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Spices by the Book

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Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni works magic--sometimes with words, sometimes with a saucepan.

Her recently published novel, “The Mistress of Spices” (Anchor Books, $22.95), is set in an Indian grocery in Oakland, where Tilo, the proprietress, dispenses spices like magical charms to heal the sundry problems of her customers.

At home in Sunnyvale in the Bay Area, Divakaruni employs spices in a broad range of Indian dishes. Some reflect her Bengali background; others, her husband’s origins in south India.

That she cooks at all is remarkable considering her hectic life. In addition to touring on behalf of her book, Divakaruni has two sons, 2 and 5, and teaches English and creative writing at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills.

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“Every weekend I have to make pancakes and French toast and pizza for my little boys,” she says. But she also serves them chicken curry and south Indian dishes her husband likes, including the crepe-like dosas and steamed rice cakes called idlis, as well as yogurt rice and eggplant chutney.

Although she is a vegetarian, Divakaruni prepares meat dishes for her children. “I want it to be their own choice,” she says.

Divakaruni moved from India to the United States in 1976 to do graduate work in Ohio and later earned her doctorate in English at UC Berkeley. Before her novel, she published poetry and short stories, and she is already planning a second food-related novel. “Food is central to my life, and therefore it’s a big part of my writing,” she says.

The grocery in “The Mistress of Spices” is a composite of Bay Area shops she has visited. The spices are important characters, “a metaphor of how we take things that are common to us for granted and don’t know their magic and power,” she says. “One of the connected thoughts of the novel is that there is magic in our everyday life and we have to know how to find it.”

Turmeric, for example, could be nothing more than a powder that turns food electric yellow. In “The Mistress of Spices,” it becomes “dust from a butterfly wing.” And in Divakaruni’s kitchen, it is essential. “Almost all Indian curries use turmeric,” she says.

Growing up in Calcutta, Divakaruni saw this spice used as a food preservative, antiseptic, healing agent and cosmetic. “As soon as fish came from the market, my mother would cut it up and put turmeric paste all over it,” she says. “Then it wouldn’t spoil, even though not refrigerated, until it was cooked later in the day.”

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When Divakaruni sprained her ankle as a child, a paste of turmeric and lime was applied to reduce the swelling. Turmeric root ground with milk was employed as a facial masque. “In about half an hour, you would wash it off and you would have very smooth, flawless skin,” she says. “It sort of tightens everything up so you don’t sag. It’s soothing too.”

Fenugreek is another of her favorites. In the novel, she compares the taste to “waterweeds in a wild place, the cry of gray geese.” In her kitchen, Divakaruni sautes fenugreek seeds with turmeric and cumin as a seasoning for green beans.

“Fenugreek is given to women after childbirth,” she says. The seeds are soaked, then chewed and swallowed and the soaking liquid taken as a beverage. Divakaruni took fenugreek after the birth of her own children.

Last winter, she returned to the village of Gurap, north of Calcutta, where, as a child, she visited her grandparents. “It was a real rural setting,” she recalls.

“They had no running water or electricity. The food was wonderful. It was very traditional Bengali cuisine, and very fresh. Everything was grown right there. When it was harvest time, there would be big piles of red chiles drying in my grandparents’ courtyard.”

Food for the day was cooked in the morning in big earthen ovens fueled by coal. In the evening, the dishes were reheated on a kerosene stove.

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The chief spices used in that village are mustard seeds, cumin, fennel, turmeric and red chile. Another spice popular in Bengal is nigella (kalonji). “It is very powerful,” Divakaruni warns. “Traditionally, it would be sauteed with green chiles, onions and turmeric. Then you would add fish and fry it.”

Bengalis also season with the large brown-skinned cardamom, which differs in flavor from common cardamom. Divakaruni grinds the seeds to a fine powder and sprinkles it over rice pudding.

Like most Bengalis, she uses mustard seeds liberally. “They are very good for sauteing with vegetables,” she says. For sauces, she soaks the seeds, then grinds them with water in the blender. “If you really run out of time, which sometimes I do, you can buy mustard powder. I think the Chinese mustard powder is the best because it is hot.” This she mixes with warm water and oil, three parts water to one of oil until she gets a smooth paste.

The following recipes from Divakaruni bring to life dishes mentioned in “The Mistress of Spices.” Together they form a complete vegetarian meal.

CUCUMBER RAITA

Divakaruni writes of cool bowls of raita in “The Mistress of Spices,” a soothing accompaniment to many Indian dishes. It’s wonderful with the cholar dal.

