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No Tandoor? No Problem.

by Monica Bhide

Chef Sudhir Seth Adapts Regional Indian Recipes
to Spice Up the American Grill

Sudhir Seth (middle) was 20 years old and already cooking in an international hotel kitchen when he used his first grill in India.

"It was nothing like an American grill," recalls the chef and owner of the Passage to India restaurant in Bethesda, Maryland. "It was a sigri, " a hibachi-size, open-flame contraption. "I will never forget it, because I killed and grilled my first lobster on it," he says.

Backyard grilling is rare in India, Seth says, but many Indian dishes are a natural for the barbecue. When he and his wife, Sonali, arrived in Bowie, Maryland 11 years ago they embraced American tradition and took up the grill.

Grilling in India is most commonly associated with tandoori cooking, yet most Indian home cooks don't own tandoors, the high-temperature ovens used to cook meat, vegetables and breads. Seth, now 49, says that at home, people would use sigris or flat griddles or coal-burning stoves. Communal tandoors were common in rural areas; women would prepare bread dough at home and gather around to use the common tandoor for baking. Sigris were common with some upper-class families in the country and would be used to grill small game such as rabbits and pigeons.

Generally, people preferred -- and still do -- to eat "tandoori-style foods" at restaurants, says Seth. "My parents were not big meat eaters, so we never grilled meats," he said. "As for roasting vegetables, my mother would roast eggplants on hot ashes that fell from our coal-powered stove."

Now, the Seths, who love to entertain, grill on their back porch all summer. "In fact, my daughter Srishti is home from college this weekend, and she is insisting I grill for her," he says. She "loves my grilled vegetables and fruits."

"A few months ago, we had friends over for dinner, and I realized there were only scallops in the freezer," he says. "So I marinated them in Indian spices and created a Indian-style grilled scallop that is now a favorite in our house."

Seth is convinced that tenderizing and good marinating are the keys to grilling meats. At the restaurant, where he has a classic tandoor, he uses raw papaya, yogurt, a paste of ginger and garlic and even vinegar -- never a synthetic meat tenderizer -- a practice that he advocates for the home cook.

"My marinades are simple. I love using spices, fresh herbs and seasonal ingredients," he says. "My marinades don't use a lot of oil and so are healthier."

He also does not grill large pieces of meat but rather concentrates on the Indian cheese called paneer, vegetables, fruits, seafood and poultry. His inspiration comes from all over his native country.

"I have worked in the northern and the southern parts of India and have adapted regional Indian recipes for both my restaurant and my home grill," says the chef who has served Indian dishes to former president Bill Clinton on several occasions.

Seth prefers to cook with charcoal, but the grilling method is up for debate. Seth and his wife disagree passionately on which fuel is better.

She likes the easy cleanup of gas. "I also dislike the bags of charcoal on the porch when we entertain," Sonali says.

He defends charcoal: "As foods grill, the juices drop on the charcoal and the flames carry wonderful flavors back into whatever you are grilling."

The dialogue goes on, as it does among so many grilling families.

"If it's charcoal," jokes 47-year-old Sonali, "then he cooks and he cleans. So I win!" After all, she says, "The whole idea behind marrying a chef is so you don't have to cook."


Indian Grilling, Fish to Fruit

Sudhir's Green Chutney Fish

4 servings

Traditionally, this dish is steamed in banana leaves. Aluminum foil is easier to use on your grill -- and easier to find. As a variation, chef Sudhir Seth suggests adding a tablespoon of prepared mango chutney to the marinade.

1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
2 fresh garlic cloves, peeled
1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 cup cilantro leaves, packed
1/2 cup mint leaves, packed
1/4 cup raw unsalted peanuts (may substitute raw unsalted cashews)
1 teaspoon sugar
2 serrano chili peppers, stemmed (seeds removed for milder flavor)
Salt to taste
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon white wine or champagne vinegar
4 grouper or rockfish fillets (2 pounds total)

In a food processor or blender, puree all the ingredients except the fish to a smooth paste. To aid in the blending process, you can add a tablespoon of water.

Place the fish fillets in a large bowl and pour the marinade over them. Refrigerate for about an hour.

When ready to cook the fillets, prepare the grill. If using a gas grill, preheat the grill to medium-high. If using a charcoal grill, start the charcoal or wood briquettes. When the briquettes are ready, distribute the heated charcoal evenly under the cooking area for direct heat.

