In a Madras Kitchen

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The best place to eat in the South Indian city of Madras is Geetha Sashidharan's home. I say that after eating extraordinarily well there for 10 days.

Instead of sightseeing, I would board an auto rickshaw and head to Sashidharan's for lunch, an excursion that occupied most of each day.

It is easy to find her apartment. A cord strung with golden Hindu deities hangs over the doorway, distinguishing it from others in the building. Inside, portraits of deities fashioned of inlaid wood decorate the walls, and a cupboard shows off figures of the elephant-headed god Ganapati, to whom Sashidharan is especially devoted. A puja (prayer) room, where she lights an oil lamp each evening, opens into the living room.

Either Sashidharan or Mary George, her household helper, would hand me a soda or a glass of sweet lime juice the moment I arrived. Then George, a young Tamil Christian from the city of Tiruchirappali (also known as Trichy), would finish cooking lunch.

Using only a two-burner cooktop, she would turn out an amazing variety of dishes in a short time. A pressure cooker speeded up some of her tasks. Indians are quite partial to these utensils, and I saw stacks of them in housewares stores in Madras along with such ancient tools as the wooden beaters used for whipping yogurt to extract the butter.

Sashidharan's tiny bare kitchen contains only a sink, the cooktop and cupboards from which George would extract spices and lentils in stainless steel containers. She explained the dishes in Tamil, speaking as loudly as she could to make me understand. Then Sashidharan would translate into English.

Lunch always included homemade yogurt (or curd, as it is called in India), which Sashidharan would start each morning from the previous day's batch. Mellow compared to tangy American yogurt, it makes wonderful, nutty curd rice, which became one of my favorite dishes. The rice is cooked with tiny white lentils and curry leaves, then mixed with fully set curd and with some that is still fluid. This makes it creamy and very white.

Sashidharan is vegetarian, but her husband and son are not. So George would cook chicken or mutton curry, chicken biryani and other meat dishes along with vegetarian food. Some South Indian vegetarians are so strict they do not eat eggs--I could not get an omelet for breakfast at my hotel, for example. Others, like Sashidharan, will eat fish.

One day, George made a fish curry that was so good I'm sorry I didn't ask for the recipe. Another day we had a delicious shark hash flavored with ginger and curry leaves. The shark is cooked first with turmeric to eliminate fishy aroma.

Madras is on the Bay of Bengal. Seafood is popular there, except during April and May, the hottest months of the year. Then Sashidharan won't buy it for fear of spoilage.

When the heat is really intense, she orders the cooking completed by midmorning, and the family takes refuge in the one air-conditioned bedroom until late afternoon. Fresh fruit juices and ice cream provide some relief.

In March, when I was in Madras, mornings and evenings were cool, but midday was rather hot. So after lunch, we took naps under ceiling fans, arising for afternoon tea at 3. George would boil tea leaves with milk, water, cardamom and sugar, making a very sweet brew.

After that, we'd go shopping. Once George accompanied us to buy an implement she wanted for chopping onions. This was a hinged blade attached at one end to a square plastic board, something she had used in a previous job. We found it in a shop that specializes in the stainless steel kitchenware that is basic to the Indian kitchen. I felt almost dizzy, gazing at the vast array of dazzling, shiny utensils.

We also explored a shop dealing in brassware, including the tall jugs used for carrying water. Women balance these golden pots gracefully on their heads, making a picturesque sight that may soon vanish, to judge by the dull plastic replicas that I glimpsed around communal water pumps.

One day we went to a supermarket, where I saw more varieties of rice and dal (legumes) than I can find at Indian stores in Los Angeles. I bought South Indian coffee, which is famous for its rich, mellow flavor, and plantation-packed Kanan Devan tea from the highlands of Kerala, receiving a pack of Rol-a-Cola (a Lifesavers-like candy from Bombay) in lieu of small change.

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Other days, I simply enjoyed the gentle cadence of life in an Indian household. Each morning, Sashidharan and George would clean the apartment, never winning the battle against dust that drifted up from the busy street three floors below.

The doorbell would ring repeatedly as people arrived to conduct household business. Someone would come to get the laundry, another to collect the ironing. Clothes and linens are pressed by a young fellow in a tiny stall on the sidewalk across the street. He uses a large, heavy iron with hot coals inside.

One afternoon, a man came to change the bulky gas tank that powers the cookstove. Just before lunch, the tiffin carrier would arrive to collect the midday meal for Sashidharan's husband. I watched her pack the day's menu--chicken biryani, rice and pachadi, a salad of red onion and tomato mixed with curd--into a stack of containers latched to a handle at the top. She also sent along potato chips from a fried chips shop around the corner. How nice to have a nice hot lunch from home delivered to one's office every day, I thought.

