JULIE SAHNI fed her husband Chinese food for one solid year. That was followed by 12 months of French and another 12 months of Italian. They are still married.
When Sahni tackles a new subject, she does it thoroughly. When she was in her Chinese phase she would serve an entire meal of wonton soup one night, of mooshi poke . . . Well, you get the idea.
After trying various ethnic cuisines the Sahnis have settled on French for most of their meals. But for the last four years Julie Sahni's husband, Viraht, has found some dishes more familiar to him in amongst the coq au vin and mousse au chocolat. Things like samosa (pastries filled with potatoes or meat), tandoori chicken and chapati (whole wheat bread). His wife was testing several hundred Indian recipes for a book she hoped would explain "the philosophy of Indian cooking." Critics feel she has succeeded.
"Classic Indian Cooking," just published by William Morrow ($15.95) has more than 500 pages, with only 160 recipes.The rest of the book is devoted to a thorough explanation of Indian culture and history as it relates to food and the principles of the cuisine -- the seasonings ("the reason people sometimes have digestion problems after eating Indian food is because they have eaten raw spices. Spices used in Indian cooking should be . . . cooked before being eaten . . ."); special ingredients (most are available in the supermarket); equipment ("there are no special cooking utensils or tools that are absolutely essential to Indian cooking"); techniques (only one is impossible in an American kitchen, a tandoor oven, but charcoal grilling can be substituted) and menu planning ("the differences between Western and Indian customs in planning and serving of meals are not irreconcilable"). There is also a mail order and shopping guide and an extensive glossary of Indian words for food. In addition Sahni goes into considerable detail and both before and after each recipe and, best of all, tells you what to serve with it.
Sahni comes from northern India, where the most refined of the country's cooking has its roots. Moghul cooking evolved when the Moghuls (Moslem Turk-Mongols) arrived in the 16th century by way of Persia. Admirers of Persian cooking, they borrowed many ingredients and cooking techniques from them and introduced them to India along with their own specialities. As is so often the course of culinary history, local Indian herbs and spices made their way into the cooking, and a new style emerged. Moghul cooking is famous for its meat dishes and rice pilafs. According to Sahni, it "is also known for its delicate flavorings and superb silky sauces. The dishes thus created are so subtle that many are often mistaken for Persian. Ingredients such as yogurt, cream, fruit and nut butters are often incorporated into the food to mellow and velvetize the sauces. The dishes are generally flavored with mild but highly fragrant spices such as cinnamon, cardamom, mace, nutmeg and clover. There is also extensive use of saffron . . ."
It is this cooking about which Sahnicares passionately. She believes if Americans understood it they would feel the same way. Our depth of ignorance of Indian food appalls the elegant Indian woman who, at least temporarily, has abandoned her career as an architect and New York city planner to teach us that all Indian food is not hot and, hot or not, curry is not an Indian word. When she was learning to cook other foods Sahni would spend hours looking at cookbooks in stores. "People would walk up to me and say, 'Will you give me a good recipe for curry?' and I'd tell them Indian food is not curry."
Sahni explains in her book: "'Curry' is the Western pronunciation of the Indian word kari." One of the definitions of the word kari is the southern cooking technique of preparing stir-fried vegetables. A special spice blend used in making these dishes is called kari podi or curry power. The classical Southern Indian variety is a mixture of turmeric, red pepper, coriander, black ppper, cumin, fenugreek kari leaves, mustard seeds and (sometimes) cinnamon and cloves. Sahni says the earliest British merchants, not knowing Indian cooking techniques or spice blends, "indiscriminately sprinkled kari podi over stews and casseroles. This yielded preparations with the familiar golden color, hot taste, and flavor of the dishes known as curries.
In Northern Indian cooking there is no equivalent of the Western curry powder, Sahni says, "or for that matter, any dish known as curry."
The fact that until recently most Indian restaurants in this country dished up curry power on almost everything hasn't helped. Usually, Sahni says, the people who opened the restaurants were poor Indian students who didn't know anything about cooking. "They'd put curry powder and all the spices they could lay their hands on in the food. Everything tasted the same and you ended up getting heartburn." It wasn't until the 1964 World's Fair that Americans were introduced to something beyond curry Sahni says. "They served tandoori chicken and for once Americans knew that not all food was sauced." An Indian clay oven, the tandoor, gives its name to the chicken. The oven simultaneously bakes, roasts and grills. Sahni considers food cooked in the tandoor the "height of Moghul cooking, of subtle flavoring."
Just as all Indian food is not spicy, (sahni's perhaps less spicy than others because she prefers it that way), it isn't all exotic. Some of it, Sahni says, is quite simple and only takes a few minutes to make. Not all the dishes have a "battery of spices" in them; some have just a single seasoning. On the other hand, Sahni explains, "Indians like extreme flavors and the contrast of extremes, from the subtle to the very sharp. Your tongue," she says, "gets all excited."