Cut four squares of aluminum foil, each large enough to accommodate one of the fillets. Remove the fish fillets from the marinade, shaking to remove any excess. Place a fillet in the center of each piece of foil. Fold the foil over as if you were wrapping a present, leaving a little room for the steam to expand. Discard the remaining marinade.

Place the foil packages on the grill. The timing will depend on the thickness of your fillets; for 1-inch-thick fillets, cook 10 to 15 minutes. The fish is cooked through when it flakes easily with a fork. Serve immediately.

Per serving: 316 calories, 47 g protein, 8 g carbohydrates, 10 g fat, 79 mg cholesterol, 2 g saturated fat, 219 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber



Indian Cheese and Pepper Skewers

4 to 6 servings

" Paneer [a pressed Indian cottage cheese] withstands heat well," says Seth, "so it is often cooked in the tandoor." You can purchase paneer at Indian markets.

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon garam masala*
1 small garlic clove, mixed with 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated ginger root, to form a paste
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup heavy cream
12 to 16 ounces paneer, cut into 3/4 -by 1/2 -inch cubes
1 onion, quartered and separated into several individual layers
3 small red, yellow and green bell peppers, cut into quarters

In a large bowl, mix 1 tablespoon of the vegetable oil with the turmeric, garam masala, garlic-ginger paste, lemon juice, heavy cream and salt to taste. Add the cubed paneer, onion and bell peppers, stir to coat, cover and refrigerate for about 1 hour.

Thread the paneer, onions and bell peppers alternately onto thin metal skewers. On a stove-top grill griddle over medium-high heat, cook the skewers, about 5 to 6 minutes, turning once and basting with the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil. (You may also place the metal skewers on a grill pan under the broiler, about 4 inches from the heat, for 5 to 8 minutes. Turn once and baste with the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil.) When the onions start to char around the sides, the paneer is ready. Serve warm.

*NOTE: Garam masala is an Indian spice blend available in some supermarkets and specialty stores.

Per serving (based on 6): 225 calories, 7 g protein, 6 g carbohydrates, 19 g fat, 56 mg cholesterol, 10 g saturated fat, 104 mg sodium, 1 g dietary fiber

Pine Nut Chicken Kebabs

4 servings

Yogurt is a common tenderizer in Indian kitchens. "Drain the yogurt through cheesecloth placed in a colander," advises Seth. "The thicker yogurt that remains has less moisture and helps make a better marinade." Whole-milk yogurt may be substituted if you want to skip the cheesecloth step.

2 medium garlic cloves, mixed with 1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger root to form a paste
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper or chili powder
1/4 cup pine nuts, ground
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons dried fenugreek leaves* (optional)
Pinch of paprika
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken, cubed
1/2 cup plain yogurt

Soak bamboo skewers in water for a few hours or until completely moistened.

In a medium bowl, combine the ginger-garlic paste, cayenne pepper or chili powder, pine nuts, lemon juice, dried fengreek leaves if desired, paprika and salt. Mix well. Add the chicken cubes, stir to coat, cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Add the yogurt and mix again. Refrigerate for at least another 30 minutes and up to 8 hours.

When ready to cook the kebabs, prepare the grill. If using a gas grill, preheat the grill on medium. If using a charcoal grill, start the charcoal or wood briquettes. When the briquettes are ready, distribute the heated charcoal evenly under the cooking area for direct heat.

Clean the grate with a grill brush.

Thread the coated chicken cubes onto the skewers. Grill for about 15 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through and its juices run clear.

*NOTE: Dried fenugreek leaves have a slightly bitter flavor. They are available in international sections of some grocery stores and at Indian specialty markets.

Per serving: 195 calories, 29 g protein, 4 g carbohydrates, 7 g fat, 68 mg cholesterol, 2 g saturated fat, 158 mg sodium, 1 g dietary fiber


Roasted Eggplant and Tomato Dip

Makes about 2 cups

This adapted recipe is a summertime favorite of Seth's. He serves it with warm French bread for dipping.