After lunch, George would watch Tamil films on television in the living room. Sometimes she and Sashidharan would rearrange the furniture to give the room a different look. At teatime, we would lounge on the plush divan or switch to rattan chairs, each fitted with an antimacassar crisply pressed by the ironing man.

Another afternoon, Sashidharan invited her friend Shobana Thomas to drop by. Thomas runs a catering business, manages an ice cream parlor, distributes cheeses and teaches cooking. I was thrilled when she gave me a couple of recipes I had been hunting for. One was Chettinad chicken, a spicy dish from an area south of Madras known for intensely hot food. Another was payaru payasam, a sweet, mung bean porridge spiced with ginger and cardamom and decorated with fried coconut. Indian friends at home had asked for both of these.

On my last day in Madras, Sashidharan and I went to a temple at the village of Mangadu, just outside Madras. The deity at this temple is said to be very powerful, and Sashidharan does puja there every few weeks. Following her example, I bought a mala, a garland composed of 101 limes, as an offering. It cost less than 75 cents at one of the many booths selling religious paraphernalia.

We returned to a sumptuous departure dinner--mutton curry, spiced potatoes combined with tomatoes and red onion, pooris (puffy breads) that George fried in batches so they would be hot and fresh, and pongal, a blend of dal and rice mixed with spices and served with fresh coconut chutney.

I acquired all the recipes by standing in the kitchen as George worked. She could name a few ingredients in English, and I had learned a few in Tamil, like inji for ginger root, so by now we were communicating without translation.

Too soon it was time for a last auto rickshaw ride to my hotel, past walled yards that sprouted bougainvillea and coconut palms, past Thomas' Royal Treat ice cream parlor, skirting huge, placid cattle that ambled across the street or dozed near the curb, avoiding clusters of goats foraging through trash, swerving breathtakingly close to other vehicles.

My luggage, stored at the hotel, was stuffed with spices and cookbooks. The books are interesting, but I haven't worked with them since returning home. I'm too busy recapturing the flavor of Madras with recipes from Sashidharan's household, each seasoned with pleasant memories.

SHARK HASH (Sura Puttu)

The hash is delicious with lime juice squeezed on as you eat.

2 pounds shark steaks

Water

Turmeric

Salt

1/4 cup oil

1 tablespoon chopped ginger root

1 serrano chile, coarsely sliced

6 cloves garlic, chopped

12 curry leaves

2 cups chopped red onions

1 teaspoon butter

1 tablespoon cilantro leaves

Place shark in Dutch oven or large skillet. Add water just to cover, 1/2 teaspoon turmeric and salt to taste. Bring to boil, reduce heat and simmer until fish is cooked through, about 10 minutes. Drain shark and cool. Cut or shred into small pieces, like hash.

Heat oil in wok or skillet. Add ginger, chile, garlic, curry leaves, onion and rounded 1/4 teaspoon turmeric. Cook and stir until onions are tender. Add fish and cook and stir until heated through. Add salt to taste if needed. Stir in butter. Top with cilantro leaves.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Each of 6 servings contains about:

405 calories; 231 mg sodium; 95 mg cholesterol; 24 grams fat; 9 grams carbohydrates; 39 grams protein; 0.68 gram fiber.

CHETTINAD CHICKEN

Caterer Shobana Thomas says this dish should be seasoned with more black pepper and chili powder than most of us could tolerate. Here, the spices are cut in half. The flavor may not be incendiary, but tasters agree it is wonderful. You may, of course, increase the spices to cook a more authentic version.

To make the garlic and ginger pastes called for, separately grind garlic and chopped ginger root with a small amount of water.

1/3 cup oil

1 teaspoon mustard seeds

3 sticks cinnamon

8 whole cloves

8 cardamom pods

1 teaspoon anise seeds

1 large onion, sliced

2 tablespoons garlic paste

1 tablespoon ginger paste

1/2 pound tomatoes, chopped

1 tablespoon ground hot red chiles

1 1/2 teaspoons crushed black peppercorns

1 tablespoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon turmeric

2 pounds chicken, cut in 8 to 12 pieces

2 cups water

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

Heat oil in large skillet. Add mustard seeds and fry until seeds pop. Add cinnamon sticks, cloves, cardamom pods and anise seeds. Add onion and fry until browned. Add garlic paste, ginger paste and tomatoes. Fry until oil appears. Add ground chiles, peppercorns, coriander and turmeric. Add chicken pieces and stir to mix. Cook over high heat until browned. Add water and salt. Cover and cook over low heat until chicken is done and liquid is reduced to a thick sauce, 30 to 45 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Makes 4 servings.

