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Fusion Food : Cooking What Comes Naturally

September 16, 1993|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Some people think fusion cooking is hip, hot, trendy and very clever. Not Rose Nair--she's always cooked that way. Nair comes from India, where there is not just one cuisine but many, forged from an atlas's worth of foreign influences.

Puttering about her neatly tiled kitchen in Hawthorne, wearing a western dress made from an eye-popping orange sari, Nair works from recipes written in Portuguese, chats with her mother in Konkani (the language of the tiny Indian state of Goa), mashes a California avocado into fresh green chutney--an idea unheard of in India--and seasons ground turkey with soy sauce and Worcestershire plus a raft of Indian spices.

The turkey will go into samosas-- Indian turnovers--to eat with the chutney. Nair has already experimented with filo dough samosa wrappers. This time she is trying frozen puff pastry. "The usual samosa , we fry; this is nicer," she says, popping a trayful into the oven.

Meanwhile, Nair's guests drink rose tea from India perfumed with cinnamon oil from Kuwait and bits of home-dried orange peel. Now Nair starts work on what might be the world's most exotic bread pudding. It's a Portuguese-Indian dish called apa de camarao. Camarao means shrimp, and apa , Nair says, indicates a dish made with toddy, the Indian word for coconut palm sap. The sap must be drawn before sunrise in India. In the heat of day, it would ferment enough to pack an uncomfortable punch.

In Hawthorne, where coconut palms aren't handy, Nair replaces toddy with brandy. She pours a spoonful into a mixture of coconut milk and eggs into which she dips sourdough bread slices, as if making French toast. Instead, the bread will form a cocoon for a wildly colored shrimp mixture. The vibrant orange-red color of the sauce comes from Kashmiri chiles, which Nair gets straight from India--they're not available here. Nair tops the pudding with bread crumbs, butter and sugar and bakes it until it's crisp and browned.

Nair calls this bread-coated apa a "quick fix." Real apa de camarao isn't a bread pudding at all. The shrimp is baked in a rich pastry crust and topped with cake batter--an even more extraordinary idea.

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Beef rolls turn up in kitchens from Italy to the Philippines. In Goa, they're made Portuguese-style, but again with a strong Indian influence. Nair buys meat cut thin for milanesas , fills the slices with onion and cilantro and simmers them in tomato sauce perked up with Kashmiri chiles. Known for their strong color and mild flavor, Kashmiri chiles are what Nair calls "the paprika of India" (and paprika works well as a substitute).

Nair herself personifies fusion. She was born in Bombay of parents from Goa, which was a Portuguese enclave until 1961. Her mother, Acelia Barretto, taught her a vast repertoire of Goan dishes that had been handed down in the family. Nair has worked for Air India, Kuwait Airways and Air Lanka, which expanded her travels and her recipe collection. During two years in Kuwait, she learned such dishes as a shrimp and dill pilaf that she has reworked with Indian flavors.

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Moving to the United States, Nair worked for the Government of India Tourist Office in Los Angeles. Now she's a hostess for the Cathay Pacific lounge at Los Angeles International Airport and runs a mathematics school for children. One of the students is her son, Preeth, 7.

Nair's husband, Prem, is from the southern Indian state of Kerala, and Nair cooks South Indian dishes too. In fact, she cooks almost anything, judging from the small book of handwritten recipes that she started in 1967. Its entries include dishes from all over India, along with Chinese lemon chicken, American chop suey, cheese meatloaf, brownies, blackberry wine and apple pie.

Nair's sister, Nalini, who is visiting her, is a catering school graduate from Bombay. The sisters often cook together, and Nalini introduces the fusion dishes she's learned in India. A dessert she made for one of her sister's parties was Caribbean bananas--bananas in buttery caramel sauce seasoned Indian fashion with cardamom.

Nair's kitchen is as modern as any, but she grinds coconut on an implement you don't see in most California homes. It's a sharp, pronged grater attached to a board. Nair sets the board on the floor and sits on it to steady the grater while reaming the meat out of cracked coconut shells.

This tool gets frequent use because coconut is important in traditional Goan cuisine, which Nair regards as one of the best in India. As she points out, it has always been true fusion cooking in the way it combines traditional Indian flavors with those of the West.

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\o7 In India, the samosas would be filled with lamb or a vegetarian mixture of potatoes and peas. Chili powder and ground coriander would replace soy sauce and Worcestershire. Nair suggests serving the filling without wrappers as a main course. Add green peas and diced cooked potatoes to the turkey and accompany with chapatis (Indian flat bread).

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