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Tikka in No Time

by Monica Bhide

Convenient Ingredients Make Indian an Instant Cuisine

To make authentic tandoori chicken, first you have to get your hands on a traditional beehive-shaped oven. Besides carefully measuring and grinding a good dozen spices to achieve the right balance for the marinade, you have to maneuver the chicken into the hot tandoor without burning yourself.

Want to make the South Indian crepes called dosas? Soak lentils and rice overnight, then grind them, then let them ferment -- again overnight. Twelve hours later, if the temperature is right and the batter has risen, you can finally heat up your skillet.

No wonder students in my Indian cooking classes tell me they're afraid to try the cuisine at home. Indian cooking is all about alluring flavors that reflect the nation's diverse landscape, climate and cultures, but with its long lists of ingredients, involved techniques and from-scratch spice mixes, batters and marinades, "Indian cooking can at times be pretty cumbersome," says Balraj Bhasin, owner of the Indian restaurant Bombay Curry Co. in Alexandria. Creating everything from scratch yields sumptuous rewards, but it also requires time, patience and detailed knowledge of techniques.

After first moving to Washington in 1992, I would travel to India and cart back suitcases full of spices, spice mixes, pickles, lentil wafers and even curry leaves, because local availability was limited. Today, ingredients are easily found at Indian markets, at Korean stores and at such chains as Giant, Whole Foods, Costco and Wegmans. Moreover, food manufacturers and even local grocers are now tempting people to cook easy Indian -- a concept that once was oxymoronic -- through the use of time-saving products.

More than 1,200 Indian food products have been introduced in the United States since 2000 -- almost 300 of them in 2006, according to Mintel, a market research firm. "These products not only allow more diversity in household meals, but also an easy alternative to learning how to prepare more complicated dishes," says Mintel analyst Christy Brinnehl.

Dhaneshan Thakkekara, manager at All World Groceries in Vienna, says some of his best-selling products, such as ready-made potato-stuffed breads, onion breads, nans, tandoori breads and spiced breads from Deep or Pillsbury, "did not even exist a few years ago." He proclaims the value of the popular tandoori spice mixes. "If you don't want to buy 10 separate spices to make the mix, then just buy this!" he says. "There is something for every type of cook."

The products, he says, are appreciated not only by American clients newly interested in the cuisine but also by people of Indian origin. More than 110,000 Indians live in the Washington area, and many of them want to enjoy their favorite luscious curries even on weeknights. But instant Indian isn't just for the home consumer, Bhasin says: Even industry supply stores such as Restaurant Depot now carry ready-made panir, the versatile Indian cheese.

Cookbook authors, too, are embracing packaged products. "I wanted to introduce people to Indian food as I know it," says New York-based author and entrepreneur Maya Kaimal, who introduced a line of refrigerated simmering sauces a couple of years ago. "I want them to enjoy it on a weeknight instead of thinking of it as a weekend project." Kaimal's high-end gourmet sauces -- Tamarind Curry, Tikka Masala, Coconut Curry and Vindaloo -- are available at Whole Foods Market and Costco.

Not all instant Indian products are created equal. Some spice mixes are too strong or too weak, lacking the right balance. Bhasin advises some trial-and-error experimenting. "As the potency of spices varies considerably, you will have to go by feel and use the spice mixes to your individual liking," he says. "Don't be disheartened. It usually takes an attempt or two, but once you are satisfied, you have your very own signature dish."

Ultimately, high-quality spice mixes, prepared pastes and marinades and the like are, at their best, helper ingredients. They will give you a head start (and save you some laborious measuring, mixing, soaking and fermenting). But the rest of the cooking, and all the creativity it can entail, remains up to you.


Many Indian products can be found at mainstream supermarkets, but local Indian grocers are most likely to stock the widest selection. Call to verify availability of any particular product.

Here's a select list of stores in the Washington area:

· All World Groceries,409 Maple Ave. E., Vienna; 703-938-3400.

· Dana Bazar,12215 Nebel St., Rockville; 301-231-7546.

· Patel Brothers,2074 University Blvd., Langley Park, 301-422-1555; 15110 Frederick Rd., Rockville, 301-340-8656; 11116 Lee Hwy., Fairfax, 703-273 7400.

· Shivam Music and Spices,11127 Lee Hwy., Fairfax; 703-591-5116



Quick Indian Recipes

Roasted Eggplant (Baigan ka Bhartha)

4 servings

This nicely seasoned vegetarian entree is usually served with Indian breads such as tandoori roti or nan. Adapted from "The Everything Indian Cookbook," by Monica Bhide (Adams Media, 2004).

