Chef Chat

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.

    KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
    Mike Morris
    Contact: Mike Morris