Himalayan Simplicity

TIMES STAFF WRITER

I can't get over how good the meals are at Goomtee Tea Estate. This is the tea garden that I am visiting on my way to Darjeeling.

My lodging is an old Raj-style guest bungalow, and since I am the only visitor, the food is prepared just for me. The ingredients are simple: a few vegetables, very few spices, no fresh herbs--and no meat.

Goomtee's owners and managers are vegetarians who exclude even eggs from their diet, yet I never feel deprived. The food is delicious, light and very fresh. It is radically different from what I am accustomed to in Los Angeles, where Indian dishes are routinely over-spiced and over-sauced.

Goomtee is nestled in the Himalayas, about an hour and a half by winding road from Darjeeling. The vegetables I am eating are grown locally. In Mahanadi, the nearest town, I see mainly cauliflower, cabbage, eggplant, potatoes, carrots, peas and red onions the size of an overgrown shallot.

These, along with dal (lentils) and rice, are transformed into sumptuous dishes by Goomtee's cook, Prem Pradhan. Like most of the tea garden employees, Pradhan is a Ghorka whose ancestors came to West Bengal from Nepal. He has cooked at Goomtee for about 15 years.

When Pradhan learns of my interest in food, I am invited into the kitchen. It is a bare, dark room. At first I don't see the stove because it is flat and smooth, like a built-in counter. Then Pradhan lifts a round lid, and I see coals blazing inside. I am surprised to learn the stove is made of iron. It looks like concrete, thanks to a coating of clay for insulation.

Once a dish is cooked, Pradhan sets it aside on the broad, smooth, hot surface, and it stays warm until served. The coals are extremely hot, and Pradhan cooks the dishes in a small wok-shaped pan (karhi).

As Pradhan works, the bungalow manager, Bandhu Rauth, explains each step, and I scribble down the recipes. This becomes a routine. Before lunch and dinner, I go to the kitchen and watch the preparation of each dish. It is easy to gauge the quantities because Pradhan is working with small amounts. I can count, for example, the number of cloves or cardamom pods that go into a dish.

The first night, Pradhan asks me to choose a vegetable, any vegetable. I go to the refrigerator and select a small eggplant. Soon it is in the karhi, along with onion, ginger, green chiles and spices spooned out of small metal containers stored in a metal box.

The seasonings Pradhan uses repeatedly include cumin, brown mustard and coriander seeds, ground turmeric and a redder chile powder than I have ever seen. He also uses a lot of fresh ginger, which is a major crop in this part of India. And he adds sugar to some dishes. The sugar here is very coarse, and the shiny crystals look to me like something that would command a high price in fancy markets at home.

The eggplant also receives a dash of panch phoron, a popular Bengali blend of five spices: mustard, fennel, cumin, fenugreek and kalonji. I taste the eggplant and I can't believe how wonderful it is. Fragrant with spices, it possesses an intriguing nip of heat from the chiles and ginger.

The other dishes Pradhan prepares for dinner that night are cauliflower combined with carrots and peas, rice pullao with vegetables, home-fried potatoes and freshly made chapatis that are smaller and far more delicate than those I encounter in restaurants in India. For dessert, there is preserved fruit from a hybrid orange-lime that grows on the property. The fruit is deep orange in color but has the sharp taste of a lime.

One of Pradhan's most intriguing dishes appears at lunch the next day. It is fried rice with cucumber, a combination I have not seen before. Pradhan garnishes the dish with finely shredded potato he has fried to a golden brown. The seasonings are minimal: some onion, salt and two quintessentially Bengali ingredients--mustard seeds and mustard oil.

I am so taken with the rice that I ask Pradhan to pose for a picture holding the platter. As fussy about his appearance as he is about his cooking, he takes a few moments to change into a spiffy white chef's jacket.

For this same lunch, Pradhan cooks spicy green peas, a dish I love. He uses fresh peas that, when cooked, are firm to the bite and wonderfully seasoned.

