TO SEE Shahnaz Mehta moving among the pots and pans in her McLean kitchen is to suspect that this slender, jewel-eyed Indian woman is a dancer. To smell the spices enlivening the air on every side of her is to suspect that she is a culinary artist as well.
It's all true. She's both.
Mehta gives lessons in the Odissi and Manipoori styles of Indian dance. Her new book, "Good Cooking From India" (Rodale, $14.95, 279 pages), testifies to her skills with the food of her native country.
Mehta's interest in food preparation began even earlier than her devotion to dancing, which goes back to the first lessons taken when she was 8 years old. As a very small child, she loved to watch Babuji, her parents' cook, as he prepared meals for the large extended family she grew up with in Lucknow and other parts of northern India.
It was a way of life with feudal overtones. Mehta's father and mother could trace their ancestry back 900 years, and ties of kinship linked them with a sizable network of near and distant relations. Tradition also made servants such as Babuji more than mere employes. Like his father before him, Babuji had served the family for 80 years by the time he died.
To the little girl tagging along with him as he assembled exotic or familiar dishes for the visitors who turned just about every day into an occasion, he was a figure of great prestige. Mehta had learned many of the secrets of Indian cuisine from him long before she began cooking. She had also learned from the recipes she began collecting in the days when a kitchen was, for her, a place to visit rather than a place to work.
Actual cooking was not a serious part of Mehta's life until she was grown and married and living in the United States, where her husband's career as a banker brought them and their two daughters four and a half years ago. It might never have resulted in a book if it had not been for the friendship that developed between the Indian woman and her American neighbor, Joan Korenblit.
Korenblit, a writer and educational consultant, was charmed by the aromas floating over the back fence from the Mehta kitchen. She was more charmed when she tasted the dishes that produced them. As the friendship deepened, she became convinced that Mehta's repertoire should be shared with the world.
Her influence had already helped to modify the cuisine next door. A health food enthusiast, Korenblit persuaded Mehta to experiment with adaptations of her recipes eliminating salt, sugar and processed flour. Mehta was an easy convert. With Indian spices to titillate the palate, the absence of salt is scarcely noticeable.
Still, it took two years to get the recipes in shape for a book. Besides recasting traditional ingredients and methods in line with contemporary nutritional theory, Mehta had to make sure each dish could be prepared with available foods and utensils.
She explored local markets and researched mail-order supply houses dealing in Indian spices and cookware. And, once she had arrived at a collection of recipes that an American shopping in American stores could use, she wove them into reminiscences of her childhood days when she first encountered them.
It adds up to a book equally memorable for what it has to offer as a reminiscence of Indian life and as a how-to manual for the culinary adventurer. Some members of Mehta's family--her mother, for example--are vegetarians. She herself is not, and there are appealing meat and chicken dishes along with all the lentils and beans and rice she discusses. The meat is strictly lamb and beef, of course--the Muslim tradition of northern India precludes pork.
Perhaps because of the vegetarian element in Mehta's background, the vegetable recipes in "Good Cooking From India" are particularly notable. There is something to be said for serving asparagus with only a little butter or lemon to point up its own great flavor, but many unadorned vegetables are on the bland side.
No vegetable comes to an Indian table bland--away with the insipid potato! Avaunt, pale cauliflower! Bring on the cumin, the tumeric, the green chilis, the coriander leaves! As in these.
CURRIED POTATOES AND SPINACH (6 servings) 1 1/2 pounds potatoes 1 1/2 pounds spinach, fresh or frozen 2 tablespoons mustard oil and 5 tablespoons vegetable oil, or 7 tablespoons vegetable oil 2 cups onion, finely sliced 1 tablespoon fresh ginger, scraped and grated 1 tablespoon garlic, minced 1/4 teaspoon chili powder 1/2 teaspoon tumeric powder 1 teaspoon cumin powder 1 teaspoon powdered mango (optional) 2 tablespoons water
Wash potatoes well and boil 10 minutes. Drain, allow to cool slightly and cut into 3/4-inch slices
Wash and finely chop spinach. If using frozen spinach, allow to thaw. In a large skillet, heat mustard oil over moderately high heat and, after 1 minute, add 4 tablespoons of vegetable oil. Fry potatoes until they become a golden brown. Stir often. Remove the potatoes and strain the oil. Set the potatoes aside.