3 pounds eggplants (about 2 medium eggplants)

1/4 cup vegetable oil

1 small red onion, coarsely chopped (about 1 cup)

1 teaspoon ginger-garlic paste, such as Nirav brand

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1/4 teaspoon red chili powder or cayenne pepper

2 medium tomatoes, finely chopped

Salt (optional)

A few tablespoons finely chopped cilantro, for garnish (optional)

Preheat the oven to 475 degrees. Line a large roasting pan with aluminum foil.

Use a knife to cut a few shallow, inch-long slits in each eggplant; brush the eggplants with 2 tablespoons of the oil. Place in the pan and bake for 20 minutes, then turn the eggplants over and bake for about 20 minutes, or until they are soft and their skin is charred. Transfer the pan to the counter for a few minutes. When the eggplants are cool enough to handle, peel and discard the skin. Use a fork to mash the eggplant into a smooth pulp. Set aside.

Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and cook about 7 minutes, until translucent. Add the ginger-garlic paste, coriander and chili powder or cayenne pepper and cook for 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes and cook for about 5 minutes, then use a spatula or potato masher to mash the tomatoes and incorporate them into the mixture. Cook, stirring continuously, for 10 minutes or until the oil starts to separate from the mixture. Add the eggplant pulp and cook, stirring, for several minutes, until the eggplant is incorporated and the mixture is heated through. Season with salt to taste. Garnish with cilantro, if desired, and serve hot.

Per serving: 230 calories, 4 g protein, 26 g carbohydrates, 14 g fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 2 g saturated fat, 11 mg sodium, 13 g dietary fiber

Recipe tested by Leslie A. Garcia; e-mail questions tofood@washpost.com

Easy Chicken Tikka

4 servings

This is author Mohica Bhide's go-to Monday night recipe, needing just a half-hour's marinating time. "It's what I do when I don't feel like making anything else, because it's so easy," she says. Serve with rice, a green salad and Deep Tandoori Roti, a brand of Indian bread. The chicken also can be threaded onto metal skewers and grilled over indirect heat for 8 to 10 minutes.

3/4 cup plain yogurt

1 tablespoon ginger-garlic paste, such as Nirav brand

1 tablespoon chicken tikka masala, such as Shan brand

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 tablespoon finely chopped mint

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1 1/2 -inch pieces

Lemon wedges, for garnish

Combine the yogurt, ginger-garlic paste, tikka masala, lemon juice, mint, salt and oil in a large bowl. Add the chicken and mix to coat evenly. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

When ready to cook, preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Lightly grease a medium roasting pan.

Drain the marinade from the chicken, discarding the marinade. Arrange the chicken pieces in a single layer in the pan and roast for 15 to 20 minutes (start checking after 10 minutes), until the meat is cooked through. Serve with lemon wedges for squeezing over the meat.

Per serving: 232 calories, 22 g protein, 4 g carbohydrates, 14 g fat, 94 mg cholesterol, 3 g saturated fat, 185 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber

Recipe tested by Leslie A. Garcia; e-mail questions tofood@washpost.com

Pan-Fried Cheese With Potatoes and Cauliflower in Vinegar Sauce (Sirka Panir)

8 servings

This vegetarian curry is easiest to make if you use packaged, fried panir, which is an unripened Indian cheese. The recipe was provided by cookbook author Raghavan Iyer and is to appear in his next book, planned for publication this year. Serve with rice or, as Iyer does, with slices of toasted French bread to dunk into the creamy, sweet-tart sauce.

1 1/4 cups water

1/4 cup malt vinegar or cider vinegar

1/4 cup tomato paste

1 tablespoon coriander seeds

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

2 fresh green Thai, cayenne or serrano chili peppers, stemmed

2 dried red Thai or cayenne chili peppers, stemmed

2 large cloves garlic, smashed

2 slices ginger root (each 2 inches long, 1 inch wide and 1/8 -inch thick)

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1/2 cup finely chopped red onion

2 cups cut-up cauliflower florets (about 1 inch long)

2 medium-size potatoes, such as russet or Yukon Gold, peeled, cut into 1-inch cubes, and submerged in a bowl of cold water to prevent browning

1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt or sea salt

1 cup unsweetened coconut milk

8 ounces store-bought frozen fried panir cubes*

1/4 cup finely chopped cilantro leaves and tender stems

Combine 1/4 cup water, vinegar, tomato paste, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, fresh and dried chili peppers, garlic and ginger in a blender. Puree, stopping to scrape down the mixture as needed, until a smooth, reddish-brown paste is formed. Set aside.

Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the onion and stir-fry for 3 to 5 minutes, until it has browned lightly around the edges. Add the paste and reduce the heat to medium. Cook, stirring frequently, for 2 to 4 minutes, until a thin, oily sheen coats the surface and a thin film of paste forms on the bottom of the pan.

