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Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (WI)

January 10, 2001 

Ageless equation 
JOANNE KEMPINGER DEMSKI Special to the Journal Sentinel  

Throughout India, everyday meals include so many dramatic-looking and delicious-tasting foods one might think a prime minister was coming to dine.

There are multiple main dishes, side dishes galore and an assortment of small bowls filled with brightly colored condiments.

Chances are, scanning this glorious spread, the diner will be unable to spot a single bite of meat. Medini Pradhan, creator of a Web site dedicated to Indian cuisine and culture in the United States, said about 70% of residents of India are vegetarians. The concentration is higher in the south, she said.

"The south is noted for its exceptional vegetarian cuisine," said Pradhan, who lives in Pewaukee. Cooks from this part of her native country use coconut products and unique spice blends and "make things with rice that you can't even dream of."

Alamelu Vairavan of Shorewood, co-author with Patricia Marquardt of "Art of South Indian Cooking" (Hippocrene, 1997, $22.50), said vegetarian meals are more popular in the south because "north India was subjected to a lot of foreign invasion. South India preserved its culture and cuisine because they did not have foreign invasions. The food and the traditions were all well preserved and remain that way."

Vairavan said some of the best vegetarian dishes come from the south. She was born in a small southern Indian town called Karaikudi and raised in Madras (also in the south) before moving to Wisconsin in 1967.

These dishes "are so delicious that one can easily pursue a vegetarian lifestyle without missing the flavors of meat-based dishes," Vairavan said.

"They are also remarkably nutritious, high in fiber and protein and low in fat because (in India) you learn to cook with so many different lentils, which are high in protein and fiber, and have little or zero fat."

Wisconsin enjoys restaurants that serve authentic Indian vegetarian dishes, Pradhan said. However, most of them offer foods typical of those served in the north. Therefore, diners here often miss tasting some of her country's best cuisine, she said.

"Southern Indian cuisine is distinctive in its use of curry leaves and black mustard seeds. And they would have a predominance of coriander. In the north you would have a predominance of cumin, cloves and cinnamon.

"In the south almost every dish contains something from the coconut palm. Other ingredients used widely in the south include coconut milk, yogurt, tamarind (a bean), freshly grated coconut, red chiles, rice, urad daal (a lentil) and kokum (a sour tasting dried fruit)," Pradhan said.

"Southern Indian meals, especially vegetarian ones, are sometimes served on a banana leaf, though on some occasions they are also served on a `thali' or metal plate," she said.

One of the biggest differences in cooking from the two areas is that tandoori cooking -- cooking in a large clay oven -- is never done in the south but is very popular in the north, Pradhan added.

Pradhan was born in Bombay, where she learned to cook at her mother's side -- making her first elaborate meal at the age of 9. She earned degrees in food and nutrition and in dietetics in Bombay, then moved to the United States where she has lived for 15 years.

She started her Web site, www.cuisinecuisine.com, in May 2000. It includes recipes, information about ingredients used in making Indian foods, plus a wide variety of information on different aspects of life in India not related to food.

Pradhan also teaches cooking classes and is in the process of writing five books on various topics related to the foods of India. She plans to publish the books herself and the first two should be available by the end of the year. Even though traditional Indian meals consist of various dishes -- and most of those have many ingredients -- it is not hard, Pradhan maintains, to duplicate the cuisine of her homeland. But, she admitted, it can be time consuming. Depending on how efficient a cook is, a traditional meal can take three to four hours to prepare.

"But you could also make it shorter. A lot of Indian chefs do part of the cooking ahead of time" and also process spices and mix spice blends in advance, she said.

It's often difficult for cooks who are unfamiliar with this cuisine to choose the right mix of dishes. When putting together a menu, Pradhan said, all one needs to do is look for "six tastes."

