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The Art of Spicing

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Logam Naidoo Penry was born in Durban, South Africa. But her soft, clipped accent reveals a world of places.

Her mother came from Mauritius, her father’s family from Madras. She was raised by Zulu maids and educated in Scotland. Her husband, Benjamin Penry, is a surgeon from Wales. She practiced anesthesiology in England, spent several years in Canada as an interior designer and is now retired and living in Laguna Niguel.

Penry’s cooking favors her Indian roots. But look closer and you’ll find signs of her mixed background. Consider the pakoras she calls bhajias, as the Indian fritters are known in South Africa. Hers are spidery bites of watercress and green onion, fried to a golden brown and infused with a subtle jolt.

“The kick [from chili powder] is the Creole side of me, the influence of my mother,” she says. “Mauritians love peppery things and use lots of cayenne. But in Indian cooking, if you use chiles, you do not use any pepper.”

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She follows many of her mother’s cooking methods. For instance, she never parboils rice; she washes the grains and sautes them briefly before adding the rice to the pot.

Her samosas are not filled with curry seasoned peas and rice as they might be in the Caribbean; they are instead meat-filled and without the potatoes common in many parts of India.

In most of her vegetable dishes, she skips the curry powder and seasons with turmeric and chiles, cloves or cinnamon. Typical of her family’s style of cooking is using lots of ginger and garlic, whole cloves and cardamom.

In the mid-19th century, Penry’s father’s family moved from Madras to Durban, now the third-largest city in South Africa and the country’s busiest port. Generations of Indians went seeking greener pastures--employment in the sugar industry or trading--and a subtropical climate similar to southern India.

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“My father realized that spices were essential for Indian immigrants and decided to import ingredients not readily available in Durban.” Although the Dutch East India Co. had already brought cinnamon, cloves and bay leaves to Cape Town, her father was the first to import them to Durban. “Things in South Africa back then moved slowly,” she says.

Spices remain close to Penry’s heart.

“Any Indian housewife uses the basic spices and ingredients for curry powder or garam masala and curries,” she says. “But spicing is an art. It’s all about how much or how little. That’s the finesse of the cuisine.”

She prefers to err on the side of underspicing. “Nothing gets doused like the food in Indian restaurants here,” she says.

She believes Indian restaurateurs have given Indian food a bad reputation in this country. In Indian cooking, she says, timing and a light touch are the essence.

“Some think that if they dump in lots of spice, the majority of customers will believe they’re eating Indian,” says Penry, who believes that Indian restaurants in London are more authentic because, she feels, Indian customers there are more demanding. “The scourge [in American restaurants] is curry powder. In restaurateurs’ opinions, the Western world would tackle anything as long as it has a little curry powder.

“In the home, you either make a curry that is mild or hot. You can’t adjust it at the last minute like so many restaurants do. The secret is in braising the spices in ghee [clarified butter] or the oil first, then adding onion. That’s how you get the taste.”

Penry soon hopes to share her taste in a cookbook; recently she’s been testing and compiling the best of her family recipes. The book will include a short history of the migration of Indians to South Africa, their lifestyle, the prejudices they overcame and how they adapted recipes to local foodstuffs.

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None of the recipes will come from the cuisines of Great Britain, Canada or the United States. Other than shortbread, Cornish pasties and steak and kidney pie, she makes few British recipes. The cuisine, she says, is “pretty bland and tasteless.”

Her husband, Benjamin Penry, on the other hand, likes British food and could live happily on scrambled eggs and steak or smoked haddock. The couple’s tastes often go in opposite directions.

When they entertain, he likes to be the wine steward and bartender and is at home in khaki shorts and a camp shirt. She rarely drinks and moves and dresses with elegance.

If he’s in the kitchen cooking to his taste, she manages to doctor her portion of steak and eggs with a tomato sauce spiked with chiles and turmeric. And the subject of wine touches off a well-worn debate. Indians do not drink wine with meals, she claims, because it’s too delicate for a spicy meal. But tea and beer are fine.

“If Ben is going to risk heartburn with curry, which he eats rarely,” she says, “he always chases it with a German wine, usually a Mosel.”

She’s mad about curry and finds any excuse to make it. But she usually ends up eating it with friends or alone.

