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Know Your Kala Channa

August 09, 2000|BARBARA HANSEN

Stepping into an Indian market can be pure enchantment. The aroma of spices, with an overlay of incense, tantalizes like a rare and exotic perfume. But on the practical side, what does one do with all this stuff? What is ajowan or amchur? What is kalonji, or methi, arhar dal or kala channa?

One solution is to give up all hope of penetrating the fascinating world of Indian cuisine. The other is to buy "The Indian Grocery Store Demystified" by Linda Bladholm (Renaissance Books; $16.95).

Although it is more than 250 pages, the book is slim and light enough to carry while shopping. It is as crammed with information as most Indian shops are with ingredients. Handy categories cover more food items than most novice Indian cooks will ever use. Rather than merely explain what a spice, dal or specialty rice is, Bladholm tells how it figures in Indian cuisine and culture, how to deal with it, and suggests brands.

There's a section on teas, and another on ayurvedic ingredients, as most Indian shops carry various remedies and cosmetic preparations too. Bladholm also discusses utensils such as the kadhai, which is the Indian version of the wok, and explains perhaps unfamiliar cooking procedures such as tempering, the frying of spices in oil that is then poured onto the food.

She intersperses all this with vignettes of Indian customs, her travel experiences, history and other lore. And she concludes with enough recipes to prepare a variety of meals, including appetizers, vegetarian and non-vegetarian main dishes, rice, vegetables, a dessert and chai tea. Bladholm, who lives in Florida, previously wrote "The Asian Grocery Store Demystified." One wonders what is next on her shopping agenda.

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