"You'll need something sweet, sour, salty, spicy, bitter and astringent," she said. "For a well-balanced Indian meal, you would have these six tastes. Side dishes and condiments like chutneys, curries, daals and Indian pickles also contribute to -- and add to -- the overall flavor and texture of a meal and provide balance needed."

While creating a meal with all these elements cannot always be accomplished, "it's a great rule of thumb to follow," Pradhan said. "This rule explains the use of the numerous spice combinations and the depth of flavor found in Indian cuisine," she said.

She provided this example of a typical vegetarian meal:

"The first thing you want is an appetizer with a chutney to dip it in. Maybe little samosas (deep fried vegetable patties), or pakoras, which are vegetables (often potatoes, onions or non-spicy green chiles) that are coated with a graham flour batter and fried. That starts the palate waiting for the next meal.

"Next you would have at least three entrees. In Indian cooking there is never just one main entree. The main part of the meal would probably consist of a salad or a raita. A raita would be onions, tomatoes and cucumbers mixed with yogurt, salt and chile. The same dish without yogurt is a salad. Then you want a rice based dish with vegetables . . . Another thing you would have if you're vegetarian is a korma, a vegetable medley with a mild sauce."

Rasaam, a very thin, soup like dish made from lentils, and an accompaniment called papadum might also be included.

"Papadum are little crispy, thinly rolled out disks made from different kinds of lentils and rice flour. They are fried in hot oil or roasted on a pan. They are always salty and served hot with a meal," she said.

Bread, different kinds of curry, yogurt and rice also would grace the table. Pradhan said bread, which is referred to as roti and is generally unleavened, is "nothing more than flour, water, salt and sometimes oil, or ghee (clarified butter) that is kneaded and either dry-fried, deep-fried or baked.

"Breads play an important role in the Indian menu for they serve not only as an accompaniment -- but since Indians eat with their fingers -- they are also used as an implement to scoop up the vegetables and rich curries from the plate," Pradhan said.

Plain yogurt and rice -- mixed together and seasoned -- can be served at the start or the end of a meal, but other tasty rice dishes also might be included.

"We have this wonderful dish called lime rice that is very popular. It includes lime juice, turmeric powder and mustard seed. It's a light dish. There is also another popular rice dish made with peanuts," she said.

A small dish of salt, wedges of lemon, sweet or hot "Indian pickles" (pickled vegetables) and lassi, a yogurt-based drink made sweet or salty would complete the table.

"This drink is very, very versatile. There is mango lassi for after the meal and a salty lassi for during the meal or before the meal," she said.

While lots of dishes make up an Indian meal, the number of seasonings that make up a dish seem even more abundant.

Pradhan said seasonings are essential to creating great Indian cuisine, and that in India young girls learn about spices at an early age when they get their own spice boxes from their mothers. "Every mother wants to give her daughter her own masala dabba (spice box) that holds the spices you most frequently use." She said the box has seven containers.

One spice mix used extensively in India is a curry powder called garam masala. Its main ingredients are cloves, cinnamon, cumin, cardamom or coriander, but Pradhan said the ingredients and/or amounts of ingredients in this mix change from region to region and even from household to household.

"In India, cooks often make their own combinations in their homes rather than buy them premixed. In southern India, garam masala has a "very distinctive taste" because it includes a lot of coriander as well as a spice called methi that gives it a unique taste.

The following recipes are from Pradhan and are pictured with this story. Additional recipes from Vairavan are included in the online version of this story at www.jsonline.com.

Naan, a white-flour flat bread, is one of the most loved Indian breads. A trip to an Indian restaurant usually involves the ordering of some kind of naan. It is traditionally served as an accompaniment with an Indian curry. Naan also can be used to wrap seasoned grilled meats, seafood or vegetables. A naan should be served hot and eaten immediately or else it will get chewy. Here is an easy naan recipe.

