I

ndia can only see its cuisine survive if it is willing to go back to basics,” says chef Suvir Saran of Devi, one of Manhattan’s hottest upscale Indian restaurants that specializes in regional Indian flavors. To some people, “upscale” and “regional” might be oxymorons. But for Saran, it is the local flavors, combinations and recipes of India that truly capture the essence of Indian cooking, and it is in the spirit of sharing these flavors that he opened Devi and wrote his critically acclaimed cookbook, Indian Home Cooking: A Fresh Introduction to Indian Food.

Born in Delhi to constantly-traveling parents, Saran was exposed to a variety of regional Indian cooking. A food lover since childhood, Saran hung out in the kitchen with the cooks and aunties while his friends played outside—his introduction to the “comfort, joy and solace” of the world of food, mingled with the heat of spices.

Indian Home Cooking
Saran’s Indian Home Cooking.

After moving to the States, Saran taught culinary classes at New York University, telling his students about the Indian food he knew from home but could not find in America. Living in New York City, he was “craving foods of India, finding the restaurants tacky [and] underwhelming.” He began perusing Indian cookbooks, only to discover they contained recipes for “the same boring restaurant fare.”

“I found myself amazed and saddened that our food was being robbed of its magic both in the restaurants and on the pages of cookbooks,” he says. Embarrassed by the lack of diversity in the representation of Indian food in America, Saran was inspired to write.

Indian Home Cooking
is a beautiful book—with glossy pages and a tantalizing picture of Mangalore Fried Shrimp on the cover—reflecting Saran’s artistic background and his desire that food be “both a visual and tasty feast.”

But Indian Home Cooking is more than just a feast for the eyes and the palate. Saran has infused the text with personal anecdotes and memories. Combining a vast knowledge of food and its history with memories from an aromatic and savory childhood, Saran makes this not only an excellent cookbook but a culinary journey.

For example, in a recipe for Lamb Biriyani with Orange and Whole Garam Masala, Saran explains that using orange brightens the taste of the lamb and adds fragrance to the rice, while with the recipe for “Kwalitys” Chickpeas, he describes how they used to be his favorite after-school snack. Saran says, “I crave a certain dish, based on a certain memory of India … the stories are what make the recipes.” This is apparent from the menu at Devi and the recipes in his book—Saran’s offerings include Abha Auntie’s Baingan, My Sister’s Favorite Corn Curry and Nani’s Quick and Easy Kulfi.

Top of the Charts

The famous Michelin Guide, which rates the top restaurants around the world, recently awarded Devi one star for its consistently high standard. Visit Devi at 8 E. 18th Street in New York City.

Indian Home Cooking also features a comprehensive glossary of Indian ingredients that identifies the difference between similar ingredients such as cilantro (hara dhaniya) and coriander (dhaniya) while delving into the properties and varied forms and flavors of spices. Saran is passionate about people understanding the ingredients, saying, “I always tell my students that they need to date and court their ingredients for a long time. You have to treat them as you would that man or woman you totally want to spoil and get to know and marry. And in my impish manner, I tell them to take advantage of these ingredients only after marriage. Wait till you get to know your ingredients, understand all their unique traits.”

But what about the most important thing—the recipes? Mushrooms in a Coriander-Scented White Sauce was creamy and full of tender mushrooms and browned onions, but perhaps a little low on the coriander. On the other hand, the Cauliflower Sautéed with Green Peppers, Tomato and Yogurt, with ginger, cloves and cumin to highlight the versatility of the cauliflower, produced a delectable and authentically home-cooked taste.

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, readers can try their hand at Sweet-and-Sour Butternut Squash with Ginger and Chiles to bring some Indian spice to the traditional table. Be sure to check out the Mangalore Fried Shrimp and Chai Pots de Crème, as well (recipes below).

Butternut Squash

Sweet-and-Sour Butternut Squash with Ginger and Chiles

A 2 to 2 ¼ pound butternut squash
3 tablespoons canola oil
A 1-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and minced
1 fresh hot green chile, chopped
¼ teaspoon fenugreek seeds (optional)

¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/8 teaspoon asafetida (optional)
1 ½ teaspoons salt, or to taste
1 ½ teaspoons sugar
Juice of ½ lemon or lime, or 2 teaspoons dried mango powder (amchur)

Cut the squash in half lengthwise. Peel it with a vegetable peeler or a paring knife and scrape out the seeds. Cut the two halves lengthwise into ½–inch-thick strips. Then cut the strips crosswise into 1 ½-inch pieces.

