The Diplomatic Touch

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Forty guests were about to arrive for Sunday lunch. Two buffet lines were set up with generously laden platters of identical dishes: seven entrees, salad and four desserts, each time-consuming to prepare.

Faced with such a prospect, the average hostess would call a caterer. But not Nina Haroon. She cooked the entire meal herself.

Haroon performs similarly amazing feats frequently because her husband, Mohammad-al-Haroon, is the consul general of Bangladesh in Los Angeles, and they entertain constantly. Even for a small lunch with only one guest, Haroon turns out five main dishes, a vegetable, salad and two desserts.

Haroon confides that she didn't know how to cook when she moved abroad because well-brought-up girls of her generation were not encouraged to go into the kitchen. "When I learned cooking," she says, "I learned by myself."

She left home with a Bangladeshi cookbook and some guidance on how to prepare simple, everyday curries. Her husband's postings gave her an opportunity to exchange recipes with women from other countries. "Wherever we went," she says, "we had a cooking group."

Now, she's expert enough to create her own dishes. One example is the egg curry she served at the Sunday lunch. The eggs were baked as a savory custard, which she sliced and combined with Bangladeshi curry seasonings--onion, ginger, garlic, turmeric, chile powder, cilantro and green chiles. The custard idea came from a woman from Myanmar, whom she met in Cairo.

"All of my friends like it," she says. "I don't think anyone in Bangladesh would have heard of it."

Nothing she served that Sunday could be whipped together quickly. Dai bura, lentil dumplings in yogurt sauce, required soaking urid and moong dals overnight and grinding them to a paste. The yogurt sauce contained cilantro, fresh green chiles and whole dried red chiles for guests who wanted to chew on something really hot.

Dai bura is typically served with biryani--meat and rice--and Haroon had prepared an enormous potful of this dish, layering chicken with fragrantly seasoned basmati rice. Sometimes she sautes the ingredients in ghee (clarified butter). When she wants a lighter version, she switches to mustard oil.

Haroon also served beef curry and golden brown potato "chops" (patties) stuffed with spiced ground beef. Meatless options included a mixed vegetable curry and a golden yellow bean curry made with large dried beans that Haroon buys from an Iranian market.

The salad, a typical California mixture of greens, tomato and cucumber, looked innocent enough with its topping of creamy pink French dressing. But Haroon had slipped in sliced green chiles and a dash of haleem masala. The masala, which blends ginger, onion, garlic, turmeric, red chile and garam masala, ordinarily seasons a dish of meat combined with lentils and wheat.

Mango chutney, also homemade, was not the sweet, jam-like relish served at most Indian restaurants but a dark, savory concoction.

And then came dessert, or rather four desserts plus a bowl of papaya chunks. One, rasomalai, takes a day to prepare. Haroon boils two gallons of milk for many hours until thick and lightly browned. Then she adds sugar and small spongy dumplings--rasogullas--made of milk curd. Another bowl held large rasogullas in sugar syrup, a contribution from a friend.

Doodh shemai embeds fried pasta strands finer than angel hair in thickened milk. Zarda--sweetened basmati rice--displayed a jewel-like variety of dried and candied fruits. The cooked rice and fruits are tossed with melted ghee and milk powder to enrich the flavor. Still another dessert was caramel custard, which in Bangladesh is known as egg pudding.

Lunch was served on the large veranda of the consular residence in Brentwood. Guests gathered first in the living room, which is furnished with carved inlaid tables and rugs that the Haroons brought from Egypt, their last posting before moving to Los Angeles, as well as Bangladeshi embroidered wall hangings.

Because Muslims do not consume alcohol (Bangladesh is more than 88% Muslim), guests drank juice or soft drinks as aperitifs, water with lunch and tea from Bangladesh afterward.

Meanwhile, Haroon, wearing a green sari with a flowered border, quietly chatted and mingled, as relaxed as if she were a guest rather than the one who had planned and put together such an elaborate meal.

CHICKEN BIRYANI

1 (3-pound) chicken

1 tablespoon ground ginger

1 tablespoon garlic powder

3 tablespoons pureed onion

6 tablespoons yogurt

2 to 3 cardamom pods

3 (1-inch) pieces cinnamon stick

Salt

1/2 cup ghee or clarified butter

1/4 cup chopped onions

8 cups basmati rice, washed and drained

15 cups boiling water

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon ground mace

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom

3 or 4 serrano chiles

Delicately seasoned, this makes a good companion dish to spicy Bangladeshi curries.

Cut chicken into 2 drumsticks, 2 thighs and 4 breast pieces. Save wings for another use. Place chicken in bowl. Add ginger, garlic powder, pureed onion, yogurt, cardamom pods, 2 cinnamon sticks and salt to taste, and mix. Heat 3 tablespoons ghee over medium heat in large skillet. Add chicken mixture. Cook over high heat 10 minutes. Reduce heat to medium, cover and cook until juices run clear when chicken is pierced with tip of knife and sauce is thick, 25 to 30 minutes.