Naan (Indian Flat Bread)

4 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 egg, beaten
6 tablespoons plain yogurt
3 tablespoons butter or ghee, melted (divided)
1 cup lukewarm milk (about)
1 tablespoon poppy seeds

Sift flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt together in bowl. Stir in beaten egg, yogurt and 2 tablespoons of the butter. Gradually stir in enough milk to make a soft dough. Cover with damp cloth and place in warm place for 2 hours. It will rise slightly. 

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Knead dough on floured surface for 2 or 3 minutes until smooth. Divide into 8 pieces.

Roll each piece into a ball, then into an oval about 6 inches long. Grease baking sheet, and brush underside of bread with water. Brush top of bread with remaining 1 tablespoon butter and sprinkle with poppy seeds.

Bake in preheated oven 6 to 10 minutes until puffy and golden brown. The bread puffs slightly and browns on the sides. Serve hot, plain or with your favorite Indian curry. Makes 8 servings.

Chutneys are a great way to add flavor and zest to a meal. They are served or taken in small quantities, one teaspoon at a time. Because they are extremely flavorful, they give a burst of flavor to a meal. Most chutneys are made from raw, cooked or pickled vegetables and fruits. This mint chutney is very versatile and can be served with almost any appetizer or meal.

Mint Chutney

1/2 cup mint, stems removed, washed, uncut (see note)
1/4 cup cilantro, stems removed, washed, uncut (see note)
1 green chile, chopped (use any kind, from mild to hot)
1 1/2 tablespoons onion, chopped
3 tablespoons lemon juice
4 to 5 teaspoons water
3/4 teaspoon salt

Combine all ingredients in blender and blend on medium speed until mixture has smooth consistency. If chutney is not to be served right away, cover tightly and refrigerate. It can stay fresh in the refrigerator for 1 week. Makes about 3/4 cup.

Note: The mint and coriander leaves should be thoroughly washed and tightly packed to measure.

This well-loved and most popular snack is very easy to make. Served in many movie theaters in India during the intermission, in Indian snack bars and restaurants, it can be enjoyed anywhere.


3 tablespoons vegetable oil plus oil (about 3 cups) for frying (divided)
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
Pinch of asafoetida (available at Indian grocery stores)
1 finely chopped green chile
4 medium potatoes, boiled and mashed coarsely
1/2 cup peas, cooked
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon garam masala (available at Indian grocery stores)
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/4 teaspoon red chili powder
1 teaspoon dry mango powder or amchur (available at Indian grocery stores)
1 teaspoon lemon juice
Pastry (see recipe)

First make filling. In large skillet, heat 3 tablespoons oil and season it with cumin seeds, asafoetida and green chile. Add mashed potatoes and peas, ground cumin, garam masala, pepper, red chili powder and mango powder and mix well. Cook covered 5 to 6 minutes. Add lemon juice and mix well. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.

Prepare pastry dough.

Cut pastry dough into 4 equal parts. Take each part and roll it out into a circle about 6 to 8 inches in diameter. Cut each circle into two parts, forming half circles. You will have 8 half circles. Moisten straight edges of each half circle with a finger dipped in water. Then take one semi circle and fold it into a cone shape.

Stuff about 1 tablespoon potato-peas mixture in each cone and seal top edge with a drop of water on your finger and press edges together. Repeat with remaining pieces of dough. While making samosas, keep both unused dough and filled samosas covered with towel.

Heat remaining oil (to a depth of 3 to 4 inches) in medium-sized skillet. Deep-fry samosas, 4 to 5 at a time, cooking them 2 to 3 minutes or until a rich golden brown, turning once about halfway through cooking process. When done, remove with slotted spoon and set on paper towels to drain. Serve hot with mint or tamarind chutney. Makes 8 samosas.


1 1/2 cups flour
1/8 cup water
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon chili powder
Mix all ingredients to make a stiff dough.

A salad made in yogurt is called a raita. It usually accompanies a meal and is served chilled.

