When Mallika Basu landed in the land of Shakespeare and chicken tikka masala 14 years ago as a master’s student, life was one giant “petrol-pump cuisine” party. Soon, however, sticking that frozen pizza into the microwave and gobbling down dried anchovy sandwiches took their toll, and Basu has since been on the quest to rediscover—and reinvent—Indian cooking. She’s skipped all the deep-frying recipes, and turned to grilling and shallow frying. The idea has been to rid Indian food of its grease-rich and time-consuming reputation. We spoke to the author of Miss Masala: Real Indian Cooking for Busy Living, to be released in India later this month, on how to cook tasty, healthy Indian meals while on a tight schedule. Edited excerpts from a phone interview:
Aren’t “real Indian cooking” and “busy living” incompatible?
No, I don’t agree. I have a full-time communications job and a 16-month-old daughter to look after and I live in central London, which means there is no household help. I still manage to cook Indian food once-twice a week.
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How do you make Indian food—perceived to be unhealthy—attractive to the weight-conscious population of the UK?
Obesity has been an issue in the UK. There is a general need among most of my peer group— young, urban professionals—to become more healthy and conscious of what they eat. I never deep-fry at home and I use oil in measured quantities. I use some ghee at times, and mainly shallow-fry or grill. I also avoid eating enormous amounts of rice in the evenings. I make sure I watch what I eat, and eat little and often, get my five portions of fruits and vegetables in the day.
What’s one item that you make most often while on the go, and why?
My winner, killer recipe is the chicken pulao. It can be had for breakfast, lunch or dinner, served hot or cold; can be dressed up with a dal, or raita or pickle. The recipe is easy: Just cook the chicken and add rice and it keeps cooking on its own. Then there’s also dal. I don’t believe there’s a healthier way source of high lean protein. You can also add vegetables to it (which, of course, is not the traditional style), cauliflower, peas, anything, and it just doubles up as a great one-course meal.
What made you turn from “petrol-pump cuisine” to Indian food?
I just missed it so badly. Why people around the world love Indian food is because it tastes the best. Lots of people overseas have done great injustice to Indian food—the greasy image of the chicken tikka masala—and honestly, we didn’t eat like that. What we see in the West as Indian food bears no resemblance to anything that is actually cooked in our homes.
Give us a recipe that works as a home cure for sniffles.
My dad would argue that nothing beats the common cold, or any ailment for that matter, like a swig of brandy. But I have a three-prong strategy to blitz the sniffles—Echinacea, honey and lemon drinks and my most recent discovery, rasam.
The dish can be a little more than water tempered with pungent spices or a light-textured but heady dal. Whatever you go for, the end result is always the same—a steaming hot bowl packed with a powerful punch to get a red-nosed you back on track.
4 tbsp toor (split yellow lentils)
2 medium tomatoes
2.5cm (1 inch) ball of fresh tamarind, or 1 tbsp tamarind paste
2 tbsp coriander seeds
10 dried long red chillies
5-6 black peppercorns
1 tsp oil
1 pinch asafoetida
1 tsp mustard seeds
2 sprigs of curry leaves (fresh or frozen)
Salt to taste
Method: First rinse the lentils under cold running water, and then roughly chop the tomatoes. Place the lentils and tomatoes in a large pan, add four tea mugs of water and bring to a boil. Cook for 20 minutes, keeping an eye on the pan to prevent the contents from spilling over (in which case remove from the heat for a few seconds.) Preheat the grill to hot. If you are using fresh tamarind, soak it in four tablespoons of hot water. Now place the coriander, cumin and peppercorns under the grill. Cook for around 10 seconds and then grind to a powder in a coffee grinder and add a teaspoon to the boiling lentils.
The perfect consistency for rasam is watery with fibres in it, like orange juice with bits. The tomatoes will almost disappear. When this happens, mix in the tamarind water or tamarind paste. Finally to make the tadka (tempering), pour the oil into a pan, set over high heat. When the oil is hot, add, in order, asafoetida, mustard seeds and curry leaves. After a few seconds, when the curry leaves have turned a dark shade of green, mix the tadka into the rasam. Add salt to taste and serve immediately.
*Excerpted from Miss Masala—Real Indian Cooking for Busy Living.