Return the strained oil to the skillet. Fry the onion over moderate heat until a pale golden brown. Add the remaining oil if needed. Stir in ginger and garlic and fry until the garlic browns (about 3 to 4 minutes).
Add chili powder, tumeric and cumin to the pan and stir while frying, 2 minutes over moderate heat. Stir in the spinach, cover and cook over low heat 10 to 15 minutes. Uncover and stir thoroughly to blend the spinach with the spices. Add potatoes and powdered mango, stir gently, sprinkle water on top, cover and simmer until the potatoes are soft when lightly poked with a fork, about 15 minutes. Serve hot.
MIXED BAKED VEGETABLES (6 to 8 servings) 1/2 pou10 eggplant 2 teaspoons powdered tumeric 2 teaspoons paprika Vegetable oil 2 1/2 cups green beans (about 1/2 pound) 3 cups water 3 cups cauliflower florets (about 1/2 pound) 3 1/2 tablespoons ghee (clarified butter) or butter 1 tablespoon arrowroot 1 3/4 cups milk 5 tablespoons scallions, minced 2 tablespoons fresh coriander leaves or parsley, chopped 2 1/2 to 3 cups cheese (cheddar or parmesan-type), grated 2 teaspoons cumin powder 1 teaspoon black pepper 25 to 30 whole cashew nuts, roasted 1 to 3 small green chilis, minced (optional)
Wash eggplant and pat dry. Cut into 1/2-inch slices. Mix tumeric and paprika and coat eggplant slices lightly with the mixture. Heat 3 tablespoons oil in a large, heavy skillet. Fry the eggplant slices until light brown (about 4 to 5 minutes). Add oil as needed. Turn over and fry the other side until light brown. Set aside.
Trim the ends of the green beans. Bring the water to a boil. Add beans and cook 3 minutes. Drain and chop into 1/2-inch pieces. Set aside. Cut cauliflower into 1/2-inch pieces.
In a large skillet, melt the ghee or butter. Stir in the arrowroot and cook over moderate heat about 1 minute. Stir continuously. Add 3/4 cup milk and stir well. Stir in 3 tablespoons minced scallions, coriander leaves or parsley, 1 cup grated cheese, cumin powder and black pepper. Add cauliflower and the rest of the milk and cook over moderate heat until the sauce thickens (about 5 minutes).
Cut eggplant into small pieces and place in a large bowl. Add beans, sauce and remaining scallions. Pour vegetables with sauce into 1 large or 2 small casseroles. Decorate with cashew nuts. Sprinkle with remaining cheese and green chilis. Bake at 400 degrees 10 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 250 degrees and bake another 10 minutes.
CURRIED ZUCCHINI (6 servings) 3 zucchini, 7 to 8 inches long 4 tablespoons vegetable oil Pinch asafetida* 1/2 tablespoon cumin seeds 1 1/4 cups minced tomatoes 1 1/2 teaspoons coriander powder 1/2 teaspoon tumeric powder 1/4 teaspoon chili powder 1/2 cup water 1/4 teaspoon garam masala* (a mixture of ground cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, peppercorns, cumin seeds, nutmeg and mace)
Wash zucchini, pat dry and slice. In a wok, heat oil over moderately high heat. Drop in the asafetida, then the cumin seeds and quickly stir in tomatoes. Add coriander powder, tumeric and chili powder and cook 2 to 3 minutes over moderately high heat. Add zucchini and water and cook, covered, for 15 minutes over moderate heat. Stir once during this time. Uncover and sprinkle with the garam masala. Stir gently and cook another few minutes, uncovered.
* Both the asafetida and garam masala are available from speciality food shops and Oriental grocers.