Kheera Ka Raita (Cucumber in Spiced Yogurt)

2 large cucumbers, peeled, finely grated
1 green chile, finely chopped
2 teaspoons finely chopped cilantro leaves, plus a sprig of cilantro for garnish
4 teaspoons sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup plain yogurt

Remove excess juice from cucumbers by straining through vegetable strainer or use your hands as strainer. Set aside.

In medium bowl, mix green chile, cilantro, sugar and salt with yogurt. Add cucumber and mix well. Garnish with fresh sprig of cilantro leaves. Serve chilled. Makes 1 1/2 cups or enough for 4 to 5 servings.

Note: Fat-free yogurt can be substituted for plain yogurt. Artificial sweetener can also be substituted for sugar, if needed.

This is an easy version of Biryani, a dish that is considered elaborate and therefore is usually made on special occasions. It can be made with vegetables or meat. It can take a long time to make; but is worth the effort. It always tastes better the next day because the spices marinate and flavor the meat or vegetables and rice. It is generally served with a raita.

Vegetable Biryani

(Spiced Rice with Vegetables)

5 to 6 tablespoons vegetable oil plus 1/4 cup oil (divided)
1 cup finely chopped onions, for garnish
2 tablespoons golden raisins, for garnish
2 tablespoons sliced almonds, for garnish

Wet masala paste (see recipe)
2 1/2 cups of Indian basmati rice
4 cloves
2 green cardamom pods
2 to 3 (1-inch) cinnamon sticks
1 green bell pepper, cored and sliced
1/2 cup cubed potatoes
1/2 cup green peas
1/2 cup cubed carrots
Salt to taste
5 cups water (about)

Hot cooked rice

Make garnish. In medium skillet, heat 5 to 6 tablespoons oil. Saute onions until deep brown. Add raisins and almonds and saute until almonds are lightly browned. Set aside. 

Make wet masala paste and set it aside.

Wet masala paste:

1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh garlic
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh ginger
1/2 cup finely chopped onions
1 teaspoon garam masala (available at Indian grocery stores)
1 teaspoon red chili powder
1 teaspoon cumin powder
1 teaspoon coriander powder
1/2 cup freshly ground coconut or unsweetened dry coconut
Water as needed

Wash rice, drain water and let sit 10 minutes with no additional water added. Set aside.

Heat remaining 1/4 cup oil in heavy pot. Add cloves, cardamom pods and cinnamon sticks. Saute 30 to 40 seconds. Add reserved onion mixture. Add reserved wet masala paste and saute a few minutes on medium-high, until oil starts to separate, about 5 to 7 minutes. Add bell pepper, potatoes, peas and carrots, and saute a few more minutes. Add reserved rice and salt; mix well. Saute for a few more minutes.

Transfer mixture to a microwave-safe serving container. Add 5 cups water. Microwave, covered, 35 minutes or until done and rice has absorbed all the water. Stir after about 15 minutes. Add half of the garnish and mix it in. Cover container and microwave another 10 minutes to blend flavors. When done, remove from cooking container and set on individual plates. Top each serving with remaining garnish. Serve hot with mint chutney and raita. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Combine all ingredients in a blender and blend into fine paste. Add water if needed.

This is a mildly flavored creamy dish normally made with nine common vegetables. This recipe uses five vegetables. You can add, subtract or substitute your own favorite vegetables if desired. This is an easy way to make one of the most popular, and time-consuming, vegetarian curries.

Navrattan Korma

(Vegetable Medley in a Mild Creamy Sauce)

1/2 cup cut green beans (cut into 1/2-inch lengths)
1/2 cup cauliflower (cut into small florets)
1/2 cup diced carrots
1/2 cup peas
3 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 cup whipping cream
4 tablespoons ketchup
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup milk
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup sliced onions
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons garam masala (available at Indian grocery stores)
Salt to taste

Precook all vegetables (except onions) by boiling them individually. Or, microwave each vegetable in bowl with 1 cup water for 3 to 4 minutes, then drain.

