Saturday, July 10, 2010

Week #42 Indian

You've heard me say this countless times about a lot of different countries, but I have to say it again:

India is so gi-normous that there's positively no way to do its cuisine justice in one puny little blog entry. They don't call it the subCONTINENT for nothing. Not only is it big, not to mention geographically, climatically and culturally diverse, but its strategic location has ensured that centuries of adventurers trekking between East and West have brought myriad ingredients, cooking techniques and traditions to blend with the local ones. The result is an amazing array of foods and flavors. In fact, I defy anyone to get bored eating Indian food, because there's always another region's food to explore. And another, and another...

But the thing that impresses me about this cuisine above all others is that as an avowed meat eater, I can have a vegetarian meal in an Indian restaurant and come away completely satisfied--that doesn't happen for me in any other type of vegetarian establishment. Rajdhani in Artesia's Little India lays out a vegetarian spread so rich, varied and flavorful that it actually makes me forget to miss the meat. Its cuisine is Northern Indian, an area with a strong tradition of vegetarianism.

I'd been to Rajdhani once before and knew to come hungry. They don't actually have a menu--service is Thali style, so you just sit down and servers come through and load your own personal platter, called a thali, which is filled with small bowls called katoris, with every kind of dahl, soup and stew you can imagine. This is the most lavish feast I've ever had laid before me. If you clean your plate, it doesn't stay empty very long. They just keep coming around and filling your katoris and doling out another piece of naan, another puri, and another and another, until you shoo them away in your state of oh-god-I'm-stuffed ecstasy. It's a lovely misery.

My thali, loaded with the vegetarian Gujarati cuisine favored by the Hindus of Gujarat, in northern India, includes chickpeas (channa); bhendi kari, (okra curry); dhal (lentil purée); sambar (lentil & veggie soup); puri, a hollow, puffy bread; papadam; naan and khaman dhokla. The "glass" I drank from was stainless, too. 
It's amazing just how sharp a table filled with these stainless pieces looks.

Khaman dhokla is a leavened bread (most Indian breads are flat) made from chickpea flour and spices and topped with fresh cilantro and sautéed green chili peppers and mustard seed. It's highly addictive stuff!

The attention to detail is extraordinary. The kitchen must be enormous to accommodate all the pots required to cook this variety of dishes, but everything is seasoned to perfection and all seasoned differently. Just when you hit a super-hot something that threatens to reduce you to a pool of sweat, tears and regret, here comes the basmati rice and a glass of brisk lassi (a yogurt drink) to cool you down.

On the whole, Indian cuisine is pretty healthy fare, that is until you get to the desserts. Our trio of desserts (clockwise from the top): rosewater ice cream topped with basil seed (funny how those gelatinous seeds look like fish eggs, huh?). This stuff makes me swoon!; gulab jamun, fried dumplings made from a dough of flour, powdered milk and butter, and then soaked and served in syrup; and shrikhand, thickened yogurt with saffron and cardamom stirred in. A bite of each was all I needed to cap off an amazing meal.

These freshly fried papadam have tiny black flecks of onion seed, which give these chickpea wafers a kick. They're crackly-crispy and addictive, but since they're pure protein, you can't eat as many as you think you can!

I got carried away and had to hit a couple more Indian restaurants--and I'm contemplating going back for more once I've posted this blog entry.
At Flavor of India in Burbank (they also have a location in West Hollywood) I had lamb seekh with mint chutney on a bed of sweet onions. Remember that classic combo of lamb chops with mint jelly? Same idea here: This dense, rich lamb kabob has mint chutney for dipping, which helps lighten and brighten the richness of the meat.

Naan--hot, puffy and satisfying flat bread. It's soft on the inside and crispy on the outside.

A quartet of chutneys: tamarind chutney, sweet, tangy and fruity; mango chutney, essentially jam, I think; tomato chutney, tomato-sweet from those roasted tomatoes and slightly spicy; pumpkin chutney--I didn't really taste pumpkin, but it was good--and pleasantly warm.

 Quickly, quickly I'm racing down to southern India (cuisine wise) for dosa, a large, crispy crêpe filled with paneer, an Indian cheese, and an array of veggies. It comes with various chutneys to dip it into--the green one is a mint chutney. I'm not sure what the orange one is--it was good but mild. Dosa is made from a combo of lentil and rice flours, so just the wrap itself is loaded with protein and carbs sufficient to get you through the day. Roll up some tofu, veggies, potatoes and onions or whatever you crave, and you essentially have India's answer to the burrito. With chutney instead of salsa. Dahl on the side instead of beans. And rice. Always rice--it's international!

I had this dosa for lunch at India Sweets and Spices in Los Feliz, although there are locations all over the LA area. They have a grocery attached, but I recommend eating before grocery shopping. That way you can focus on what you came to buy and not get too carried away trying to buy one of everything. I thought I had a pretty good grip on all those Indian flavorings beyond the usual range of spices, things like amchur, peepal and zattar (heh heh, how THAT for A-to-Z?!), but I found a huge section of herbs, seeds, roots and flavorings I'd never encountered before. I'll have to save them for another day, another cooking, eating and blogging adventure.

Over the years I've noticed that whenever I eat Indian food, I always come away wrapped in a happy state that lasts for a few hours. And that if I have Indian for lunch, I spend my afternoon not especially productively, but feeling great beneficence toward my coworkers and all others I encounter. What's in Indian food that causes this? I've never been able to find out, but I LIKE that feeling!

If Himself were leaning over my shoulder right now, he'd scold me for typing your eye off. Apologies. I hope you made it all the way through. And I hope you go out and get yourself some Indian food soon.

While I have your attention, though, here's a great recipe for fresh coriander chutney:
Dhania Chatni
Into a blender chuck 1 cup of firmly packed fresh cilantro leaves (cleaned & blotted dry); 6 spring onions, which you've cut into halves or thirds (cleaned & minus the root); 2 fresh green chilies of your choice (remove the stalks & seeds first); 1 clove of garlic; 1 teaspoon of salt; 2 teaspoons of sugar; 1 teaspoon of garam masala (which you can make yourself or pick up at the store); 1/3 cup of lemon juice; and 2 tablespoons of water. Whiz it all in the blender, pour it into a pretty bowl and chill before serving. Since cilantro is great with Mexican food, you can make this, omitting the garam masala, and use it as a dip or topping for tacos, beans or whatever you desire.

*And a big whopping P.S.: Please check out the blog--and book!--of my friend, adventuress Vanessa Able, who has just driven and blogged her way around India. Seriously!

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