Meanwhile, add the remaining cup of water to the blender and whir the blades to dislodge any remaining contents. When the paste has cooked, add the liquid from the blender and scrape the bottom of the pan to release the accumulated film of paste. Add the cauliflower, potatoes and salt, and heat the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low or low, cover the pan and cook for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are almost tender. Add the coconut milk and panir cubes. Cook, uncovered, for about 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is thick and the vegetables are fork-tender. Add the cilantro and serve hot.

*NOTE: If you can't find frozen fried panir, slice fresh panir into 1-inch cubes; heat vegetable oil in a skillet and fry the cubes until lightly browned on each side.

Per serving (excluding panir): 143 calories, 2 g protein, 11 g carbohydrates, 11 g fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 7 g saturated fat, 322 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber

Recipe tested by Leslie A. Garcia; e-mail questions tofood@washpost.com

For a Quicker Passage to India

A guide to some time- and labor-saving Indian ingredients found at local Indian grocers.


Together, ginger and garlic form a layer of strong flavors upon which many Indian curries are built. The paste also acts as a thickening agent. While a bit less aromatic than the freshly prepared version, store-bought ginger-garlic paste works fine for most recipes.

Brands: Swad, Maya, Laxmi and Nirav sell the paste in jars ranging in size from 7 to 14 ounces. Salt and oil are used as preservatives.

How to use it: Cook along with onions at the beginning of the cooking process in most Indian curries. Add a tablespoon to your marinades to build flavor. (See recipe for Roasted Eggplant, at right.)

Storage: Refrigerate the paste (once it's opened) for up to six weeks. You can also freeze it in an ice cube tray and use the cubes as needed; frozen paste keeps for up to three months.

Price: Nirav Ginger Garlic Paste, 8.5 ounces, $2.19; Laxmi Ginger Garlic Paste, 9 ounces, $5.99.


In Indian cooking, spices are used individually or in mixes; the latter add complexity, texture and flavor to dishes, exemplifying the cooking of the regions from which they originated. One common mix is tandoori masala (masala means "spice mix"), used to marinate roast meats for cooking in tandoors (large clay ovens) or, as is fine for most tandoori recipes, in conventional ovens or charcoal grills.

Brands: MDH Tandoori Barbeque Masala, Shan Chicken Tikka BBQ Mix and Shan Tandoori Chicken BBQ Mix are all excellent. Shan's tandoori mix is composed of red chili pepper, ginger, nutmeg, black pepper, cardamom, cumin, mace, dried garlic, cinnamon and anise seed. Tandoori foods once were thought to obtain their red color from being cooked in red brick tandoors, but it's just red food coloring.

How to use it: Combine with yogurt, lemon juice, ginger-garlic paste and a bit of vegetable oil to create a tangy, spicy marinade for chicken, shrimp, tofu or fish. (See recipe for Easy Chicken Tikka, at right.) Yogurt is used as a meat and poultry tenderizer in Indian cooking, and it is an integral part of many tandoori marinades. You can use the same marinade for potatoes, cauliflower, mushrooms, onions, bell peppers and panir (Indian cheese).

Storage: Store in an airtight container for up to six months. Use your nose to check for freshness and potency of the spice mix: If it loses its aroma, discard.

Price: Shan Chicken Tikka BBQ Mix, 40 grams. $1 to $1.19.


All World Groceries in Vienna and the area Patel Brothers stores sell locally prepared batters for dosa. The batters work perfectly, saving the cook from all that grinding and fermentation.

Brands: The batters are locally prepared by the grocery store, with no brand name on the container. All-World carries it in late spring and summer; Patel Brothers has it year-round.

How to use it: Heat a 6- to 7-inch nonstick skillet on medium heat. Carefully wipe the skillet with a paper towel dipped in a bit of oil. Using a metal measuring cup with a flat base, pour 1/4 cup of batter into the skillet. Use the bottom of the cup to make concentric circles to spread out the batter. Sprinkle a few drops of oil along the edges of the dosa to prevent it from sticking. You will begin to see small bubbles forming, and the dosa will begin to crisp. Using your spatula, carefully roll the dosa off the skillet. Serve hot.

Storage: Refrigerate for two to three days.

Price: At Patel Brothers, $2.99 for two pounds.


A good source of protein, panir is similar to tofu or baked ricotta cheese and is great to have on hand because it is so easy to prepare. Bricks of panir, diced panir and even deep-fried panir are available at local stores.

Brands: Nanak brand is the most popular.

How to use it: It can be fried, grilled, sauteed or scrambled for use in savory dishes and desserts. (See recipe for Pan-Fried Cheese With Potatoes and Cauliflower in Vinegar Sauce, at right.)

Storage: Refrigerate; use within five days of opening.

Price: Nanak Paneer, 14 ounces, $4.99.

By Monica Bhide
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, January 24, 2007; F01


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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