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A Vegetarian Meal Spiced With Tastes of India : Ethnic cuisine: A menu of South Indian dishes favors steamed and lightly sauteed dishes utilizing traditional flavorings.

September 13, 1990|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Following a strict vegetarian diet is a challenge when traveling. At times, South Indian violinist L. Subramaniam has made do with fruit and nuts; other times he's gotten by with cheese pizza or meatless Chinese dishes. But at home in Reseda, he can eat just as he did growing up in his native Madras--thanks to his wife, Viji.

Subramaniam may be internationally known for his work in Indian classical, Western classical and neo-fusion music--a blend of jazz and classical Indian and Western elements--but it's his wife who orchestrates traditional Indian meals for the family. (She's also a musician--when Subramaniam performs at Wadsworth Theater tonight as part of the Los Angeles Festival, Viji will perform alongside her husband. She plays the tambura , a stringed instrument from which a constant tone sounds out as a reference point for the musicians, and she keeps time with hand gestures.)

South Indian food is "very balanced," says Viji, who was born in Madras and raised in Bombay. Steamed and lightly sauteed foods are favored over fried food. And safflower and corn oils are beginning to replace coconut and sesame oils as cooking mediums.

Occasionally she branches out into other cuisines--Mexican, Chinese and Italian, for instance. Eggplant Parmigiana is one of her husband's favorite dishes. And she makes enchiladas filled with cheese, olives and mushrooms.

The Subramaniam household is traditionally Indian in many respects. Figures and paintings of Hindu gods are displayed in the living room. Shoes are removed at the entrance. And an auspicious symbol decorates the door step. In India, this symbol, called kolam , would be freshly painted each day. But this kolam is a permanent sticker, a modern approach to the old custom.

Music pervades the family. Even 2-year-old Raju knows how to hold a miniature violin. The influences come from both sides of the family. Subramaniam has made approximately 50 recordings; he scored the film "Salaam Bombay," served as musical adviser for the Peter Brooks stage production of the Indian epic "Mahabharata," and has taught South Indian music at California Institute of the Arts in Valencia. Viji is the daughter of noted North Indian singer Lakshmi Shankar and Rajendra Shankar, an elder brother of sitarist Ravi Shankar. She also sings and holds a master's degree in music from Cal Arts.

The Subramaniams met in 1974 in London while taking part in "Festival From India," a program presented by George Harrison that featured Ravi Shankar. They were married in Bombay in a ceremony that lasted three days and involved serving elaborate meals to 500 guests.

For her family meals, Viji finds almost everything she needs at local Indian markets, but she brings certain products home from India. For instance, pappadams (lentil wafers) are thinner in Madras than those available here. She also brings South Indian rice seasoning mixes.

The following recipes were selected from a dinner Viji prepared recently for her family, including daughters Niru, 10, and Seeta, 6, and her father-in-law, V. Lakshmirarayana, and a few friends. The menu: masala alu , spicy potatoes prepared according to a recipe from the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh; a spinach, lentil and coconut concoction called spinach kootu ; a Punjabi lotus root curry; sambar , a tamarind-flavored lentil and vegetable soup spooned over rice; pachadi , the South Indian version of the yogurt relish called raita , and tamarind chutney spiced with home-grown chiles.

Along with basmati rice, Viji Subramaniam offered crisp fried pappadams. The dessert was payasam , a typical southern Indian sweet of vermicelli cooked with milk, sugar, raisins and cashews and flavored with crushed cardamom. All of this was served in individual thalis-- metal trays containing small metal bowls to hold the food.

Special ingredients needed for these dishes include canned lotus root from India; amchur , a tart seasoning made by grinding dried mangoes; the Indian spice blend called garam masala ; powdered asafoetida, and, for the dessert, an extra-fine grade of Indian vermicelli. These can all be found at Indian markets in the Los Angeles area.

L. Subramaniam performs tonight as part of the Los Angeles Festival. The concert begins at 8 p.m. at Wadsworth Theater on the Veterans Administration Grounds.

MASALA ALU

(Spiced Potatoes)

6 medium potatoes

1/4 cup oil

1 tablespoon ground coriander

1/8 teaspoon asafetida

1/2 teaspoon chili powder, or to taste

1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric

Salt

1 teaspoon amchur (dried mango powder)

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

Peel potatoes and cut in 1-inch chunks. Heat oil in large heavy skillet. Add coriander and asafetida and mix well. Add potatoes, chili powder, turmeric and season to taste with salt. Stir until potatoes are well coated with spices.

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