The ancient cuisine of India is the new American trend Currying Flavor.
What's hot and not, trendy and ancient, delicious and health-promoting all at the same time?
Though Americans have been looking West and South for food trend in recent years -- Southwest, Tex-Mex, Southern home style and California-Pacific flavors have all had their day -- it's time to look East, at the food of India. It's a vast, varied and dynamic cuisine that's existed for thousands of years, but is attracting new adherents for its range of tastes and versatile preparations.
Even Jean-Louis Palladin, the noted French chef of Jean-Louis at the Watergate in Washington has ventured into subcontinent cuisine, with a dinner last month in New York for the Union Ligue Club, where he shared cooking honors with an Indian chef named Raji. They alternated dishes, but both produced the entree, baby roasted Virginia lamb with mint chutney, curried blueberry sauce, and Indian spiced vegetables.
Indian cuisine is something not easily approached without a guide.
"Most people don't know what Indian food really is," says Ruth Law, a cookbook author who spent 4 1/2 months researching "Indian Light Cooking" (Donald I. Fine, $25). In fact, home-style Indian cooking uses mostly familiar ingredients -- potatoes, rice, shrimp, chicken, carrots, cauliflower, corn -- combined with a range of spices and condiments in simple soups, stews, barbecues and one-pot meals.
"It's light, it's low in calories, and it's easily prepared," Ms. Law says.
Of course, there are a few ingredients that are hardly household names as yet -- tamarind and fenugreek, asafetida and garam masala (spices and flavorings), shorbas (soups), dal (lentil dishes), dosa (crepes) and pilau (rices dishes), for example. But those unusual ingredients are what gives Indian food its kick, its distinctive flavor.
Many Americans don't think of Indian food as something to whip up at home, but one group in the population, vegetarians, has long turned to Indian fare for inspiration.
"Indian cuisine is interesting because it's the oldest living vegetarian cuisine on the planet right now," says Yamuna Davi, a Washington-based writer of Indian vegetarian cookbooks, including "Yamuna's Table" (Plume/Penguin, 1992, $13.95 paperback). "So we know there's a tremendous amount of inspiring information, lots of creativity to be tapped."
The distinctive flavor, she says, is a mix of salty, sweet, sour, astringent, pungent and bitter. Indian cooks strive for complexity and subtlety in the food, she says, but the flavors work just as well in simpler dishes.