Fine Indian cooking welcomes the age of the microwave


October 17, 1990|By Lynn Williams

In India, Julie Sahni says, gourmets are known as "real Moghuls." Those who dine well, like those who appreciate art and culture and elegance, are the true heirs to the luxury-loving aristocrats who ruled India from the 16th to the 19th centuries. The Indian subcontinent may be a democracy these days, but its Moghul heritage lives on, thanks to all those high-living neo-Moghuls who have elevated lifestyle to an art form, and to the large number of braised dishes and stews brought by the original Moghuls from their native Persia, and incorporated into the Indian repertoire.

This style of cooking can be compared to classical French cuisine, explains Ms. Sahni, a Delhi-born, New York-based cooking teacher, food writer, consultant, cookbook author and former restaurateur. Moghul is not only the cuisine of the upper classes, but uses time-consuming techniques and slow-cooking methods that might make it a bit of a challenge for the time-pressed amateur cook.

Until now. In her new newest book, the author of "Classic Indian Cooking" has taken the cooking style that came to India four centuries ago, and transformed it for the electromagnetic-age kitchen. "Moghulstory, Microwave," recently published by Morrow, takes the technology used most often to zap a cup of coffee or "nuke" a slice of bacon, and marries it with the aromatic spices, savory meats and delicate pilafs that once were painstakingly prepared in the kitchens of palaces.

"It all goes back to 1974, when a girlfriend of mine in Washington was one of the salespersons for Amana microwave ovens," Ms. Sahni explained during a phone interview from her New York publicist's offices. "She was showing it in a local Sears, and she said she could get me one at a discount. I was absolutely amazed at the way it cooked. I was attracted by its neatness and its cleanness, and it was fast."

At the time, Ms. Sahni's admiration was rare among food professionals, who were suspicious even of food processors. And she, too, was slow to appreciate her microwave's potential. "I'm such an old-fashioned person, I used to write my interviews with a notebook and a fountain pen," she admitted. "I didn't even use a ballpoint!"

"I didn't think of it as a cook's instrument," she said of the microwave. "I felt that if I went out and showed it to people, they would think it was a gimmick."

It was her sister, Roopa Gir, who encouraged Ms. Sahni to use her "Radarange" not only for simple heating jobs in the privacy of her kitchen, but to try it out on the sensuous, spicy Indian dishes that had made her reputation.

"My sister said 'If you concentrate on Indian cooking, you could do wonders for people in this country. You should tell people that this will be the way to cook in the 1990s.' "

The first Indian specialty Ms. Sahni cooked in the microwave was pappadum, a spicy lentil cracker that is usually deep-fried. She put an uncooked round of pappadum (available in Indian food stores) in her microwave and set the machine for 50 seconds. The wafer sprang to life, rising and bubbling bit by bit, until the whole round was pale, nubbly and toasty. Not only did she have finished pappadum in seconds, without the mess, hazard and calories of fat-frying, but she could actually see how the microwaves worked.

Encouraged, Ms. Sahni went to work adapting her favorite recipes, and discovered that she could create excellent results in a fraction of the time. She also believes that in many cases the microwaved product was superior to the traditionally-cooked original. Moghul dishes, which are often made using the techniques of braising, stewing, poaching and steaming, were especially successful. Stews could cook thoroughly without stirring, so that the ingredients held their shape instead of falling apart. There was no burning, and meats stayed moist. Tricky rice worked flawlessly when Ms. Sahni experimented with the timing and the proportions. Even tandoori chicken, usually baked in a clay oven, was microwave-friendly.

"The spices, which are the pillar of Indian cooking, take on unequaled flavor and toastiness in the microwave, thus giving any Indian dish you cook a fabulous flavor, without adding any butter or cream," Ms. Sahni enthused.

During the five years she spent on "Moghul Microwave," Ms. Sahni saw the appliance gain wide acceptability. Advances in safety features, improved design and more kitchenware made especially for microwaving alleviated much of the public's suspicion about the new technology, and Barbara Kafka's 1987 "Microwave Gourmet" gave ideas for expanding its culinary possibilities.

But the ancient art of Indian cooking gone microwave? Many of Ms. Sahni's food-professional friends -- "Don't use their names," she said, but they include a number of famous chefs and writers -- were not inclined to believe it, until they sampled an Indian feast at her house, and learned that all of the dishes had been made using a microwave oven.

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