A Punjabi Preeti Bhojan

Article excerpt

AN UNEXPECTED BIRTHDAY PARTY IN LONDON TURNS OUT TO BE A PUNJABI FEAST CELEBRATED WITH LOVE.

My first reaction was that orange and black aren't my favorite colors, but with a little coaxing I tried on the beautiful shalwar and kameez, handed to me by Kailash Puri, my gracious friend and host while in London on business, on the morning of my birthday. As the snugly fitting long top and loose pants took shape on my body, one look shape on my body, one look in the mirror changed my mind. It was perfect.

Despite my protestations that her generous gift of a traditional Punjabi outfit was more than she was also throwing a preeti bhojan in my honor. Literally translated, pretti bhojan means "eating with family and friends with love." And since more people means more love, Kailash told me the guest list included several Sikh friends to help celebrate my birthday Punjabi-style. I, of course, was to wear my new outfit.

London and, for that matter England as a whole have a large Punjab was partitioned between India and Pakistan in August 1947, millions in both countries were displaced and lost everything. Looking for jobs and security, many Punjabi Sikhs looked to England. In fact, Kailash and her late husband, Gopal Singh Puri, a professor of ecology, resettled in England with many other Punjabi professionals.

Arriving in the late 1940s or early '50s, Punjabis encountered a different England -- one almost devoid of ethnic food. Today Indian food is commonplace, and chicken tika is so popular that it eclipses even the national dish of fish and chips. It's hard to believe that at one time ethnic foods were virtually unknown, but it's true. Punjabi cuisine was a great addition to England's rather flat culinary landscape.

I was soon to learn that if someone in London is going to throw you a party, Kailash should be at the top of the list. She was the first teacher of Indian cuisine and the Punjabi language in Great Britain and the first Indian food consultant to Marks and Spencer, one of England's premier department stores.

Now more than fifty years later, with neatly arranged, graying hair and a warm, maternal smile, Kailash is still the teacher. As she cooked, I took notes and helped by fetching missing ingredients and cans and bottles from high places. She started with the desserts, which could be refrigerated ahead.

It was a revelation that one can whip evaporated milk. But after just as few minutes at high speed, stiff peaks began to form. While still beating, gelatin and mango pulp were slowly added to yield mango mousse, an amazingly simple, foolproof, and delicious dessert.

The other offering, paneer kheer, is a pudding made from freshly curdled whole milk flavored with cardamom and rose water. Kailash curdled the milk with a little vinegar and drained off the whey. Adding a few ingredients over a moderate flame, it took minutes to yield a wonderful fresh dessert that far outclasses any commercial pudding.

The next revelation was that a Punjabi cook can do with chickpeas. Kabali channa is chickpeas in a thick tomato sauce spiced with ginger, coriander, and chili powder. It is a bean bonanza--nutritious, wholesome, and delicious--and is as much a main course as a side dish, depending on the size and level of entertainment. A well-loved staple it is on the weekly menu of most Punjabi families.

As Kailash worked, she recounted a story. When one of her cooking students prepared kabali channa at home, his 16-year-old son enjoyed it so much that it became a favorite snack, instead of potato chips or chocolate bars. One taste will tell you why.

Next came preparations for the chicken tika. Fresh chicken breast was cut into bite-size pieces, then marinated in yogurt spiced with freshly grated ginger, garlic, and black pepper. It can be marinated overnight or for as little as an hour. The trick is that the only liquid--beyond a few tablespoons of oil and tomato paste--is the natural chicken juices. …