Meet Baba, the Spice Master

How could I eat such a huge plateful of starchy-looking food? I was gazing at the Indian vegetarian dishes that TV chef Baba had just prepared.

Baba--that's the only name he uses--cooks regularly on "The George and Alana Show." He's a new Hollywood guru, busily engaged in teaching meditation, regulating karmas and preaching the healthful benefits of a spicy diet.

"You will be hungry in an hour," he predicted, as we sat down to lunch on the set. This was hard to believe given the generous servings of lentils, rice, potatoes and garbanzo beans that faced me.

Normally a light eater, I consumed every scrap and, amazingly, felt as if I had merely toyed with a few appetizers. An hour later, I was not exactly hungry, but I certainly did not have that miserable stuffed feeling that usually follows a heavy lunch.

If anything, I was on the road to greater health, as promised by the ancient Indian code of healthful living called Ayurveda. Spices, says Baba, are the key to well-being. In India, spices not only season food but also are used as remedies.

Instead of taking an antacid, for instance, Baba says to drink a glass of water containing a teaspoon of cumin, a dash of salt and some lemon juice. He recommends coriander for sleeplessness, turmeric for the liver, cloves to warm the system and ginger to warm and cleanse the throat.

Baba's lunch contained all of these, plus his personal blend of curry powder that calls for 16 spices. He makes food spicy-hot with ginger, not chiles or black pepper.

"Spices are good for you. If you don't like Indian food, put them into pasta," he says.

Instead of rich Indian ghee (clarified butter), Baba cooks with extra-virgin olive oil. "Spices neutralize the taste of the ghee or oil," he says, "so they wind up tasting the same."

Italy was Baba's first stop on the road to Hollywood. There he linked up with celebrities Randy Quaid and George Hamilton. In addition to appearing on Hamilton's show, Baba cooks for private parties at Hamilton's cigar and wine bar in Beverly Hills and claims that he has balanced Hamilton's karma. How? By encouraging the actor to do good and avoid acquiring material things.

Baba was born in Goa on the west coast of India to a Christian mother and Hindu father. At 9, he was sent to a temple at Dharmsala, the north Indian home in exile of Tibet's Dalai Lama. He remained at the temple for 10 years, learning about spices and simple healthful cookery along with Buddhist philosophy.

He then went to Europe, hoping to break into the film business. In Rome, he landed a job as a runner at Cinecitta studio. His Asian background made him a natural for liaison work on the film "Little Buddha." In 1994, he was executive producer of a documentary on Tibetan refugees in India. Last month, he returned to India to take part in a film festival and revisit Dharmsala.

Although Baba has demonstrated chicken curry on "The George and Alana Show," he is a vegetarian. His recipes are simple, fast and mostly salt-free. And they use very little oil, which makes them perfect for recovery from holiday overindulgence.

BABA BURGER

1 1/2 pounds white potatoes

1 teaspoon olive oil

1/4 pound canned garbanzos, mashed

1/4 teaspoon curry powder

1/4 teaspoon ground coriander

1/4 teaspoon turmeric

Peel potatoes and boil in water to cover until tender. Drain, then mash until smooth.

Heat olive oil in skillet. Add 1 cup mashed potatoes, garbanzos, curry powder, coriander and turmeric. Saute 10 minutes. Divide into 6 portions.

Divide remaining mashed potatoes into 6 portions. Place 1 portion in palm of 1 hand and pat with other hand into shell. Place 1/6 garbanzo bean mixture in center and close potato shell around filling. Shape into ball. Repeat with remaining potatoes and filling.

Place in ungreased nonstick skillet over low heat and cook 10 minutes, turning to brown top and bottom (sides will remain white).

Makes 6 patties.

Each patty contains about:

119 calories; 63 mg sodium; 0 mg cholesterol; 1 gram fat; 25 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams protein; 0.75 grams fiber.

GARBANZO BEANS IN CURRY

1 tablespoon olive oil

1/2 pound brown onions, chopped

1 teaspoon grated ginger root

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon curry powder

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon dried mango powder (amchoor)

1 pound canned garbanzos

1 large white potato, peeled and sliced

1 pound tomatoes, chopped

Heat olive oil in nonstick skillet, add onions and saute 10 minutes. Add ginger, coriander, curry powder, cumin and mango powder and cook over low heat 5 minutes. Add garbanzos and potato and cook 20 to 30 minutes. Add tomatoes and cook until softened, about 3 minutes.

Makes 4 main course or 6 side dish servings.

Each main course serving contains about:

230 calories; 353 mg sodium; 0 mg cholesterol; 5 grams fat; 40 grams carbohydrates; 8 grams protein; 2.71 grams fiber.

BABA'S DAL

1/4 pound (2/3 cup) lentils

2 cups water

1 teaspoon olive oil

1 small onion, chopped

1 clove garlic, chopped

1/2 teaspoon ground coriander

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/8 teaspoon turmeric

1/8 teaspoon vegetable salt or sea salt

1 medium tomato, chopped

Steamed basmati rice

Use ordinary supermarket lentils for this recipe. The lentils will be dry, not soupy.

Rinse lentils. Place in saucepan, add water and bring to boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer until tender, about 20 minutes. Drain.

Heat olive oil in nonstick skillet, add onion and garlic and saute over medium heat 10 minutes, stirring often. Add coriander, cumin, turmeric and salt and cook 3 minutes. Add tomato and lentils, stir to mix and cook 10 minutes. Serve with rice.

Makes 4 servings.

Each serving, without rice, contains about:

133 calories; 81 mg sodium; 0 mg cholesterol; 2 grams fat; 22 grams carbohydrates; 9 grams protein; 2.01 grams fiber.

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