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The Real Thing

For Indian curry with finesse and fire, look no farther than L.A.

September 18, 2002|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Los Angeles is a city proud of its spectacular range of ethnic foods and proud, too, that so much of it is authentic. When it comes to authenticity, however, a glaring exception is Indian curry. Oh, there are many dishes that are described as curry. But, trust us, they're just impostors.

Yet the genuine article does in fact exist here. It's just that you have to know where to look and know what you're looking for. And if you find it--or if you prepare it at home--you're in for a culinary epiphany. A true curry is carefully cooked, with freshly ground spices balanced skillfully so that the flavor is alluringly spicy--not just fiery hot. Good curries are never drenched with oil or thickened with flour. And they never taste alike. Each has its own character, and each should be eaten thoughtfully. Those who understand curry know it is best appreciated when it is tempered with rice or bread, rather than being scooped up straight, as if it were a soup or a stew.

These are four of the best curries I've eaten in this city. Each is from a different region of India, and each is a stunning representation of that style of cooking. The chefs were willing to tell how they make them, even volunteering to demonstrate so we could see how they created these superb flavors. All of them are easy to reproduce at home, even if you've never cooked Indian food before. There are no secret techniques, only meticulous procedures and timing. Follow directions, work with patience and use the correct ingredients, and you will have an excellent curry, too.

Once you've experienced the real thing, you'll never settle for bogus cooking--the kormas made with canned white sauce, Punjabi seasonings from the north thrown into south Indian food, garam masala sprinkled on every dish. It's not always a matter of deception. Cooks may have no professional training, and may not have the time or resources to roast and grind spices and prepare sauces fresh each day. It's more convenient to use commercially ground spices and store batches of sauce in the refrigerator.

Here's just one example of what happens. Almost every restaurant slaps the word vindaloo onto a fiery dish that tastes nothing like it would in its place of origin, which is Goa, the former Portuguese enclave on the west coast of India.

Goan food is particularly difficult to find here, so we sought out one of the few Goan chefs in the city, Addi Decosta, to explain how vindaloo should be made. For years, Decosta cooked his vinegar-seasoned curry at Chicken Madras in Hawthorne. (He has sold that place and will open a new restaurant, Addi's Tandoor, in Redondo Beach next month.)

A Goan native, Decosta is scandalized by American vindaloos that reek of tomato sauce--a real no-no. Goan cooks of the past relied on vinegar as a preservative, because they didn't have refrigeration, he says. When tomato sauce is added, the vinegar has to be reduced to balance the acidity. This throws off the flavor.

"Vindaloo is like a pickle, almost," Decosta says. "The longer you keep it, the better it tastes." Goan cooks stored their vindaloo in clay pots, reheating it as needed. The standing time also tenderizes tough meat. Pork is traditional in vindaloo, but today more Goan cooks are opting for lighter foods and have switched to shrimp. The difference is seafood has to be cooked and served immediately.

It's not likely Goan food will become more common in Los Angeles, because Goan chefs are not immigrating here. "In Goa, they have many resorts, so they are all busy over there," Decosta says. "And they are very well paid."

Sanjay Dwivedi, executive chef of Tantra, a new restaurant in Silver Lake, has just arrived from London where he cooked at Zaika, a top Indian restaurant that was awarded a Michelin star in 2001. He is also taking an ambitious approach here. "I want to put Indian food on the map--good Indian food, so that people know it's light, it's healthy, it's flavorsome, rather than just tasting of spices," he says.

Dwivedi already has diners raving about his intense, deep brown rogan josh, a Kashmiri lamb dish. One customer even rushed into the kitchen to say, "That's the best lamb curry I ever tasted."

Good rogan josh should taste "really oniony" and meaty, Dwivedi says. The dish cooks for hours, first a massive batch of sliced onions, along with some of the spices, then lamb shanks, meat and more seasonings. "The amount of time spent making this curry is why it tastes the way it does--beautiful," Dwivedi says.

Everyone in the kitchen gives a stir as the creamy mixture bubbles in a huge pot--but no cream is added, and very little liquid. "It's the onions that make the sauce thick and give the lamb flavor," Dwivedi says.

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