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Culture Club : A Yogurt Diet With Spice

April 29, 1993|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Mira Advani was asked to teach spa-style Indian food, she replied, "That's a tough one."

The difficult part wasn't coming up with Indian recipes. Advani was born in Sind province, in what is now Pakistan, and grew up eating Indian food. Ingredients weren't an issue either. Grains, legumes, vegetables and yogurt are staples in India, and much of the population is vegetarian.

The problem is that Indian vegetarian meals tend to be starchy. You might, for example, have pappadums , chapatis , rice, beans and lentils at one sitting. There might be deep-fried snacks such as samosas or pakoras . Even leafy green vegetables pile on calories when they are cooked in complex curry sauces with ghee , butter or oil. Ghee , an Indian version of clarified butter, is used as a cooking agent, sprinkled over rice at the table and incorporated into desserts. (Nowadays, vegetable ghee has come into wide use.) The sweets themselves are highly concentrated in sugar; many are milk-based, and some are deep-fried.

Advani's solution was to demonstrate the way she cooks at home. Her food is distinctively Indian, yet light and flavorful. She eats little meat but prepares chicken in a way that combines stir-frying with tandoori flavors. The chicken is skinned and marinated in yogurt, garlic, ginger and spices. In this and other dishes, Advani uses olive oil for sauteing.

The basic cheese in India is paneer , which is made by curdling milk, draining the curd thoroughly, then compressing it. Paneer is soft yet firm enough to skewer and cook tandoori style. Advani replaces it with Japanese-style firm tofu, which looks approximately the same.

This saves effort, as well as calories, because you usually can't buy paneer in this country unless you get it from an Indian restaurant; you have to make it. " Paneer is delicious," Advani says, "but it's way too rich for most people. And it's troublesome to make." Her Curried Tofu and Peas is a delicious compromise, a great dish that is perfect for a buffet.

Of course, yogurt (called curd or dahi ) is a major part of most Indians' diet. In India, yogurt is wonderfully rich and creamy--much different than what we can get in most American supermarkets. Here Advani works with nonfat yogurt in traditional and original ways.

Combined with vegetables and herbs, it becomes raita , a classic accompaniment to Indian meals. Beaten nonfat yogurt, blended with a little water or lemon juice, gives body to a sauce, the same way cream does except it's a lot less fattening. Plain or vanilla yogurt mixed with diced orange becomes a breakfast dish or light dessert.

Advani makes several styles of raita . One version contains cucumber, another spinach; her Punjabi-style raita combines yogurt with potatoes, garbanzos and tamarind chutney.

Most of Advani's meals emphasize vegetables, rice and lentils. "Chopping vegetables is therapy for me," she says. "It's almost like I'm meditating." She keeps jars of lentils and beans on hand and seasons them with fresh curry leaves, which are occasionally available in Indian markets in Southern California, and sambar powder, which is a dry mix for a soupy South Indian dish.

Advani, who lives in Los Angeles, has taught at two health resorts: the Oaks in Ojai and the Palms in Palm Springs. She tailors her lessons to dishes that are easy to prepare and call for ingredients available in most supermarkets. Only a few seasonings, such as the spice blend garam masala , require a trip to an Indian grocery or gourmet shop.

MIRA ADVANI'S SPA MENU

Mira's Yogurt Chicken or Curried Tofu and Peas Rice Yogurt-Cucumber Salad Mint and Cilantro Chutney Fresh Fruit

Advani suggests serving the chicken on a bed of saffron rice. Otherwise, use plain steamed rice. Play up the cheerful color by adding a green vegetable to the plate.

MIRA'S YOGURT CHICKEN 4 boned and skinned chicken breast halves 1 (8-ounce) carton nonfat plain yogurt 1 tablespoon flour 3 cloves garlic, minced 1 teaspoon minced ginger 1/2 teaspoon turmeric 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper 2 tablespoons olive oil 1 small onion, chopped 2 tomatoes, chopped, optional Salt 1 teaspoon garam masala 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin 1 or 2 dried red chiles, broken in pieces, optional

Cut chicken breasts into 1-inch chunks and set aside.

Spoon yogurt into bowl, add flour and whisk until smooth. Add garlic, ginger, turmeric and cayenne and mix well.

Combine chicken and yogurt mixture. Cover and refrigerate at least 2 hours.

Heat oil in skillet. Add onion and cook until tender. Add tomatoes, chicken and marinade and season to taste with salt. Cook and stir until most of liquid evaporates. When thickened, add garam masala, cumin and chiles. Makes 4 servings.

Each serving contains about: 256 calories; 196 mg sodium; 71 mg cholesterol; 9 grams fat; 11 grams carbohydrates; 31 grams protein; 0.65 gram fiber.

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