Pradhan also prepares dal, using small yellow lentils he has cooked previously in a pressure cooker, which is a basic utensil in many Indian homes. The dal is a wonderful blend of lentils, eggplant, tomato, carrot, potato and spices.

A crisp, freshly roasted papad (lentil wafer) and more of the preserved orange-lime follow. And, as usual, there is freshly brewed tea from the estate. It is a treat to sample the golden beverage that has made Darjeeling world-famous. The custom is to serve sugar and a pitcher of hot milk on the side for each person to add as desired.

That night, Pradhan makes sweet tomato chutney seasoned with panch phoron. The tantalizing flavor makes me glad I can buy this spice mixture in Los Angeles. For this meal, green peas go into a pullao delicately seasoned with cinnamon, cloves and cardamom. There is also a "dry" dish of potatoes and carrots flavored with cumin and lots of fresh ginger.

At home I eat very little breakfast, just toast, tea and fruit. But at Goomtee, the breakfasts are substantial, and much more appealing to me than conventional American bacon and eggs. On my last morning, I eat corn flakes, then vegetable sandwiches and cheese toast. The toast is topped with a cooked vegetable mixture seasoned with ginger, cilantro and chiles and with paneer cheese made from fresh milk delivered to Goomtee. This is plenty of food, but I also make room for fried potatoes seasoned with ground chiles and a sweet farina pudding.

Tea is especially welcome this day because it is winter and the weather is chilly. And I am about to drive to higher altitudes where it will be really cold.

By the time I leave, I have written down a dozen of Pradhan's recipes and descriptions of even more dishes. His cooking is the simplest I have seen in India. The recipes take very little time and are just right for those who want to eat lightly and, of course, for vegetarians. After returning home, I spend days as a vegetarian myself while trying them out.

Ingredients for the following dishes are available in supermarkets in Los Angeles except for toor dal, panch phoron, brown mustard seeds and mustard oil. These can be found in Indian shops, which also stock papads, pickles and typical breads to round out a meal. I often add a green salad, which is something you do not get in India. Water is the typical beverage, but fresh limeade or lemonade would also be nice.

PREM'S EGGPLANT (LOW-FAT COOKING)

2 Asian eggplants

1 to 2 tablespoons oil

1 cup thinly sliced red onion

2 teaspoons chopped ginger root

1 to 2 serrano chiles, chopped

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon panch phoron

1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

1 teaspoon coriander

1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon ground dried New Mexico or California chiles

3/4 cup warm water

Cut eggplants in half lengthwise. Cut each half into quarters lengthwise, then cut crosswise into chunks.

Heat oil in small wok or skillet. Add onion, ginger and chiles and cook until onion is tender, 3 to 4 minutes. Add panch phoron, cumin, turmeric, coriander and sugar and stir. Add eggplant, salt, chili powder and water and stir. Cook until tender, 5 to 8 minutes.

4 servings. Each serving:

71 calories; 601 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 4 grams fat; 9 grams carbohydrates; 1 grams protein; 1.12 grams fiber.

PREM'S DAL (LOW-FAT COOKING)

2/3 cup split peeled toor dal

3 cups water

1 tablespoon mustard oil

1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 teaspoon minced ginger root

1 serrano chile

1/2 cup sliced red onion

1 small tomato, sliced

1 (4- to 5-ounce) white or Yukon Gold potato, peeled, cubed and boiled

1/4 cup chopped cooked carrot

1/2 cup cooked eggplant, cut into slim 1 1/2-inch-long strips

1/4 teaspoon turmeric

1/4 teaspoon ground dried New Mexico or California chiles

1 teaspoon salt

Wash dal, place in large saucepan and add water. Bring to boil, reduce heat and simmer, covered, until dal is just tender, 20 to 25 minutes.

Heat oil in wok over medium-high heat. Add cumin, ginger and whole chile and stir 1 minute. Add onion and cook until tender, 4 to 5 minutes. Add tomato and cook until softened, about 2 minutes. Add potato, carrot, eggplant, turmeric, chili powder and salt and stir. Add dal and enough cooking liquid to make moist and fairly fluid and simmer until liquid thickens to sauce-like consistency, 5 to 10 minutes.

