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Kitchen Table | Real Cooks

The Diplomatic Touch

March 11, 1998|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Forty guests were about to arrive for Sunday lunch. Two buffet lines were set up with generously laden platters of identical dishes: seven entrees, salad and four desserts, each time-consuming to prepare.

Faced with such a prospect, the average hostess would call a caterer. But not Nina Haroon. She cooked the entire meal herself.

Haroon performs similarly amazing feats frequently because her husband, Mohammad-al-Haroon, is the consul general of Bangladesh in Los Angeles, and they entertain constantly. Even for a small lunch with only one guest, Haroon turns out five main dishes, a vegetable, salad and two desserts.

Haroon confides that she didn't know how to cook when she moved abroad because well-brought-up girls of her generation were not encouraged to go into the kitchen. "When I learned cooking," she says, "I learned by myself."

She left home with a Bangladeshi cookbook and some guidance on how to prepare simple, everyday curries. Her husband's postings gave her an opportunity to exchange recipes with women from other countries. "Wherever we went," she says, "we had a cooking group."

Now, she's expert enough to create her own dishes. One example is the egg curry she served at the Sunday lunch. The eggs were baked as a savory custard, which she sliced and combined with Bangladeshi curry seasonings--onion, ginger, garlic, turmeric, chile powder, cilantro and green chiles. The custard idea came from a woman from Myanmar, whom she met in Cairo.

"All of my friends like it," she says. "I don't think anyone in Bangladesh would have heard of it."

Nothing she served that Sunday could be whipped together quickly. Dai bura, lentil dumplings in yogurt sauce, required soaking urid and moong dals overnight and grinding them to a paste. The yogurt sauce contained cilantro, fresh green chiles and whole dried red chiles for guests who wanted to chew on something really hot.

Dai bura is typically served with biryani--meat and rice--and Haroon had prepared an enormous potful of this dish, layering chicken with fragrantly seasoned basmati rice. Sometimes she sautes the ingredients in ghee (clarified butter). When she wants a lighter version, she switches to mustard oil.

Haroon also served beef curry and golden brown potato "chops" (patties) stuffed with spiced ground beef. Meatless options included a mixed vegetable curry and a golden yellow bean curry made with large dried beans that Haroon buys from an Iranian market.

The salad, a typical California mixture of greens, tomato and cucumber, looked innocent enough with its topping of creamy pink French dressing. But Haroon had slipped in sliced green chiles and a dash of haleem masala. The masala, which blends ginger, onion, garlic, turmeric, red chile and garam masala, ordinarily seasons a dish of meat combined with lentils and wheat.

Mango chutney, also homemade, was not the sweet, jam-like relish served at most Indian restaurants but a dark, savory concoction.

And then came dessert, or rather four desserts plus a bowl of papaya chunks. One, rasomalai, takes a day to prepare. Haroon boils two gallons of milk for many hours until thick and lightly browned. Then she adds sugar and small spongy dumplings--rasogullas--made of milk curd. Another bowl held large rasogullas in sugar syrup, a contribution from a friend.

Doodh shemai embeds fried pasta strands finer than angel hair in thickened milk. Zarda--sweetened basmati rice--displayed a jewel-like variety of dried and candied fruits. The cooked rice and fruits are tossed with melted ghee and milk powder to enrich the flavor. Still another dessert was caramel custard, which in Bangladesh is known as egg pudding.

Lunch was served on the large veranda of the consular residence in Brentwood. Guests gathered first in the living room, which is furnished with carved inlaid tables and rugs that the Haroons brought from Egypt, their last posting before moving to Los Angeles, as well as Bangladeshi embroidered wall hangings.

Because Muslims do not consume alcohol (Bangladesh is more than 88% Muslim), guests drank juice or soft drinks as aperitifs, water with lunch and tea from Bangladesh afterward.

Meanwhile, Haroon, wearing a green sari with a flowered border, quietly chatted and mingled, as relaxed as if she were a guest rather than the one who had planned and put together such an elaborate meal.

CHICKEN BIRYANI

1 (3-pound) chicken

1 tablespoon ground ginger

1 tablespoon garlic powder

3 tablespoons pureed onion

6 tablespoons yogurt

2 to 3 cardamom pods

3 (1-inch) pieces cinnamon stick

Salt

1/2 cup ghee or clarified butter

1/4 cup chopped onions

8 cups basmati rice, washed and drained

15 cups boiling water

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon ground mace

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom

3 or 4 serrano chiles

Delicately seasoned, this makes a good companion dish to spicy Bangladeshi curries.

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