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Cooking & Entertaining With Style : A Winning Warmth

November 08, 1987|BARBARA HANSEN | Hansen is a Times staff writer.

Spicy food is in vogue, and our trendiest restaurants are heating up as chefs experiment with bold seasonings. Here we present unusual dishes from India, Indonesia and Mexico

Some like it hot. But some like it even hotter. Spicy food is in vogue--and not only at the neighborhood Thai cafe or the corner taco stand. The trendiest restaurants are heating up as chefs experiment with bold seasonings borrowed from exotic cuisines. Southern California is a logical site for such innovation. We have drawn many inhabitants from diverse parts of the world where exciting flavors are the rule. Our markets have responded by stocking assertive seasonings that once were difficult to obtain.

The following recipes represent three spicy cuisines: Mexican, Sindhi and Sumatran. Mexican food is, of course, native to Southern California, but Sindhi and Sumatran dishes may be unfamiliar. Sind province was formerly part of northern India and is now in Pakistan. Sindhi cooking tends toward lighter dishes such as Mira Advani's Fish in Spicy Green Masala and Spicy Eggplant Saute. Advani, a Sindhi who lives in Beverly Hills, was born in Karachi and grew up in Bombay (now home to many Sindhis) and Delhi.

Advani nicknames the green masala "Indian pesto" and suggests its use with cooked chicken or shrimp as well as with fish. She has altered the Sindhi version in only one way--by adding watercress. A distinctive ingredient is methi (fenugreek) leaves, which are sold dried in Indian shops or can be sprouted fresh from seeds. Serrano chiles, cayenne, cumin and the Indian spice blend called garam masala give heady flavor to Advani's eggplant dish, which is unchanged from the Sindhi original.

Some of the hottest food in Indonesia comes from the island of Sumatra and specifically from the town of Padang. The two Sumatran dishes shown at right are from Agung Indonesian restaurant in Los Angeles, which specializes in Sumatran cooking. Padang-style Ayam Panggang (grilled chicken) is lavishly seasoned with ground fresh red chiles, as is Sayur Lodeh , a soupy vegetable dish that is made with coconut milk. Both recipes require lemon grass and kaffir lime leaves, which add aromatic flavor without citrus tang. Many Oriental markets regularly stock lemon grass and occasionally have fresh lime leaves. If necessary, dried kaffir lime leaves can be substituted.

Beans are common to Mexican restaurants, but La Parrilla's zesty charro beans are out of the ordinary. Fiery dried arbol chiles generate plenty of heat, and chorizo adds more spiciness. Bowls of these beans accompany most dishes served at the three La Parrilla restaurants, located in Boyle Heights, Northridge and Tarzana. Not one but three types of chile--California, ancho and chipotle --go into the marinade for La Parrilla's grilled pork adobo . The chiles are blended with other spices including cinnamon, cloves and cumin. The most unusual component is achiote paste, which is imported from Yucatan. Annatto seeds, called achiote in Mexico, are the key ingredient in the paste and impart a glowing orange-red color. Mexican chocolate adds a darker tone. For maximum flavor, the meat should be marinated for at least a day before grilling. La Parrilla uses the marinade only with pork, but it's also good with beefsteaks, chicken and fish.

SPICY EGGPLANT SAUTE

SERVES 8

1 tablespoon garam masala

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

4 medium Japanese eggplant

Oil, about 1/2 cup

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 medium onion, sliced

1/2 lemon

2 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro

2 tablespoons finely chopped onion

2 serrano chiles, finely chopped

In a small bowl, mix garam masala , ground cumin, salt, turmeric and cayenne. Wash eggplants. Cut off stems and cut each in half lengthwise. Make crisscross slashes on cut surfaces. Sprinkle enough spice mixture on eggplants to penetrate slashes. It is not necessary to use all the spice mixture.

Heat cup oil in large skillet. Add cumin seeds and fry until browned. Add onion and cook until golden brown. Remove onion. Place eggplant in single layer in skillet spice-side up. Cook 5 to 7 minutes on each side until browned evenly and tender. Add more oil as needed. Return onion to pan when turning eggplant. Cook in two batches if necessary. Remove to serving dish. Squeeze lemon half over eggplants. Garnish with mixture of chopped cilantro, onion and chiles. Serve as side dish with meat or fowl.

FISH IN SPICY GREEN MASALA

SERVES 4

1 pound sea bass fillet

Salt

1/2 lemon

6 tablespoons oil

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 bunch green onions, including tops, chopped

1 bunch watercress, chopped

1/2 bunch cilantro, chopped

bunch mint, chopped

4 serrano chiles, chopped

8 large cloves garlic, chopped

1 tablespoon dried methi leaves, optional

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1/2 cup water

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