2 large cucumbers

Salt

1 (16-ounce) container plain yogurt

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 teaspoon sugar

Dash hot red pepper, optional

1 tablespoon chopped cilantro, optional

Peel cucumbers and grate into bowl. Sprinkle with salt and let stand 30 minutes. Squeeze out liquid.

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Beat yogurt until soft. Add cucumbers and mix well.

Roast cumin seeds in dry skillet. When lightly browned and fragrant, grind in coffee or spice grinder.

Add cumin and sugar to yogurt-cucumber mixture and mix well. Turn into serving bowl and chill. Just before serving, garnish with pinch red pepper and chopped cilantro.

2 1/2 cups. Each tablespoon:

14 calories; 19 mg sodium; 2 mg cholesterol; 1 gram fat; 2 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 0.10 gram fiber.

VEGETABLE PULLAO

This is a typical Bengali basmati rice dish. Properly made, as Divakaruni describes it in her novel, “the basmati [is] soaked just the right amount of time, the kesar [saffron] sprinkled in, the peas, the roasted cashews and fried onions for garnish . . . the spices: clove, cardamom, cinnamon, a pinch of sugar. Ghee. Maybe a dusting of black pepper.”

2 cups basmati rice

1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon ghee (clarified butter), vegetable oil or butter

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 large bay leaf

1 stick cinnamon

1/2 cup raisins

3 3/4 cups boiling water

1 cup thawed frozen mixed peas and diced carrots

Pinch saffron threads

Salt

1 onion, cut in long thin slices

1/2 cup raw cashews

Soak rice in water to cover 30 minutes. Drain.

Heat 1/4 cup ghee in Dutch oven. Add cumin, bay leaf, cinnamon and raisins. When cumin seeds begin to sputter, add drained rice, boiling water, peas and carrots, saffron and salt to taste. Bring to boil, reduce heat to low and cook, covered, until rice is done, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from heat and keep warm.

Heat remaining 1 tablespoon ghee. Add onion and cashews and cook until both are golden brown. Fluff rice, turn into serving dish and garnish with onion and cashews.

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6 to 8 servings. Each of 8 servings:

338 calories; 144 mg sodium; 23 mg cholesterol; 13 grams fat; 51 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams protein; 0.69 gram fiber.

CHOLAR DAL WITH COCONUT (VEGETARIAN)

The main dish is Bengali cholar dal with coconut, a dish featured in “The Mistress of Spices.” Although the raisins are optional, the faint hint of sweet they add makes this dal exceptional. Serve the dal hot spooned over Vegetable Pullao.

1 cup channa dal

Water

1 cup chopped tomatoes

1/2 cup fresh coconut, chopped into fine slivers

1 tablespoon grated ginger root

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

2 teaspoons salt, or to taste

2 tablespoons ghee (clarified butter), vegetable oil or butter

1 bay leaf

4 whole cloves

2 small cardamom pods, split open

1 stick cinnamon

1 teaspoon cumin

1 teaspoon coriander

1 whole small dried red chile

1/2 cup raisins, optional

1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar

Soak channa dal in warm water to cover 2 to 3 hours. Drain.

Bring drained dal and 4 to 4 1/2 cups water to boil in large pan. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook until slightly softened, about 15 minutes. Skim off any white scum that forms on surface.

Add tomatoes, coconut, ginger, turmeric and salt. Cover and cook over low heat until dal is almost tender to the bite, 15 to 20 minutes longer.

Heat ghee in skillet and add bay leaf, cloves, cardamom pods, cinnamon, cumin, coriander, dried chile and raisins. When all spices are browned and sputtering, pour onto dal and mix. Add sugar to taste. Cook, stirring occasionally, until dal is thickened to texture of soup. Remove bay leaf before serving.

4 to 6 servings. Each of 6 servings:

181 calories; 838 mg sodium; 10 mg cholesterol; 7 grams fat; 23 grams carbohydrates; 10 grams protein; 2.52 grams fiber.

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Kitchen Tips

Ghee--clarified butter--plays as great a part in Indian cooking as olive oil does in Italian. It’s sold in Indian grocery stores and in many supermarkets. It’s also simple to make: Melt butter, skim off the foam, then pour the liquid butterfat into a separate pan, leaving the watery whey behind. Use the clear liquid especially for sauteing and baking.

*There are many varieties and colors of the legume family of dals. Channa dal resembles yellow split peas and is quick-cooking once it’s soaked. It’s sold in Indian grocery stores and some supermarkets.

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