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EXOTIC: A Fine Art : It Took a Decade to Complete This Indian Vegetarian Cookbook

August 13, 1987|BARBARA HANSEN | Times Staff Writer

This summer, Singapore suffered from a humid heat wave so intense that a few days exposure left me too weak to function.

A restorative was urgent. And I found one in afternoon tea at Komala Vilas, a South Indian vegetarian restaurant in the city's Little India. English-style high teas are fashionable in Singapore, but mine was a do-it-yourself arrangement because formal teas are unknown at Komala Vilas.

Here, Indians bustle in from early morning well into the night to eat vegetable curries, lentil soups, rice, yogurt, coconut chutney, dosas, chapatis and other breads from banana leaves or compartmented metal plates. They use fingers instead of forks, wash off at basins at the edge of the room and dry their hands beneath a hot-air blower--unless plunging immediately into the hotter air outside.

The custom is to take any empty seat, so I joined a crowded table and ordered sweet milky tea, which came in a glass. Next, I studied the wares of a counter packed with as tempting an array of sweets as we would set out for Christmas. There were sticky, pretzel-like orange jalebis; trays of milk fudge called burfi; bright yellow and green sweets soaked in perfumed syrup and stuffed with something resembling cheese; slim triangles of almond-flavored milk fudge decorated with silver leaf; balls of gulab jamun floating in a pan of syrup and cheese patties called Ras Malai bathed in saffron-flavored cream. The Ras Malai have a disconcerting tendency to squeak against your teeth, which adds to their interest.

A plate heaped with these delicacies--and there were many more than those I've described--attracted glances from habituees surprised at such indulgence. Better than that, they brought a surge of energy that ended my lassitude.

Komala Vilas may be far from Los Angeles but a new book, thick as a dictionary, recreates that exotic world of rich desserts and aromatic curries. It is "Lord Krishna's Cuisine: The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking" by Yamuna Devi (Dutton: $29.95).

Devi is a westerner who assumed an Indian name when she became a disciple of an Indian swami. She has traveled extensively in India as personal cook for the swami, acquiring recipes from maharajah's palaces, temples, festivals and other sources.

It took her 10 years to produce this book about the food she came to admire for its healthfulness and intricate flavors. Perhaps the intensity of her devotion as a convert provided the enthusiasm that enabled her to complete the monumental task.

About 80% of India's inhabitants are vegetarians, and their cookery has developed into a high art. To make this art accessible to westerners, Devi has written her recipes in great detail, testing them on equipment ranging from wood stoves to glass cooktops. She explains ingredients and techniques thoroughly and suggests substitutions when the authentic utensil or food item is not available. One can, for example, use a Cuisinart vegetable steamer instead of the tiered racks of perforated molds in which South Indians steam their bread-like iddlis.

Devi devotes more than 60 recipes to desserts. Sweets similar to those I ordered at Komala Vilas are in the book although not exact copies. Here are slightly edited versions of two of them, Ras Malai and pistachio-flavored burfi. Special ingredients such as kewra and roseflavoring are readily available at Indian markets in Southern California.

"Presenting sweets conveys gratitude, affection, respect, joy or reward," Devi writes. The reward will be obvious to those with a sweet tooth.


(Cheese Patties in Cream Sauce)

3 quarts milk

1/4 cup lemon juice

1 cup plus 1 1/2 tablespoons whipping cream, about

5 1/4 cups sugar

1 teaspoon crushed cardamom seeds

Dash saffron threads

1 tablespoon blanched raw pistachios, minced

1 tablespoon blanched almonds, minced

1 tablespoon golden raisins, minced

1 1/2 teaspoons honey or golden syrup


2 teaspoons cornstarch, blended with 2 tablespoons water

1 1/2 tablespoons slivered raw pistachios

1 1/2 tablespoons slivered blanched almonds

1 tablespoon rose water or 1/2 teaspoon rose essence

1 tablespoon kewra water or 1/2 teaspoon kewra essence

2 (3-inch) sheets edible silver or gold foil, optional

Place 2 quarts milk in heavy nonstick pan over high heat. Stirring constantly, bring to frothing boil. Reduce heat to moderate, add lemon juice and stir gently. Soft cheese curds should separate from yellow whey in 1 minute. If cheese has not formed by then, add up to 1 tablespoon more lemon juice. Remove from heat and let stand 10 minutes.

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