Heat the oil in a large wok, kadai, or frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the ginger and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Add the fresh chile, fenugreek, if using, cayenne, and asafetida, if using, and cook, stirring, 30 seconds.

Add the squash and stir to coat with the oil. Stir in the salt and sugar. Turn the heat down to medium. Cover and cook until the squash is tender, about 25 minutes. Uncover and stir the squash every 5 minutes and check on the cooking; if the spices begin to burn, turn the heat down. If the squash doesn’t brown at all, turn the heat up slightly.

Stir in the lemon or lime juice, or dried mango powder. Mash the squash with a spoon to break up some of the pieces. Taste for salt and serve hot. Serves 4 to 6.

Mangalore Shrimp

Mangalore Fried Shrimp

1 pound medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
¼ teaspoon turmeric
¼ teaspoon mustard powder
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

4 teaspoons canola oil
½ teaspoon black mustard seeds, or cumin seeds
6 fresh or 10 frozen curry leaves, torn into pieces (optional)
3 tablespoons finely chopped scallion
Salt, to taste

Rinse the shrimp and pat them dry on paper towels. Put them in a bowl and sprinkle with the cayenne, turmeric, mustard powder, and lemon juice. Stir gently to coat the shrimp evenly with the spices. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

When the shrimp have marinated, combine the oil, mustard seeds or cumin seeds, and curry leaves, if using, in a large wok, frying pan or kadai over medium-high heat. Cover, if using mustard seeds (the seeds splatter and pop), and cook until the cumin darkens and/or you hear the mustard seeds crackle, 1 to 2 minutes.

Add the shrimp and cook, stirring, 30 seconds, stirring often.

Add the chopped scallion and cook, stirring, until the shrimp turn pink all over, about 1 minute. Sprinkle with salt and serve hot. Serves 4.

Chai Pots de Crème

CUSTARD
1 cup whipping cream
1 cup half-and-half
1 tablespoon loose Darjeeling or Earl Grey tea
1-inch piece of cinnamon stick, broken in half
6 green cardamom pods, pods opened slightly
5 whole cloves
1 inch fresh ginger, peeled and cut into chunks
4 black peppercorns
3 large egg yolks
1 whole large egg
¼ cup granulated sugar
¼ cup brown sugar
Zest of 1 lemon

WHIPPED CREAM
1 cup whipping cream
4 teaspoons granulated sugar (or 1 tablespoon, if not using garam masala)
1/8 teaspoon garam masala, optional

For the custard, combine the cream, half-and-half, teas, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, ginger and peppercorns in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil, remove from the heat, cover and let steep 15 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 325ËšF. Line a 13x9x2-inch baking dish with a dish towel. Set six 6-ounce ramekins in the baking dish and set aside.

Combine the egg yolks, whole egg, sugars and lemon zest in the bowl of an electric mixer and beat on high speed until the mixture has thickened and leaves a ribbon trail when you lift the beaters from the bowl, about 2 minutes.

Strain the spice-infused cream into a medium bowl. With the mixer running on low speed, gradually pour the warm cream into the egg mixture and mix to combine.

Carefully divide the custard between the six ramekins and put the baking dish in the oven. Use a cup to pour enough hot tap water into the baking dish to come halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Cover the pan with aluminum foil and punch several holes in the foil to allow the steam to escape. Bake until the custards are just set and the centers still jiggle when shaken, about 30 minutes. Serves 6.n

Janki Khatau graduated from Johns Hopkins University this past May with a B.A. in Writing Seminars. She really likes eating, writing and writing about eating.
Published on November 6, 2006.
Photography: Courtesy of Suvir Saran.
Comments are closed.
  1. November 8, 2006, 9:28 am shelly lipetzky

    well written, great review, made me hungry.

  2. November 8, 2006, 11:22 pm Mili

    Yum. Lovely article. Though I wish you had featured photos of Devi – the interior decor is stunning.