Heat 2 tablespoons ghee in small skillet over low heat. Add onions and fry, stirring often, until golden brown, about 15 minutes. Drain and set aside.

Heat remaining 3 tablespoons ghee over medium heat in 10-quart saucepan. Add rice, salt to taste, remaining cinnamon stick, and fry 5 minutes. Add boiling water, cover and cook over high heat 2 to 3 minutes. Reduce heat to low and cook until rice is tender, about 20 minutes.

Spoon half of rice into bowl. Put chicken and sauce on rice remaining in pan. Sprinkle with lemon juice, nutmeg, mace, ground cinnamon, ground cardamom and 4 teaspoons fried onion. Cover with rice from bowl. Top with remaining fried onion and whole green chiles. Cover and cook over low heat 10 minutes.

8 servings. Each serving:

1,072 calories; 157 mg sodium; 96 mg cholesterol; 27 grams fat; 173 grams carbohydrates; 33 grams protein; 4.31 grams fiber.

CHICKEN REZALA

1 (3- to 4-pound) chicken

1/2 cup plain yogurt

2 tablespoons lime or lemon juice

3 onions, quartered

3 tablespoons oil

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1 teaspoon garlic powder

2 to 3 bay leaves

2 to 3 whole cloves

2 to 3 cardamom pods

2 (1-inch) pieces cinnamon stick

2 tablespoons ghee

Salt

1/8 teaspoon saffron threads soaked in 1 teaspoon warm water, or 1/8 teaspoon ground saffron, optional

3 to 4 whole serrano chiles

Two pounds of lean beef cut into chunks can be substituted for the chicken in this recipe.

Cut chicken into 2 drumsticks, 2 thighs and 4 breast pieces. Save wings for another use.

Combine yogurt and lime juice. Marinate chicken pieces in yogurt mixture 30 minutes.

Puree onions in blender or food processor. Heat oil in large skillet over medium heat. Add onions and fry until browned, 10 to 15 minutes. Add ginger, garlic, bay leaves, cloves, cardamom, cinnamon and ghee. Fry, stirring often, until oil separates.

Add chicken and cook over medium heat, turning occasionally, 20 minutes. Add salt to taste, saffron if desired and chiles. Cover and cook over low heat until juices run clear when chicken is pierced with tip of knife, 20 to 25 minutes. If mixture becomes too dry, add water.

4 servings. Each serving:

853 calories; 259 mg sodium; 171 mg cholesterol; 52 grams fat; 58 grams carbohydrates; 48 grams protein; 8.01 grams fiber.

RASOGULLAS

8 cups milk

1/4 cup vinegar or lemon juice

4 cups water

1 cup sugar

2 to 3 cardamom pods

It takes patience to knead the milk curd thoroughly, but the light, spongy texture of the rasogullas is worth it.

Bring milk to boil in large saucepan over high heat. As soon as milk comes to boil, remove from heat and add vinegar. Let stand until milk separates into curds and whey, about 1 minute. Turn into cheesecloth to drain off whey and let drain 2 hours.

Place curds in bowl or tray and knead with palm of hand until creamy, 20 to 30 minutes.

Form cheese into 1-inch balls. Place water, sugar and cardamom pods in large saucepan and bring to boil. Add cheese balls, cover and cook over high heat 5 minutes. Reduce heat to medium and cook 40 minutes longer. Let cool before serving.

3 dozen. Each rasogullas:

49 calories; 27 mg sodium; 4 mg cholesterol; 1 gram fat; 8 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams protein; 0 fiber.

RICE WITH CANDIED FRUITS (Zarda)

Water

1 cup basmati rice

1/2 teaspoon orange food color, or 5 drops red food color and 4 to 6 drops yellow food color

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup slivered dried papaya

1/2 cup slivered dried pineapple

1/3 cup slivered dried mango

20 large golden raisins

5 to 6 tablespoons ghee

1/2 cup nonfat dry milk powder

Nina Haroon adds a variety of dried fruit to this dessert. In Bangladesh, where such fruits are less available, the rice is usually garnished with nuts and raisins.

Bring 10 to 12 cups water to boil and add food color. Add rice, reduce heat and simmer until rice is soft, 15 to 20 minutes. Drain and set aside.

Add sugar and 1/4 cup water to pan and cook over high heat to make thick syrup, about 5 minutes. Stir in rice. Add papaya, pineapple, mango and raisins.

Heat ghee in wok or large skillet over medium heat. Add rice mixture, sprinkle on some milk powder and stir until mixed with ghee, gradually stirring in remaining milk powder, 2 to 3 minutes. Turn into serving dish. Serve at room temperature.

6 cups. Each 1/2-cup serving:

245 calories; 34 mg sodium; 14 mg cholesterol; 5 grams fat; 41 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams protein; 1.53 grams fiber.

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Cook's Tip

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 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.

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