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In a Madras Kitchen

To find the real soul of Indian cuisine, you need to look beyond the walls of fancy restaurants. You need to eat the food of India's home cooks. An insider's culinary tour.

May 30, 1996|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The best place to eat in the South Indian city of Madras is Geetha Sashidharan's home. I say that after eating extraordinarily well there for 10 days.

Instead of sightseeing, I would board an auto rickshaw and head to Sashidharan's for lunch, an excursion that occupied most of each day.

It is easy to find her apartment. A cord strung with golden Hindu deities hangs over the doorway, distinguishing it from others in the building. Inside, portraits of deities fashioned of inlaid wood decorate the walls, and a cupboard shows off figures of the elephant-headed god Ganapati, to whom Sashidharan is especially devoted. A puja (prayer) room, where she lights an oil lamp each evening, opens into the living room.

Either Sashidharan or Mary George, her household helper, would hand me a soda or a glass of sweet lime juice the moment I arrived. Then George, a young Tamil Christian from the city of Tiruchirappali (also known as Trichy), would finish cooking lunch.

Using only a two-burner cooktop, she would turn out an amazing variety of dishes in a short time. A pressure cooker speeded up some of her tasks. Indians are quite partial to these utensils, and I saw stacks of them in housewares stores in Madras along with such ancient tools as the wooden beaters used for whipping yogurt to extract the butter.

Sashidharan's tiny bare kitchen contains only a sink, the cooktop and cupboards from which George would extract spices and lentils in stainless steel containers. She explained the dishes in Tamil, speaking as loudly as she could to make me understand. Then Sashidharan would translate into English.

Lunch always included homemade yogurt (or curd, as it is called in India), which Sashidharan would start each morning from the previous day's batch. Mellow compared to tangy American yogurt, it makes wonderful, nutty curd rice, which became one of my favorite dishes. The rice is cooked with tiny white lentils and curry leaves, then mixed with fully set curd and with some that is still fluid. This makes it creamy and very white.

Sashidharan is vegetarian, but her husband and son are not. So George would cook chicken or mutton curry, chicken biryani and other meat dishes along with vegetarian food. Some South Indian vegetarians are so strict they do not eat eggs--I could not get an omelet for breakfast at my hotel, for example. Others, like Sashidharan, will eat fish.

One day, George made a fish curry that was so good I'm sorry I didn't ask for the recipe. Another day we had a delicious shark hash flavored with ginger and curry leaves. The shark is cooked first with turmeric to eliminate fishy aroma.

Madras is on the Bay of Bengal. Seafood is popular there, except during April and May, the hottest months of the year. Then Sashidharan won't buy it for fear of spoilage.

When the heat is really intense, she orders the cooking completed by midmorning, and the family takes refuge in the one air-conditioned bedroom until late afternoon. Fresh fruit juices and ice cream provide some relief.

In March, when I was in Madras, mornings and evenings were cool, but midday was rather hot. So after lunch, we took naps under ceiling fans, arising for afternoon tea at 3. George would boil tea leaves with milk, water, cardamom and sugar, making a very sweet brew.

After that, we'd go shopping. Once George accompanied us to buy an implement she wanted for chopping onions. This was a hinged blade attached at one end to a square plastic board, something she had used in a previous job. We found it in a shop that specializes in the stainless steel kitchenware that is basic to the Indian kitchen. I felt almost dizzy, gazing at the vast array of dazzling, shiny utensils.

We also explored a shop dealing in brassware, including the tall jugs used for carrying water. Women balance these golden pots gracefully on their heads, making a picturesque sight that may soon vanish, to judge by the dull plastic replicas that I glimpsed around communal water pumps.

One day we went to a supermarket, where I saw more varieties of rice and dal (legumes) than I can find at Indian stores in Los Angeles. I bought South Indian coffee, which is famous for its rich, mellow flavor, and plantation-packed Kanan Devan tea from the highlands of Kerala, receiving a pack of Rol-a-Cola (a Lifesavers-like candy from Bombay) in lieu of small change.

*

Other days, I simply enjoyed the gentle cadence of life in an Indian household. Each morning, Sashidharan and George would clean the apartment, never winning the battle against dust that drifted up from the busy street three floors below.

The doorbell would ring repeatedly as people arrived to conduct household business. Someone would come to get the laundry, another to collect the ironing. Clothes and linens are pressed by a young fellow in a tiny stall on the sidewalk across the street. He uses a large, heavy iron with hot coals inside.

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