Behold the Indian Feast!
Can two dishes plus rice be considered a feast? They can if you’re the one making it.
Indian food is a pain in the ass to cook. Most recipes have so many steps, that the prep requires a load of prep: spices need toasting, onions need chopping, tomatoes need dicing, chicken needs skinning. Those two dishes can take hours to make. But Indian food is top of my favorite cuisines list, with its exotic spices, complex flavors, fragrant sauces. Why should restaurants get to have all the fun? Which is where Suvir Saran’s “Indian Home Cooking” comes in.
Suvir Saran is a pretty well-known chef in New York, and he’s cooked stellar upscale Indian at a couple of great places, including the wonderful Devi, where I had a great meal (with wine pairings). So I was delighted and a little bit mystified when I spotted the very talented Mr. Saran manning the steam tables in our very mediocre corporate cafeteria.
Here is how I imagine this came to be, but I could totally be making it up: “Indian Home Cooking” is published and some adroit publicist has a stroke of genius: send Suvir Saran to corporate cafeterias to cook his amazing food, armed with stacks of books. It's an excellent idea, really: we corporate drones are, quite literally, a captive audience. What the adroit publicist did not bank on was the restaurant-obsessed groupie who yelled “It’s Suvir Saran!” and waved maniacally across the cafeteria.
I can’t help it. It just came out. I wasn’t expecting to see a Michelin rated chef near the sporks. His eyes got really big and he looked scared. I bought my Indian lunch, and a copy of the book to boot (hats off to you, adroit publicist!). But Suvir is a man of strength. He can handle a fan base. He recovered and graciously autographed my book. He even gave me his email address and suggested I come into Devi as his guest. Obviously, he didn't think I was that much of a freak.
I never took Suvir Saran up on the offer. Partly because I wanted to cook something from “Indian Home Cooking” before I contacted him, but mostly because I was afraid he would think I was just trying to mooch a free meal off of his goodwill (which was pretty much the plan). But I liked that I had the option. I was truly disappointed at news of Devi’s shuttering last week. Now, if I want to eat his food, I have to make it myself. So that's what I did, preparing his Lahori Chicken Curry and Chilled Smoky Eggplant with Yogurt and Cilantro in tribute.
Suvir's recipes (I feel like we're on a first name basis; he gave me his email address) are actually reasonable for a home cook. And they're even reasonable for an American home cook, who might not have "12 cardamom pods" and "9 whole cloves" just sitting around (they lose their punch quickly, so use them stat or store them in the freezer.) Yeah, there's a lot of prep just to get your mise en place set, but that's just the nature of this kind of highly spiced cuisine. The chicken was really tasty and was a brighter, less-greasy version of the chicken curry available from our local take-out joint.
But the eggplant. Oh. My. God. The. Eggplant. Creamy and silky and smoky. Rich, but still seemingly virtuous. You can take Suvir's advice and roast your whole eggplant directly on the flame of a gas burner, but if you're like me, you'll switch to the less stressful oven roasting method when the eggplant catches fire and a flame shoots up from it. (Although I had taken the batteries out of the smoke detector.) It is a little more work than usual, for what amounts to a side dish. But it's worth every bit of effort, at least until my buddy Suvir embarks on his next restaurant gig. Or comes back to our cafeteria.
Chilled Smoky Eggplant with Yogurt and Cilantro
Courtesy Suvir Saran
1 large eggplant
2 Tbsp. canola oil
1 medium red onion, diced
1 tsp. salt
2 cups plain yogurt
1" fresh ginger, peeled and minced
1/2 fresh hot green chile, minced
2 Tbsp. chopped fresh cilantro
1/4 tsp. garam masala
1. Roast the eggplant on a cookie sheet in a 500-degree oven until blackened, about 20 minutes. Let cool and peel the skin off. Cut off and discard the stem. Put the eggplant into a bowl and mash with a potato masher.
2. Heat the oil over medium-high heat in a large frying pan. Add the onion and salt, and saute until the onion is translucent, about 5 minutes.
3. Add the mashed eggplant and cook, stirring often, until the dry, about 10 minutes. Take the pan off the heat and let cool for about five minutes.
4. Whisk the yogurt until smooth in a large bowl. All the eggplant and all the remaining ingredients and stir well. Chill until cold. Taste for salt and serve cold.