1 large eggplant (1 to 1 1/2 pounds)
4 tablespoons vegetable or canola oil
3 fresh garlic cloves, minced
1 medium tomato, finely chopped (about 1/2 cup)
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves
1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and coarsely chopped
Juice from 1 lemon
1 jalapeño pepper, stemmed and split (remove seeds for a milder flavor)
1/2 cup plain whole-milk yogurt

Prepare the grill for cooking over direct heat.

Clean the grate with a grill brush.

Brush the eggplant all over with 2 tablespoons of the oil. Using a knife, pierce the eggplant a few times.

Place the eggplant directly on the grill. Cook, turning occasionally, until the eggplant is soft and its skin is charred, 15 to 18 minutes. Remove from the grill and let cool. Discard the skin.

Using a fork, mash the eggplant flesh into a smooth pulp.

In a large skillet over medium heat, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil, about 2 minutes. Add the garlic and saute for 30 seconds, then add the tomato and cook, about 5 minutes. Use he back of a spatula to mash the tomato, stirring continuously. When the mixture is ready, oil will start to appear around the inside edges of the skillet.

Add the eggplant and salt to taste. Mix well, and stir while cooking, about 7 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool.

In a food processor or blender, puree the cooled eggplant-tomato mixture with the cilantro, ginger, lemon juice, jalapeño pepper and yogurt until smooth. (You may add a few tablespoons of water, a little at a time, to aid the mixing process if necessary.)

Per serving: 101 calories, 2 g protein, 8 g carbohydrates, 8 gfat, 2 mg cholesterol, 1 g saturated fat, 47 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber



Tandoori Phal (Grilled Fruits)

4 servings

Seth suggests using hard fruits because they work well on the grill. Figs and other soft fruits will fall apart on high heat, so cook them over indirect heat. A grill basket is necessary here to prevent the fruit from falling into the grill.

1 tablespoon honey
1 1/2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger root
2 tablespoons (from 1 lemon) fresh lemon juice
1 cup orange juice
Pinch of ground cardamom
Pinch of freshly ground black pepper
4 fresh figs, cut in half (may substitute other fruit such as mango)
1 cup fresh pineapple chunks (about 1/8 of a whole pineapple)
1 cup pitted dates, such as Medjool

In a small bowl, combine the honey, ginger, lemon and orange juices, cardamom and black pepper.

Place the figs, pineapple and dates in a large bowl and pour the marinade over them, tossing lightly to coat. Let stand at room temperature for at least 30 minutes or up to 3 hours in the refrigerator.

When ready to cook the fruit, prepare the grill for indirect cooking. If it is a charcoal grill, build the fire on one side. If it's a gas grill, turn all the burners to preheat and then turn off one burner just before you begin cooking.

Clean the grate with a grill brush.

Drain the fruit, reserving the marinade in the bowl, and place in the grill basket on the side of the grill that does not have the fire. Cook for 8 to 12 minutes, turning occasionally, until the fruit is caramelized but not burnt.

While the fruits are grilling, prepare the sauce. In a small pan over medium heat on the stove, heat the reserved marinade until just heated through and the sauce comes to a simmer. Remove from heat.

Divide the fruit among individual bowls and pour the sauce on top. Serve with ice cream. Per serving: 246 calories, 2 g protein, 64 g carbohydrates, 1 g fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 0 g saturated fat, 3 mg sodium, 7 g dietary fiber


Tandoori Cookbooks

Grilling enthusiasts can turn their grills into tandoor stand-ins using Smita Chandra's book," Indian Grill: The Art of Tandoori Cooking at Home" (Ecco Press, 1999). "It came as a revelation to me," writes Chandra in her book, "that the preparation of these [tandoori-style] dishes did not necessarily require the use of a traditional tandoor."

In fact, she spent many years perfecting tandoori recipes to be cooked on the backyard grill.

Chef Sudhir Seth's favorite cookbook is "Tandoor: The Great Indian Barbecue," by Ranjit Rai (Overlook Press, 2001), a comprehensive guide. From the oven's history to secrets of making marinades, this book provides the definitive word on tandoors. It also provides instructions for preparing the recipes in a conventional home oven.


This article first appeared in the Washington Post
Wednesday, May 25, 2005; Page F04


Monica Bhide is the author of "The Spice is Right: Easy Indian Cooking for Today" (Callawind Publications, 2001) and "The Everything Indian Cookbook" (Adams Media, 2004). Her Web site is www.monicabhide.com.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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