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GREAT HOME COOKS : Fresh (and Light) From Bombay

January 06, 1994|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

During a three-month stay in Southern California, Parvathy Sathyamurthy cooked just as she would at home in Bombay. Supermarkets supplied almost everything she needed, and special ingredients such as urad dal (lentils) and fenugreek seeds were readily available in Artesia's little India neighborhood.

Sathyamurthy was here to see her daughter and son-in-law, Janaky and Hariharan B. Iyer of La Habra, and their daughter Easha, 2 1/2. They're all vegetarians with deep roots in South India, and they follow ancestral traditions closely.

During Sathyamurthy's visit, the Iyers ate exceptionally well. She's an ardent cook, known in Bombay for her magic touch, which friends even "borrow" on occasion. That happens when they make idli , steamed cakes prepared from a fermented rice-and-lentil batter. Idli batter is notoriously slow rising--except in Sathyamurthy's hands. So those less gifted ask her to touch their batter, figuring her magic will work for them.

During her visit, she was even able to make the strong, flavorful coffee for which South India is famous. Coffee beans grown in that region generally get the credit for the deep, rich flavor. However, Sathyamurthy produced a worthy facsimile using an American brand of coffee and an Indian filter pot.

After the water dripped through, forming a strong coffee extract, she added hot milk and sugar, then poured the mixture back and forth to mix it well and make it foamy. In India, coffee makers show off by pouring the brew in an impressively long stream. Instead of a cup, it's served in a stainless-steel tumbler with a companion bowl that holds the overflow.

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To honor a visitor, Sathyamurthy prepared not only coffee but a full meal. This she arranged on a table near the corner that serves as a family shrine. The shrine is filled with pictures and images of deities, and the family prays there mornings and evenings. Sathyamurthy had sprinkled white powder onto the top of a cabinet in the form of the Hindu elephant god Ganpati (Ganesha). Such a design is called a kolam, and in South India, large, elaborate kolams are traced with great care on the ground outside doorways.

Sathyamurthy had prepared two North Indian dishes, because she grew up in Bihar, in the north of India. The other dishes were southern, reflecting her family's origins in the South Indian state of Kerala. Her husband, an advertising consultant, is also from Kerala.

The northern dishes were sabzi panch mahal (a Punjabi mixed vegetable curry) and masala bath , spiced rice dotted with vegetables. Southern foods were upma (a nourishing mixture of roasted cream of wheat, vegetables and nuts) and a strong, spicy apple chutney that would amaze Westerners accustomed to sweet fruit chutneys. Sathyamurthy had no trouble here finding the apples she uses in India--Granny Smiths.

For dessert, she made payasam , a milky sweet that is typically served at South Indian celebrations. Payasam is often made with vermicelli, but Sathyamurthy produced a version based on shredded carrots. Long, patient simmering and stirring enrich the flavor of this soupy dish.

Sathyamurthy's cooking would surprise Americans who think of Indian food as heavily spiced and dominated by powerful sauces. Her dishes are light and fresh, and it's no wonder her home in Chembur, a suburb of Bombay, attracts a steady stream of guests.

CREAM OF WHEAT WITH MIXED VEGETABLES (Upma)

1/2 cup cream of wheat

1/3 cup corn oil

2 tablespoons butter

1/2 teaspoon mustard seeds

1/2 teaspoon split urad dal

2 tablespoons raw cashews, broken into pieces

1 medium onion, chopped

4 serrano chiles, cut into small pieces

1 (1-inch piece) ginger root, finely chopped

1/2 cup chopped mixed vegetables such as green peas, cauliflower, carrot, green beans

1 to 1 1/2 cups water

1/2 teaspoon salt

Tomato catsup, optional

In saucepan over medium heat, dry-roast cream of wheat 2 to 3 minutes. Set cream of wheat aside on plate.

Add oil and butter to same saucepan and heat. Add mustard seeds and urad dal. When seeds start spluttering, add cashews and fry until light-brown. Add onion, chiles and ginger and cook 3 to 4 minutes. Add mixed vegetables and cook 5 to 7 minutes. Add 1 cup water and salt. When water comes to boil, add reserved cream of wheat and mix well. Cook until thick, then reduce heat to low and cook 2 to 3 minutes.

If cream of wheat is too thick, thin to desired consistency with some or all of remaining water, heated to boiling. Accompany with tomato catsup, if desired. Makes 4 servings.

Note: Urad dal (small, black lentils) is available in Indian markets.

PUNJABI VEGETABLE CURRY (Sabzi Panch Mahal)

2 onions, coarsely chopped

2 to 3 cups mixed vegetables, such as green beans, carrots, potatoes, peas

1 tablespoon chopped cashews

1 1/2 teaspoons poppy seeds

1 teaspoon coriander seeds

1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds

4 serrano chiles

Slightly less than 1/2 inch ginger root, grated

2 green cardamom pods

2 teaspoons ghee or clarified butter

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