Easy Indian: Theme Bites for a Cocktail Party

By Monica Bhide
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 22, 2009

"Indian" does not leap to the top of people's lists when they think of cocktail party themes. Though Indian cuisine is known to be delicious, one generally thinks of it in terms of curries and "stewy" dishes, time-consuming to prepare and unsuited to the toothpick.

Not so, say I. The key is to choose spicy, delicious finger foods that are easy to make, a la assembly line.

Unless you are lucky enough to have help, aim for hors d'oeuvres that don't require a ton of preparation, don't need to be reheated and definitely don't need lots of attention once your guests arrive. I learned that the hard way, deep-frying potato fritters for a crowd of 40. That was a bad idea: The enticing smell drew everyone into my tiny kitchen, which got hot, steamy and uncomfortable. And I could not fry fast enough to keep up with the demand.

Feeding a group can be tricky. There will be dieters, non-meat eaters, picky eaters and food allergies to work around. So once I design my menu, I revise it to make sure my friends' food preferences are addressed.

I love to serve cubes of paneer, the quintessential Indian cheese, dressed in a "basil sari" (wrapped with a basil leaf held in place with a toothpick), drizzled with flavored honey or topped with mango chutney. My favorite party shrimp uses a glaze of store-bought tamarind-date chutney and honey. It cooks fast and tastes great at room temperature. (If you are wondering what you will do with the remaining chutney, read on.) [Recipe: Tamarind-Glazed Honey Shrimp]

Indian groceries offer lots of prepared foods that make parties easy. Nans and other breads can be cut into bite-size pieces and topped with various chutneys, which can be store-bought or homemade and used as dipping sauces as well. Browse the canned food aisle; luscious litchis are perfect for serving as is or garnished with a mint leaf.

Presentation is as critical as food choices. As you know, people eat with their eyes first. Instead of offering a platter of skewered shrimp, I arrange the picks in a foil-covered lemon half. Endive leaves are great carriers for spiced ground chicken, spinach leaves are wonderful for curried egg salad, cherry tomatoes and hollowed-out cucumber chunks can hold minty raita (whipped spiced yogurt), and baguette slices make a perfect foundation for cream cheese and mint-cilantro chutney topped with thin slices of cucumber. Inexpensive Chinese soup spoons can be used to offer a bite of just about anything.

I like to focus on the season when I am cooking, and since spring is in the air, I will serve fruit soup in shot glasses or hollowed-out orange-rind cups.

I make sure to offer nonalcoholic libations along with party cocktails. A friend taught me that a champagne fountain filled with guava or litchi juice really ups her already high "exotic" quotient. Explore the power of fruit purees when planning drinks: Blend mango and papaya for a smoothie, or guava puree with a splash of fresh ginger juice and champagne for a guava Bellini. Lemonade dressed up with saffron threads, mulled wine enhanced with cinnamon and other spices, and homemade Indian-style cold coffee (dollops of Starbucks coffee ice cream blenderized with skim milk and ice) are always fun choices.

Some of the tamarind-date chutney that I used earlier for the shrimp goes into tamarind margaritas. My favorite part is having fun with garnishes: Besides lime wedges and cherries, think raspberries, small pitted litchis, frozen grapes, thinly sliced fresh or candied ginger and my all-time favorite, Jell-O jigglers. Todd Thrasher of Restaurant Eve and PX taught me about the jigglers.

No party is complete without music, and these days "Slumdog Millionaire" and other tracks by Oscar winner A.R. Rahman top my playlist.

Put bowls around the house for discarded toothpicks. (People think nothing of leaving them everywhere. After a recent party, I found a few behind pillows on the couch.) Another bit of advice: If your party is outdoors, make sure your neighbor is not going to be testing his new charcoal grill. (Yes, it happened to me and nearly caused my guests to choke on their endive-paneer boats.)

It's always best to end on a sweet note. I serve tiny scoops of store-bought Indian ice creams (mango, saffron-pistachio and cashew-raisin) in small, ready-made chocolate cups, and I pass around trays filled with cookies spiced with cardamom or scented with anise.

Of course, I tend to go all-out, themewise. But Indian-spiced bites can fit quite happily into any cocktail party menu. Remember that a single trip to the Indian market can yield a range of culinary treasures. And I have always maintained that once you befriend the right spices, they do all the work.

Monica Bhide's third cookbook, "Modern Spice" (Simon and Schuster), was published this month.

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