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Suneeta Vaswani Talks Indian Cooking

Local cookbook author and culinary expert Suneeta Vaswani gave a verbal tour of Indian gastronomy last week at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, a talk that included a few ideas to try at home.

Vaswani, a Mumbai native, past president of the Houston Culinary Guild and the author of the Complete Book of Indian Cooking (2007) and Easy Indian Cooking (2004) covered a lot of interesting ground.

She said many Indian spices are natural healers. Turmeric combined with flour, salt and water is slapped on wounds in rural India, acting as an anti-inflammatory and antiseptic bandage.

Foul-smelling asafetida (more familiar to Western diners as Beano) is paired with many lentil dishes to make them easier to digest. The odor is neutralized during cooking, Vaswani said; a half-teaspoon for a pot of bean soup is plenty.

It was refreshing to be reminded that Spain was looking for a piece of the black pepper market when it sent Christopher Columbus looking for India in 1492. He miscalculated a bit. Vasco da Gama, sailing for Portugal six years later, didn't, landing at Goa on India's west coast. Logically enough, chorizo remains a staple in Goa.

A few takeaways for use in your own kitchen:

Tips from Suneeta Vaswani:

  • Try panch phoran, a Bengali (as in the eastern state anchored by Calcutta) spice mixture of equal parts mustard, fennel, cumin, fenugreek and nigella seeds. Flash-fried in a pan prior to adding the main ingredients, this combo punches above its weight, Vaswani said.
  • Vaswani said every American seems to have a jar of mayo in his fridge. The equivalent in India is a green chutney, made with cilantro, mint, green chiles, garlic, ginger, sugar, salt and lemon or lime juice.
  • Last, look for Alphonso mangos (named after one of da Gama's progeny) in April. Wonderfully perfumed, free of fiber and bright-orange, they're shipped from west India to markets here and are worth the hefty price, provided you can beat the ex-pats to them.
  • As for local Indian food suggestions, Vaswani mentioned Indika and Madras Pavilion.

    "We are quite fortunate," she said. "Go on an exploration, and I think your palate will be very happy."

    Vaswani teaches a monthly cooking class at Central Market; her next offering will be March 9 from 6:30 to 9 p.m. and costs $65.

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