Each serving contains about:

451 calories; 975 mg sodium; 87 mg cholesterol; 37 grams fat; 9 grams carbohydrates; 23 grams protein; 1.22 grams fiber.

GEETHA'S CABBAGE PORIAL

1 small head green cabbage

2 tablespoons oil

1 teaspoon split peeled urad dal

12 curry leaves

1 teaspoon minced ginger root

1 onion, chopped

2 to 3 serrano chiles

Water

1/4 teaspoon turmeric

Salt

Ground hot red chile or black pepper, optional

Quarter cabbage. Remove core and discard. Shred leaves.

Heat oil in wok. Add dal and curry leaves and fry a few moments. Add ginger, then onion and cook until onion is tender, about 10 minutes.

Add serrano chiles, then shredded cabbage. Add water 1 tablespoon at a time as needed. Cook until cabbage is tender, about 15 minutes. Season with turmeric and salt to taste. Add ground chile or pepper if spicy taste is desired.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Each of 6 servings contains about:

132 calories; 116 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 8 grams fat; 16 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; 2.25 grams fiber.

GEETHA'S CURD RICE

Enough yogurt should be stirred into the rice to make it moist and creamy. Serve it at once; do not reheat. We substituted yogurt diluted with milk for the partly set yogurt that Geetha adds. Urad dal is sold in all Indian grocery stores.

1 cup rice

2 cups water

Salt

1 tablespoon oil

1 teaspoon mustard seeds

1 teaspoon split peeled urad dal

8 to 10 curry leaves

1/4 cup yogurt, plus extra if needed

2 tablespoons milk, plus extra if needed

1 tablespoon cilantro leaves

Cook rice in water, covered, until tender and water is absorbed, about 15 minutes. Turn rice into mixing bowl. Mash with potato masher 5 or 6 times, but do not mash to paste. Season to taste with salt.

Heat oil in wok. Add mustard seeds. When they pop, add dal and curry leaves and fry for a few moments. Add to rice and mix. Blend yogurt and milk. Stir into rice. Add more yogurt or yogurt thinned with milk if needed to make rice moist. Top with cilantro and serve at once.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Each of 6 servings contains about:

236 calories; 93 mg sodium; 2 mg cholesterol; 5 grams fat; 43 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams protein; 0.26 gram fiber.

SHOBANA'S LIME RICE

1 cup medium-grain rice

2 cups water

1/2 teaspoon turmeric, optional

1 tablespoon oil

1 teaspoon mustard seeds

1 sprig curry leaves, about 15 leaves

Juice of 1 lime

1 teaspoon salt

Wash rice and drain. Bring water to boil in saucepan. Add turmeric if yellow tint is desired. Add rice, cover pan and cook until water is absorbed.

In another pot, heat oil. Add mustard seeds. When they pop, add curry leaves. Remove from heat. Add fried mixture, lime juice and salt to rice and mix well. Let stand over low heat, covered, 5 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand covered 15 minutes.

Makes 4 servings.

Each serving contains about:

217 calories; 592 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 4 grams fat; 41 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; 0.20 gram fiber.

MUNG BEAN PORRIDGE (Payaru Payasam)

This sweet porridge is served at festivals and weddings.

1 cup unpeeled whole or unpeeled split mung beans

Water

1 cup jaggery (Indian brown sugar)

2 cups canned coconut milk

1 teaspoon finely chopped dried ginger root

1 teaspoon crushed cardamom seeds

2 tablespoons ghee or clarified butter

1 tablespoon fried thinly sliced coconut

Boil mung beans in water to cover until tender, about 45 minutes. Mash well. Combine jaggery with 1 cup water and simmer to make thick syrup. Strain.

Add syrup, coconut milk, ginger and cardamom to mung beans and cook, covered, 15 minutes. Add ghee, stir well and remove from heat. Garnish with coconut pieces.

Makes 4 servings.

Each serving contains about:

593 calories; 98 mg sodium; 16 mg cholesterol; 31 grams fat; 70 grams carbohydrates; 15 grams protein; 4.83 grams fiber.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Elements

Dal: South Indian vegetarian dishes are commonly flavored with a small amount of urad dal . The split legume comes unpeeled (shown) and peeled.

Jaggery: Most Indian shops carry jaggery, or Indian brown sugar, which tastes a little like molasses and may remind some of New Orleans pralines.

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