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Fragrant Vegetables (VEGETARIAN)


CALCUTTA — High above the noisy streets of this crowded city, Vinita Kumar's home is airy, cool and peaceful. Huge windows let in breezes and magnificent views. From the kitchen one can see as far as the immense Howrah bridge, which spans the Hooghly river. The dining room looks out on the Birla Mandir, a beautiful Hindu temple built of pale Rajasthani marble.

Marble floors sweep from Kumar's living room into the dining room, where the table is set for company. I have been invited to lunch and prize this opportunity to sample home-style vegetarian cooking. Kumar and her family base their meals on vegetables, legumes, rice, bread and milk products such as yogurt and fresh cheese. They do not eat eggs. Within this framework, they might have anything from pizza to an Indian-style burrito--a soft, flat paratha, which resembles a flour tortilla, wrapped around spiced potatoes.

Today, we start in the living room with fresh limeade, which I drink eagerly because I am dehydrated from the heat outside. In this household, shoes are removed at the door, and it is cooling to walk barefoot on the marble floors and soothing to rest my feet on a fine Kashmiri rug.

In the dining room, I sit facing a painting of the Hindu god, Krishna, and his consort, Radha, surrounded by maidens called Gopis. On the sideboard behind me stands a stone carving of the elephant-headed god, Ganesha, with fresh marigold blossoms placed at the base.

Deep red roses and tiny white gypsy flowers have been combined in a centerpiece by Kumar's mother-in-law, Kamala Devi Prashad. And the heady fragrance of tuberoses drifts in from a bouquet in the living room. Kumar's husband, Ashok, and son, Pavan, join us. Our places are indicated by hand-embroidered mats placed over a plaid tablecloth in soft colors.

Entertaining is easy for Kumar because she has three helpers: Geeta, who cooks with Kumar, and Basanti and Anju, who serve. Like many Indian women, Kumar relies on pressure cookers to speed up tasks such as cooking potatoes, rice and dal (legumes).

Today we have all three. The rice is fried like Chinese fried rice but flavored Indian-style with mustard seeds and curry leaves. Lightly seasoned with cumin and turmeric, the potatoes are combined with sliced green bell peppers. Kumar's method for cooking dal--today, it's yellow pigeon peas (toor dal)--is to saute cumin, mustard seeds and turmeric in the pressure cooker, then add presoaked dal and cook it with water under pressure. At serving time, the dal is topped with additional seasonings, fried in ghee.

I am intrigued by eggplant that has been roasted over an open flame until smoky tasting, then combined with roasted tomatoes, raw red onions and cilantro. A shredded green vegetable turns out to be green papaya, cooked with curry leaves, mustard seeds and chile powder.

We also have fresh cheese (paneer) formed into dumplings stuffed with peas. Small cups by each plate hold cool, mellow yogurt mixed with tiny golden balls made from chickpea flour. We spoon fluid mango chutney over this to create an interesting contrast of sweet and tangy.

Tomato, onion and cucumber salad is common in India, but Kumar's contains an additional ingredient: sprouted channa (tiny chickpeas). The channa sprouts quickly in Calcutta's summery heat, but at home in Los Angeles I have to plan this salad two to three days in advance--it takes that long for the dal to sprout in cool weather.

Anju and Basanti bring in a continuous supply of chapatis (flat bread) just off the griddle and freshly fried papads (lentil wafers). And when we can eat no more, we turn to the dessert, kesaria rasogollas. In this fancy version of a classic Bengali sweet, the spongy balls of fresh cheese soaked in syrup are flavored and tinted bright yellow with saffron.

The proper drink with such a meal is water, served to us without ice in tumblers covered with small saucers. Afterward, we drink tea brought from the family's tea garden, Goomtee, near Darjeeling.

Re-creating Kumar's menu is easy in California, because even the most exotic ingredients are available. Asian and Chinese markets carry green papayas, and Indian shops have curry leaves, dal and dark mustard seeds. Rasogollas are also available in Indian sweet shops and Bangladeshi markets, although they are plain, not the luxurious saffron version that Kumar served.


Vinita Kumar cooks this dal in a pressure cooker, but it can also be cooked in a saucepan. It just takes longer.

1 cup toor dal


2 teaspoons oil

3/4 teaspoon cumin seeds

3/4 teaspoon brown mustard seeds

1/4 teaspoon turmeric

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon ghee or clarified butter

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon hot chile powder

1/8 teaspoon asafetida

Soak toor dal in water to cover 30 minutes.

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