4 servings. Each serving:

188 calories; 607 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 4 grams fat; 30 grams carbohydrates; 10 grams protein; 2.52 grams fiber.

GREEN PEAS WITH TOMATO

1 1/2 tablespoons mustard oil

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 1/2 teaspoons minced ginger root

1 cup diced red onion

2 teaspoons chopped garlic

1 cup diced tomato

1/4 teaspoon turmeric

1/4 teaspoon red ground New Mexico or California chiles

2 cups frozen peas

1 cup water

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon sugar

Heat oil in wok. Add cumin, ginger, onion and garlic and cook, stirring, until onion is tender, about 5 minutes. Add tomato and cook until softened, about 2 minutes. Stir in turmeric and chili powder. Add peas, water, salt and sugar and boil until liquid is reduced slightly and ingredients are blended, 5 to 10 minutes.

4 servings. Each serving:

133 calories; 384 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 6 grams fat; 17 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams protein; 2.18 grams fiber.

INDIAN FRIED RICE WITH CUCUMBER

1 tablespoon mustard oil

1/2 teaspoon mustard seeds

1 cup chopped red onion

1 cup cucumber, cut into 1/4-inch sticks about 1 1/2 inches long

1/2 teaspoon salt

4 cups cooked cooked rice

1/3 to 1/2 cup deep-fried finely shredded potato

Heat oil in wok. Add mustard seeds and red onion and cook, stirring, until onion is tender, about 5 minutes. Add cucumber and stir until heated through, 1 to 2 minutes. Add salt and stir. Then add rice and toss together. Turn out onto platter and top with fried potato shreds.

4 servings. Each serving:

353 calories; 367 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 6 grams fat; 67 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams protein; 0.68 gram fiber.

TOMATO CHUTNEY (LOW-FAT COOKING)

2 tablespoons mustard oil

1 teaspoon panch phoron (see Chef's Tip)

1 tablespoon chopped ginger root

1 pound tomatoes, cut in wedges

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup sugar

Heat oil in wok. Add panch phoron and ginger and stir. Add tomatoes, turmeric, salt and sugar. Bring to boil and cook, stirring often, until thickened, about 10 minutes.

About 1 1/3 cups. Each 1-tablespoon serving:

27 calories; 61 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 1 gram fat; 4 grams carbohydrates; 0 protein; 0.15 gram fiber.

CUMIN-SEASONED POTATOES AND CARROTS (LOW-FAT COOKING)

This is a dry dish, no sauce. A firm boiling potato works well. Yukon Gold gives a nice golden color.

2 (5-ounce) boiling potatoes, peeled and boiled

2 (4-ounce) carrots, boiled

1 tablespoon butter

3 tablespoons fine long shreds ginger root

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

2/3 cup diced red onion

1/2 teaspoon salt

Halve potatoes lengthwise, then cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Cut carrots crosswise in 1/4-inch-thick slices.

Heat butter in wok. Add ginger root and stir. Add cumin and onion and cook until onion is tender but not browned, about 5 minutes. Add potatoes, carrots and salt. Cook, stirring carefully, until ingredients are mixed and vegetables are heated through, 1 to 2 minutes.

4 servings. Each serving:

125 calories; 366 mg sodium; 8 mg cholesterol; 3 grams fat; 23 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams protein; 1.31 grams fiber.

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CHEF'S TIPS

Panch phoron is a mixture of five spices--fennel, fenugreek, cumin, kalonji and mustard, all in seed form. Widely used in West Bengal, India, and in Bangladesh, it is available at most Indian markets in Southern California.

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Pes-bi-pes glassware from Zero Minus, Santa Monica, and Lulu's, Manhattan Beach.

(H1), Venezia Blue Poland platter from Pottery Shack, Laguna Beach

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