On this day, he arrives in the living room of their home with his contribution to the cocktail hour, gin and tonic, as she arrives with hers, a platter of crisp samosas, fried pastries filled with ground lamb and flavored with fresh mint, a recipe from her sister.

“My sister made hundreds for our wedding reception in 1959. They melted in the mouth,” Penry says.

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Although she attended college in South Africa, the racial quota for women was filled when she was ready for graduate school, so she joined her sister in Edinburgh, Scotland, for medical school.

After she and Benjamin married, they opened a medical practice in the southeastern English county of Kent. But Great Britain’s socialized medicine, with its demands on doctors’ caseloads, eventually drove them overseas.

By the time he accepted a position in Hamilton, Ontario, she was pregnant with their daughter Vanora. Getting certified to work in North America as an anesthesiologist required more time than she was willing to give, so she switched to interior design.

After 12 years in Canada, they chose to retire in 1979 in California because of the climate and lifestyle.

Their daughter, an electronics engineer in Portland, is helping Penry with her cookbook. Vanora learned to cook by watching her mother.

“The man she eventually married she brought home early in the courtship for one of my curry dinners,” Penry says. “She and I joke, was it my curry or her that he went for?”

Tasting Penry’s wonderful cooking, it’s clear that the curry certainly didn’t hurt.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

KITCHEN TIP

Garam masala is the spice blend usually associated with north Indian cooking. A masala can be a blend of two or three--or a dozen--spices and herbs. Some masalas, based on pepper and cloves, can be fiery; others, made with mace, cinnamon and cardamom, are aromatic.

If a recipe calls for garam masala, be careful. It should be added in the final stage of cooking. Overcooking will cause a bitter taste.

ONION AND WATERCRESS FRITTERS (BHAJIAS) (LESS THAN 30 MINUTES)

People in India call these pakoras or bhajias. Penry says that because of the assertive spice mixture, a dipping sauce isn’t necessary. Grated zucchini and potato can be substituted for the watercress, but do not salt the zucchini. Watercress produces a light, lacy texture, but the recipe with potato and zucchini will be heavier, more solid. Gram flour (made from chickpeas and found in Indian grocery stores) is critical for lightness. Do not substitute regular flour.

1 cup gram (chickpea) flour

1 tablespoon cornstarch

2 teaspoons chili powder or more to taste

1 1/2 teaspoons crushed cumin seeds

1 1/2 teaspoons crushed coriander seeds

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1 bunch watercress, coarsely chopped

1 large onion, thinly sliced

2 to 3 green onions, sliced

Water

Oil

Combine gram flour, cornstarch, chili powder, cumin and coriander seeds, baking powder and salt until evenly distributed.

Add watercress and both onions to dry mixture and toss well to coat greens with spices. (Note: Be certain watercress is dry before using, preferably spun dry in salad spinner.) Add enough water (about 1 1/4 cups) to form thick batter.

Pour oil about 1-inch deep into large skillet and heat to 375 degrees (or when cube of bread added to oil sizzles). Drop batter in heaping teaspoons into oil and fry each side until bhajias turns brown and crisp. As batter hits hot oil, it should take on irregular, lacy look.

Drain bhajias on paper towels. Serve warm.

(Note: Bhajias can be prepared ahead and frozen in layers. To reheat, broil until crisp, turn off oven and let sit until ready to serve.)

4 dozen fritters. Each fritter:

27 calories; 61 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 1 gram fat; 3 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 0.24 gram fiber.

SAMOSAS

Preparation of the pastry for these meat-filled pastry appetizers is time-consuming; won ton wrappers or packaged turnover dough may be substituted. Unlike many recipes for filling, this one, from Penry’s sister, does not call for potatoes. The ginger, garlic and jalapen~o for the filling are pounded with a mortar and pestle. Use a little of the 1/2 teaspoon of salt called for in the recipe to help smooth the ginger and garlic into a rough paste.

KIMA FILLING

1 clove garlic

1 slice (about size of quarter) ginger root

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 jalapen~o, pounded to puree, or 1/2 teaspoon chili powder, optional

1/2 pound ground lamb

1 teaspoon oil

1/2 large onion, finely chopped

1/2 tablespoon butter

1/2 green onion, finely chopped

1 tablespoon mint leaves, finely chopped

1/2 tablespoon lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon garam masala

PASTRY

1/4 cup milk

1/4 cup water

1/2 teaspoon salt or to taste

Butter

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

Flour

Oil

KIMA FILLING

Pound garlic, ginger and salt to rough paste with mortar and pestle. Add jalapen~o and pound into paste.

