Unorthodox steps to an Indian feast

A party is happening at this house in two hours. Yet other than a heady cloud from the minced mass of ginger, garlic, onion and serrano peppers burbling on the stove, you wouldn’t know it.

On the menu, an Indian feast: ginger-cardamom butternut squash, garlicky portobello mushrooms, lentils with spinach, chickpeas tamely spiced with garam masala, curry-marinated shrimp, meatball curry, chicken-potato curry, basmati rice with cashews, a yogurt-cucumber sauce, a glorious salad and a sweet carrot pudding. It’s enough to make an early visitor think “Hurry, dinner!” on this weekday afternoon.

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Hurry will not be part of the equation. Only two of the dishes are finished, with one underway, and that is more than enough to make a visitor anxious. The scene is far from party-ready. But host and cook Daniel Phoenix Singh has choreographed the moves in his head. They are purposeful and unhurried. He hadn’t shopped for ingredients before 1 o’clock; otherwise, they would have taken up too much space in the refrigerator he shares with five housemates.

“It will all come together,” he says with a serene smile.

Singh bought the Petworth rowhouse 11 months ago, and he’s just getting around to having a housewarming. Seventy-five friends from his overlapping worlds have RSVP’d: longtime friends; colleagues from the Association of American Colleges and Universities, where he’s the full-time IT guy; and dancers and supporters of Dakshina, the modern/Indian dance company he founded in 2003.

All of them are aware he can cook.

“I expect he’ll have the best food,” says Patrice McMath, the receptionist at AAC&U, who arrives well before showtime. “This is special.” Singh politely asks her to run to the store for drinks and paper goods.

Meanwhile, he has acquired a pair of helping hands in the kitchen. They belong to Steve Wamhoff, the legislative director for Citizens for Tax Justice. He has known Singh for 12 years, and it’s obvious the pals are used to staying out of each other’s way in the small space. A bit of a pas de deux, not bumper cars.

Wamhoff says his peeling and chopping jobs are secondary to his main task: “I’m the meat taster.” Almost on cue, the sauce for the meatballs gets a spice adjustment.

His Indian-born friend hasn’t eaten meat for more than a decade. Singh, 38, originally from a small village near Mumbai, was motivated by a book he read that described how animals are processed for food. For his annual large-party buffets, though, he chooses to accommodate omnivores.

As intense and precise as Singh is onstage or during 16 to 20 hours of rehearsals each week, he seems to wing it in the kitchen. A cupped palm cradles a heap of Indian red chili pepper. Is it one tablespoon, or three? He uses a stemless wineglass to gently slosh water into simmering lentils. Like his mother, he never reaches for a measuring cup or spoon. In fact, he doesn’t own a single one.

“I learned most of what I know... from watching my mom and dad cook. No recipe books. Just going on instinct and often figuring out the taste they’d like to tease out by adding a pinch of this and a dash of that,” Singh says. “That’s the good thing about Indian food. You can keep adding spices and ingredients until it’s balanced.” It’s why he cops to “cooking some mean Italian food,” because “the cuisine allows doctoring along the way” as well.

Singh tends to deal in large quantities even when he cooks for himself. On weekends, he’ll prepare a pressure-cooker potful of lentils or chickpeas that will last through the week, combined with rice (which he cooks in the microwave) or freshly sauteed vegetables.

“There isn’t a vegetable I won’t eat,” he says.

With that, he seizes the moment to set the record straight on dancers and food.

“We love to eat!” he insists, although his limber, impossibly lean body suggests otherwise. “At least modern dancers do. We can afford to have healthy appetites. We tend to be snackers.”

Mom Violet Dorai Singh is the source of his favorite recipes, and one of the family members responsible for Daniel’s passion for food with heat. He remembers watching uncles eat dishes so packed with chili peppers that tears streamed down their faces. “That meant it was good,” he says.

The Singh family emigrated from southern India to the Washington area in 1985 to be closer to his older and newly married sister, Tara. Daniel went to the University of Maryland to obtain a computer science degree. A ballet class he took for a PE credit changed his course of study — his life, really — and he finished undergraduate and graduate work in dance at College Park.

“I was surprised when he started dancing at 18,” says Violet, who now lives with her daughter in Laurel. To her, his cooking makes sense. She watched with pride when he tackled his first rajma, a red bean curry, when he was 8 or 9. “I don’t get to eat his food all that often. But he’s a very good cook,” she says.

Back at party central, it’s 30 minutes till the official 7 o’clock invite. More guests have arrived, each commenting on the wonderful smells and leaving their shoes at the door. Potato chips, paper goods and wine have landed on the coffee table. A buffet spread has materialized on the dining table, albeit with room at each end for designated helpers to chop cilantro and halve limes on small cutting boards. Perhaps the most visually mouthwatering offering is the salad he assembles in two minutes: mixed greens on a large round platter, piled with tumbling layers of blueberries, blackberries and grape tomatoes. People can’t wait to dive in.

“It’s cooling to eat with spicy foods,” he says; it’s another trick from his mom. “With juicy fruit, there’s no need for a dressing.”

Singh has started the carrot halwa, stirring sweetened condensed milk, sugar, grated carrots, cashews and raisins into what will become a silky, rich pudding. It will need to cook for at least two more hours. The mushrooms, shrimp and rice are done just before 8, about the time when the guests seem unable to hold back any longer.

In the end, as predicted, the timing was perfect. Dessert was ready when his guests had had opportunities to go for seconds or simply digest. Serene smiles all ’round. “His hands are magical,” McMath says.

And, as his AAC&U colleagues had hoped, Singh delivered leftovers at work the next day.

No room in his fridge, he shrugged. “I’ve got roommates to think about.”

RECIPES

Carrot Halwa

Indian Meatballs

Lentils and Spinach

For information on Dakshina/Daniel Phoenix Singh Dance Company’s upcoming performances, including its eighth annual Fall Festival of Indian Arts, go to www.dakshina.org. Do you know someone who’s a great Washington cook? Send an e-mail to food@washpost.com, with WASHINGTON COOKS in the subject field.

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