Julie Sahni takes one of the paper-thin lentil wafers called pappadum and instead of deep-frying it in the age-old Indian way, sticks it in a microwave.
It's an eerie sight. Because microwaves move in irregular patterns, the pappadum twists and crinkles, cooked sections rising like mountains alternating with pale meadows of raw. If there's a carousel in the oven to keep the food revolving (as there should be), the wafer cooks evenly but warps in a circular pattern, like a piece of paper roughly molded over a doughnut.
It's done in about 25 seconds. It doesn't look like your standard pappadum , which usually resembles a giant potato chip . It doesn't taste like one either--the spices are astonishingly fresh and perfumed. It's like a crisp explosion of black pepper in the mouth.
"And no oil," Julie Sahni says, beaming triumphantly. "Not a drop."
Wearing a brisk black dress and a string of pearls instead of a sari, the nation's leading writer on Indian food is cooking from a copy of her new book, "Microwave Moghul: Cooking Indian Food the Modern Way" (Morrow, $27.95), which she has prudently kitchen-proofed in plastic wrap. Can this really be Julie Sahni, the passionately intense teacher of traditional Indian cooking?
She understands the question; she was dubious about the microwave at first. "It seemed so unsensuous and scientific," she recalls. But then her sisters moved into houses in Texas and Oklahoma with built-in microwaves and started cooking Indian dishes in them. Sahni was fascinated by the results, and started experimenting on her own.
Fortunately, as she points out, Moghul cookery--the high-prestige cuisine of the 17th and 18th century royal courts--is more suitable to microwaving than many other schools of Indian cooking. It doesn't call for much frying or grilling, and its many braised and steamed dishes are right down the microwave's alley.
All true, but the word "Moghul" is probably in the book title because it sounded good with "microwave." Like Julie Sahni's other works, this one casts its net wider than usual Indian recipe collection. It includes not only Moghul and the closely related Punjabi cuisine, familiar to us in Indian restaurants, but Goanese and Malabar styles from the west of India, Madrasi cooking from the southeast and the little-known cuisines of Bengal and Assam in the northeast. She even contrives an approximation of a tandoori style dish (by frying the meat in a browning skillet, instead of roasting it), which is as far from Moghul style as can be.
Nor is this strictly traditional Indian cooking. She gives recipes calling for endive (as a substitute for two different Bengali greens), and she's not above creating a sort of Indian nouvelle cuisine by undercooking the vegetables in kadhi, though she also gives directions for cooking them to the traditional degree of softness.
"You can cook with a microwave or without a microwave," she says. "For this book I was looking for dishes that are superior in the microwave in one way or another."
Some dishes she included simply because they cook so fast, such as a sort of exotic meat loaf called Keema Kabab , done in seven minutes . She's added bulgur wheat to the recipe, because when the ground meat is microwaved it gives up moisture which the bulgur conveniently absorbs. The result is a little like the Syrian meat loaf called kibbeh but spicier.
Spices and other flavorings retain their freshness in the microwave because of the short cooking time, so the ingredients in some dishes exchange their flavors more readily and make a richer-tasting result.
"My father is a chemist," she says, "and he has explained it all to me. I'm not a scientist, I don't approach things that way, but he helped me to understand." She demonstrates by cooking chicken breast with a coating of spices and cilantro, Murghi Hari Chatni. It cooks in a flash and the meat does have a decidedly spicy flavor.
"Anybody who knows me," she says, "knows that I avoid cooking with oil whenever possible." Apart from obvious items that are usually deep-fried such as pappadum and the vegetable fritters called pakoda , she likes the microwave for Bombay Coconut Shrimp, a dish she always felt was spoiled by the traditional method of frying.
Thick preparations such as lentil dishes don't scorch and develop clumps in a microwave, she points out. It's the only way to cook the Bombay dish dhanshak correctly, in her opinion; with any other method you have to stir the lentils and vegetables to keep them from scorching, and in so doing you break up the chicken breast.