Combine whipping cream, ketchup, flour and milk in bowl and mix well. Set aside.

Heat butter in pot. Add onions and saute until golden brown. Add prepared vegetables and saute 2 to 3 minutes or until heated through. Add chili powder and garam masala and mix well. Add reserved cream mixture and stir well. Let cook for 6 to 7 minutes. Serve hot with rice. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Besides Indian tea, known as "chai," lassi is the most popular drink of the people of India. It is made either sweet or salty.


(Sweetened Yogurt Drink)

1 cup plain yogurt plus yogurt for garnish (divided)
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup ice cubes
3 to 5 teaspoons sugar
Pinch of salt

In blender, blend all ingredients except yogurt for garnish at high speed until frothy. Divide mixture among 2 or 3 glasses. Top each serving with a dollop of yogurt. Makes 2 or 3 servings.

Salty Lassi 

(Salty Yogurt Drink)

1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 cup plain yogurt plus yogurt for garnish
1 cup chilled milk
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1/2 to 1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup ice cubes

Dry-roast cumin seeds by cooking them over low heat in small pan until you can smell the seasoning, about 2 to 3 minutes. Cool and grind. In blender, blend cumin seed powder with 1 cup yogurt, milk, lemon juice, salt and ice cubes. Divide among glasses and top each serving with a dollop of yogurt for garnish. Serve chilled. Makes 4 servings.

Note: Fat-free plain yogurt can be used for a low-fat drink.

Mango Lassi

(Sweetened Yogurt Drink)

1 cup plain yogurt
1/2 cup mango pulp (fresh or canned)
1 cup crushed ice
2 tablespoons sugar (use sugar substitute if desired)

Blend all ingredients in blender and refrigerate until ready to serve. Serve chilled. Makes about 4 servings.


For more information on the cuisines of India, check out the following cooking classes.

-- Medini Pradhan: Upcoming classes include the following:

-- "Classic Indian Vegetarian Cuisine" will be from 7 to 9:30 p.m. Feb. 16 and March 16.

-- "Introduction to Indian Cuisine" will be from 7 to 9:30 p.m. Feb. 23 and March 23.

-- "Indian Tandoor/Grilling the Indian Way" will be from 7 to 9:30 p.m. March 30.

Classes are $45 each with a $5 discount per person for couples. Register in advance. Classes will be held in Pewaukee. Call (262) 691-9731.

-- Alamelu Vairavan: Two classes on "South Indian Vegetarian Cooking" will be held at Orlanu Therapies, 1025 W. Glen Oaks Lane, Mequon. They will be from 7 to 9 p.m. on Feb. 8 and March 22. Fee is $20 per class. Call (262) 241-7887.

There will be a class on "Healthy Vegetarian Cooking/Low-fat Indian Cooking" from 6:30 to about 8 p.m. April 19 at Oconomowoc Hospital, 791 Summit Ave., Oconomowoc. The cost is $10. Register in advance. (262) 544-2745.

-- Indian Groceries & Spices: Vegetarian cooking classes titled "Naturally Lite N' Easy" will be offered from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. March 29, April 5 and April 12. They will be held at Taste of India Restaurant, lower level, 10900 W. Blue Mound Road, Wauwatosa. Fee is $25 per class or three classes for $70. Register in advance. For information, call (414) 771-3535.


One of the most flavorful spices used in South Indian cuisine is the curry leaf. This green leaf, which is often confused with curry powder, comes on a thin stem and looks somewhat like a bay leaf. The leaf is used whole -- both fresh and dried -- and is most often found in lentil dishes or vegetable curries.

Curry leaves can be purchased fresh at Indian grocery stores and will keep in the refrigerator for about a week. To store them longer, remove the leaves from the stems and place them between paper towels. Microwave on high power 1 minute or until dry. Store in airtight containers.

The curry leaf is used so frequently in India that in tropical areas there, curry plants are grown in backyards and in pots inside homes so that cooks always have it available.


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