And so does Sahni when she discusses food. It's something she takes very seriously. She says she struggled all her life to perfect one of the desserts in the book. "Over a three-year period I made ras malai (cheese dumplings in pistachio-flecked cream sauce 25 times. About 18 batches of them were good. Some days I worked from 8:30 in the morning to 11:30 at night. If today I'm 18 or 19pounds overweight it's because of the ras malai.
"Living, loving and eating go hand in hand,." says this woman who finds cooking exhilarating and relaxing but it should be "living, loving, eating and dieting."
These recipes from the book provided a lovely meal Sahni cooked and served recently. TANDOORI (INDIAN BARBECUED) CHICKEN (Tandoori Murghi) (6 servings)
Of all the food cooked in a tandoor, the most popular and the best tasting is chicken. The distinctive flavor, texture, and color of this dish are achieved by a particular yogurt marinade, by the use of tenderizers, a special tandoori coloring, and finally, by being cooked in the Indian clay oven.
The recipe given here is designed for the conventional oven and charcoal grill. 3 very young broiling chickens (about 2 to 2 1/4 pounds each) 2 1/2 teaspoons unseasoned natural meat tenderizer 1/3 cup lenon juice Marinade: 2 large cloves garlic 1 tablespoon chopped fresh ginger root 1 teaspoon ground roasted cumin seeds 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom 1/2 teaspoon red pepper 1 teaspoon tandoori coloring, or 1 tablespoon paprika 1/3 cup plain yogurt Usli ghee (Indian vegetable shortening), or light vegetable oil for basting
Cut the wings off the chickens. Remove neckbone carefully. Place the chickens on a cutting board and quarter them neatly. Then pull away the skin, using kitchen towels for a better grip if necessary. (Reserve the wings, neck and skin for the stockpot.) Prick the chicken all over with fork or thin skewer. Make diagonal slashes, 1/2 inch deep, 1 inch apart on the meat. Put the meat in a large bowl.
Add meat tenderizer and lemon juice to the chicken, and rub them into the slashes and all over for 2 minutes. Cover and marinate for 1/2 hour.
Put all the ingredients of the marinade into the container of an electric blender or food processor, and blend until reduced to a smooth sauce. (Alternatively, garlic and ginger may be crushed into a paste and blended with the remaining ingredients.)
Pour this marinade over the chicken pieces and mix, turning and tossing, to coat all the pieces well. (A note of caution: Since certain brands of tandoori coloring tend to stain the fingers, it is advisable either to use a fork to turn the chicken pieces in the marinade or use a pastry brush to spread it over the chicken.) Cover and marinate for 4 hours at room temperature or refrigerate overnight, turning serveral times. Chicken should not remain in the marinade for more than 2 days, because the marinade contains a meat tenderizer which, with prolonged marinating, alters the texture of the chicken meat to very soft and doughy.
Take the chicken from the refrigerator at least 1 hour before cooking to bring it to room temperature. The chicken is now ready to be either roasted in the oven or broiled over an electric or charcoal grill.
To oven roast, start heating the oven to 500 to 550 degrees. Take the chickens out of the marinade. Brush them with ghee , and place them on an extra-large, shallow roasting pan, preferably on a wire rack. Set the pan in the middle level of the oven, and roast for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the meat is cooked through. There is no need to baste while the chicken pieces are roasting, because the enclosed environment keeps the chickens from drying excessively.
Preheat the broiler. Brush the grill with a little oil to prevent the meat's sticking. Place the chicken pieces, slashed side up, on the grill, and brush the slashed side with ghee. Cook 2 to 3 inches away from the heat for 20 minutes. Turn and cook the other side for another 10 minutes, or until the chicken pieces are cooked through. Brush often with ghee during cooking.
Since these are variations in commercial tandoori coloring, the cooked chicken will range from yellowish-orange to deep reddish-orange in color.
If you use paprika instead, the chicken will have a redder tone. And if the chicken is grilled, especially over charcoal, the color will be more intense.
Tandoori chicken must be served immediately after cooking. Because of its dryish texture, it does not taste as good cold, especially after refrigeration and reheating. CRAB MALABAR (Kekada Chat) (6 servings) 1 pound fresh or frozen cooked crab meat (preferably Alaska King Crab meat) 3 tablespoons light vegetable oil 3/4 cup finely chopped onions 1tablespoon finely chopped garlic 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon red pepper 1 1/2 teaspoons paprika 1/3 teaspoon thyme (or 1/4 teaspoon carom seeds, crushed) 1/4 teaspoon fennel seeds, crushed 3 cups peeled ripe tomatoes, cut into 1-inch cubes Kosher salt 4 tablespoons finely chopped scallions, including the green part 4 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh coriander leaves
Pick over crab meat thoroughly, and cut into large (1/2-inch to 1-inch) pieces. If using frozen crab meat, thaw following directions on package. Drain and reserve the juices. Set aside.
