Ambassador of Indian Food Serves Up a Side Dish of Culture

Article excerpt

"India only has three indigenous spices," says Julie Sahni. "It's not really the spice cuisine people think it is."

Those three native spices, she explains, are black pepper, cardamom, and turmeric. Saffron was later adopted as one of India's own, but most spices generally considered Indian, including those in curry powder, come from the eastern Mediterranean.

Ms. Sahni, one of America's leading experts on the food and cooking of India, is demonstrating dishes from her native country at Masala Art, a contemporary Indian restaurant in Needham, Mass.

As she speaks, diners are riveted. A cuisine that once seemed complex, distant, and exotic is suddenly more accessible. Foreign- sounding dishes such as Idli (steamed rice cakes), Murg Tak-a-Tak (chicken with cashew nuts), and Jalebi (sugar swirls) become familiar as they are tasted and talked about.

Sahni is doing what she does best: acquainting diners with Indian ingredients and cooking not only by pleasing their palates but also by sharing her vast knowledge of and passion for a 2,500-year-old cuisine and the colorful culture it comes from.

In recent years, as Indian restaurants have become almost as common as pizza parlors and burger joints in cities across America, Sahni's job as an educator has become easier. Long gone are the days when Indian restaurants served only red, green, or yellow curry dishes. Now one can find those that specialize in not only northern or southern Indian fare, but also in sophisticated dishes from a particular region, such as Bengal.

Sahni couldn't be more pleased. "Americans are so adventurous," she says. "They are lapping up Indian food, even eating it with their fingers." She attributes exploding interest in Indian cooking partly to the high-tech boom, which led to business dealings between American dot-comers and Indians, especially those from the southern part of her country.

Indian cuisine no longer exotic

Also a factor, she says, is the desire among Indians who moved to America in the 1980s to establish a voice, a sense of identity, in their adopted homeland. Some of them have founded Indian newspapers; others have opened restaurants or specialty food shops.

That has created quite a different climate for Indian cuisine, says Sahni, who recalls back in the late 1960s the dearth of spices in US markets and the strange looks she got when wearing her sari at Columbia University School of Architecture, where she was a graduate student.

Today, when she visits the Indian community in Queens, N.Y., which she does often, she feels as if she were in New Delhi. "Indians have found a sense of belonging in America," says Sahni. "I am perpetually in a state of excitement about this."

When Sahni came to America in 1967, she had intended to get a master's degree and then return home, smarter, more worldly, and ready to employ a household of servants, including cooks.

But she felt compelled to stay. …