Saute lamb in oil with paste mixture over high heat. When meat is crumbly and liquid has been absorbed, about 8 minutes, add onion and cook until all moisture has evaporated, about 4 minutes. (Note: If using chili powder instead of jalapen~o, add now.)

Remove from heat and add butter, green onion, mint, lemon juice and garam masala. Let cool.

PASTRY

Bring milk and water to boil, remove from heat and pour into mixing bowl. Add salt, 1 teaspoon butter and baking powder. Add as much flour as necessary to form stiff dough, about 1 1/2 cups. Divide into 4 portions.

Roll each portion into paper-thin rectangle, about 10x4 inches. Melt 1/4 cup butter and brush on 1 side of each rectangle; sprinkle lightly with flour.

Stack rectangles to form 4 layers, making certain top and bottom are not greased.

Cut in half, brush top of 1 stack with butter, sprinkle with flour, and stack on top of other, to make 8 layers.

Roll to paper-thin, then cut in half and stack 1 half on other after again brushing with butter and sprinkling with flour, to make 16 layers.

Roll dough to 1/8-inch thickness and cut into 5-inch circles. Cut each circle in half. Combine 3 tablespoons water with 2 tablespoons flour to make paste. Moisten edges of each circle with flour paste.

Wrap each into cone and fill with 1 1/2 tablespoons Kima Filling. Close and seal with flour paste by pinching edges. As each samosa is completed, place on plate and cover with damp cloth.

Pour oil 3 inches deep in wok or deep skillet and heat until 375 degrees. Fry samosas in batches, about 3 at a time, until golden, about 2 minutes per batch.

12 samosas. Each samosa:

88 calories; 259 mg sodium; 20 mg cholesterol; 8 grams fat; 2 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams protein; 0.05 gram fiber.

CHICKEN CURRY

MARINADE

1 1/2 tablespoons curry powder

4 to 5 cloves garlic

1 piece ginger root, about 1-inch long

1 1/2 teaspoons turmeric

2 sticks cinnamon

6 cloves

6 pods cardamom, crushed, about 1 1/2 teaspoons

1/2 cup plain yogurt

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into bite-size pieces

STEW

1/4 cup oil

2 large onions, sliced

2 to 3 bay leaves

1 teaspoon salt

1 tomato, chopped

1 to 2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 cup frozen lima beans, thawed

1 green onion, sliced

1 tablespoon chopped cilantro, optional

1 teaspoon garam masala

Most Indian families have their own recipes for curry powder, garam masala and chicken curry. Although the ingredients are pretty universal, the difference, says Penry, is in what quantity the spices are measured. Characteristic of her family is a preference for a lighter, more subtle combination of flavors. Other vegetables can be substituted for the lima beans: 1/2 cup frozen peas, thawed, or three zucchini, sliced about 1/2-inch-thick and sauteed.

MARINADE

Pound curry powder, garlic and ginger to rough paste with mortar and pestle. Add turmeric, cinnamon, cloves and cardamom. Stir mixture into yogurt. Marinate chicken in yogurt mixture in refrigerator about 40 minutes.

STEW

Heat oil in skillet and saute 1 onion over medium-high heat until golden brown, about 10 minutes. Add bay leaves and chicken pieces with marinade. Stir and cook until all spices are blended and meat turns slightly brown, about 8 minutes. Add salt, remaining onion, tomato and lemon juice. Simmer until sauce thickens and coats back of spoon, 5 to 8 minutes. Add lima beans and continue to simmer.

When curry is thick and reddish brown in color, add green onion and cilantro. Remove bay leaves and cinnamon sticks.

Add garam masala 5 to 10 minutes before serving, stir and immediately remove from heat. (Overcooking will cause bitterness.)

4 servings. Each serving:

379 calories; 800 mg sodium; 58 mg cholesterol; 24 grams fat; 20 grams carbohydrates; 23 grams protein; 1.61 grams fiber.


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