Heat the oil in a frying pan (one with lid) and add onions. Cook onions over medium heat until wilted and lightly colored, but not browned. Add garlic and cook for an addtional minute. Add red pepper, paprika, thyme (or carom), and fennel, stirring rapidly. Cook for 2 more minutes. Add 1 cup of tomatoes (save 2 cups of nicely cubed tomato pieces to be folded in later) and the reserved juices from crab meat (if using frozen crab meat). Lower heat and simmer covered, until the sauce is reduced to a thick pulp (about 15 minutes). Turn off heat.
Fold in the crab meat. Add salt to taste. When cool, carefully fold in tomatoes and scallions, making sure not to break the fragile crab pieces. Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or until thoroughly chilled. Just before serving, fold in chopped coriander leaves, and serve over a bed of shredded lettuce.
Note: The chat may be made a day ahead and kept refrigerated. In that case, the chopped coriander leaves should be folded in just before serving so they won't wilt. CARROT PUDDING WITH CARDAMOM AND PISTACHIOS (Gajar ki Kheer) (6 to 8 servings)
You don't have to be a carrot-lover to like this luscious pistachio-laced pudding. Although this dessert is popular throughout northern India, it is really the favorite of the Punjabis. It is made by cooking grated carrots until thick, creamy milk until the mixture reduces to the consistency of rice pudding. Sometimes a little rice is added to provide puffiness and body, and also to blend in flavors. The dessert is at its best when thoroughly chilled. 4 cups milk 2 tablespoons long-grain rice 2 cups firmly packed peeled and grated carrots (about 1 pound) 1/2 cup sugar 2 tablespoons slivered blanched almonds 1/3 teaspoon ground cardamom 1 teaspoon rose water 1/4 cup heavy cream 2 tablespoons chopped blanched raw pistachios
Bring the milk to a boil in a heavy-bottomed 3-quart pan. Add the rice and stir for a few minutes to prevent its settling. Reduce heat to a medium-low, and cook the milk at a bubbling boil for 20 minutes. the rice will be thoroughly cooked and the milk reduced by half.
Add carrots and continue cooking, uncovered, for 15 minutes or until the carrots are cooked and most of the milk had been absorbed by the carrots, stirring often to prevent burning. (The contents of the pan should reduce to a thick, pulpy sauce.)
Add sugar and almonds, and cook, stirring constantly, until the pudding is very thick and begins to stick to the bottom of the pan (about 10 minutes). Turn off heat, and let the pudding cool to room temperature.
Stir in cardamom, rose water and cream. Cover with plastic wrap and chill thorougly. Check the consistency of the pudding before serving. It should be slightly thinner than American rice pudding, but not runny. If it looks very thick, add a little milk. Serve in individual dessert dishes, sprinkled with chopped pistachios. SPINACH AND YOGURT SALAD (Palak Raita) (4 to 6 servings) 1 cup cooked spinach 1 1/2 cups plain yogurt 1/2 cup sour cream 1 teaspoon ground roasted cumin seeds 1 teaspoon ground roasted coriander seeds 1/4 teaspoon each black and red pepper 1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt Paprika (optional)
Coarsely chop the spinach in a food processor, or on a chopping board, using a knife. Put the yogurt, sour cream, cumin, coriander and black and red pepper in a bowl, and mix thoroughly. (Both these items can be prepared several hours ahead and refrigerated.)
When ready to serve, stir the salt and the spinach into the seasoned yogurt and transfer to a serving bowl. If desired, sprinkle with additional cumin, coriander and a little sweet paprika. BROCCOLI SMOTHERED IN GARLIC OIL (Hare Gobhi Ki Sabzi) (4 to 6 servings) 1 bunch broccoli (about 1 1/4 pounds) 3 tablespoons light vegetable oil 8 to 10 garlic cloves, peeled 1/3 teaspoon turmeric 1 teaspoon Kosher salt
Cut broccoli into spears, leaving long stems attached to the flowerets. Peel the stems carefully -- they break easily. Rinse the spears under running cold water. Leave them for 5 minutes to drain.
Heat the oil over medium-high heat in a frying pan large enough to accommodate the broccoli in a single layer. When the oil is hot, add garlic, and saute, turning and tossing until it turns golden (about 1 to 2 minutes). Add turmeic and immediately follow it with the broccoli. Spread the broccoli so that it lies in one layer. Let it sizzle undisturbed for 1 minute; then sprinkle on the salt. Turn the broccoli carefully with a flat spatula or a pair of tongs, and saute for an additional minute.
Reduce heat and cook, covered, until the broccoli is cooked but still crisp and dark green (about 8 to 10 minutes). Uncover, and continue cooking until all the moisture evaporates and the broccoli spears are glazed with garlic oil (about 3 to 5 minutes). Check for salt and serve immediately.