Featured in L.A. Weekly, by Ms. Barbara Hansen
Yes, you can cook tandoori chicken in a toaster oven. But you won't find that procedure in Farhana Sahibzada's cookbook, Flavorful Shortcuts to Indian/Pakistani Cooking (Trafford, $25).
For six years Sahibzada was chef-owner of Cinnamon STIX, a cappuccino café and Indian snack shop near her home in Woodland Hills. There, she subbed a $19 toaster oven for a tandoor. Customers not only couldn't tell the difference - but wanted to know what special oven she used to produce such tasty chicken.
Sahibzada's tandoori recipe is in the book, for cooking on a grill, not in a toaster oven. It's among 80 recipes that Sahibzada has selected to make Indo/Pak cooking easy even for first timers. "There is no reason that someone who has never been in the kitchen or never tried Indian recipes before can't achieve success on the very first attempt," she says.
There's heft behind that statement, because Sahibzada has taught extensively at places such as Whole Foods, Gelson's, Surfas, The Art Institute of California in Santa Monica and Let's Get Cookin,'and she knows what people need to know. In the book she explains what makes Indian recipes really work - the little tricks and techniques that Indian cooks follow without thinking and would never bother to tell you.
"It's so simple, really," she says. "There is so much flexibility, you can play with it a little." Just five seasonings - ground coriander, cumin, cayenne, turmeric and salt - are "plenty to fix most recipes," she says. Her book is, of course, far more complex. Recipes may appear long, but that's because each step is explained so carefully. And they're not difficult. "We lead busy lives. My goal is for people to be able to fix a meal that has the right flavors, and it doesn't take them forever to make it," she says.
Easy recipes she suggests for beginners are chicken karahi, a chicken masala stir fry, potatoes with spinach and fenugreek, rice with vegetables, a couple of raitas and a dessert.
So what is the difference between Indian and Pakistani food? Pakistani cooking is meatier while Indian cooking focuses more on vegetables, says Sahibzada, who was born in Lahore, Pakistan, and came to the United States as a bride. Pakistanis tend to use more spices than Indians. And they may base the flavor of a dish more on fresh seasonings such as green chiles, green onions, onions, ginger and garlic than on dry spices.
Sahibzada has studied with chefs, friends and family members in Pakistan and with cooks and chefs here. Her book is self-published and so has noncommercial charm in the way she converses with the reader and shares her own learning experiences (she once threw out a crusted pot rather than clean it). Her husband, Dr. Afzal Sahibzada, took the photos.
You'll find a minor editing glitch or two, but on the plus side, this isn't another collection of the same old Indian recipes. It presents ideas you may not have encountered before, like the way Pakistanis boil rice in lots of water with fresh seasonings to give it flavor.
On June 14, Sahibzada will join Prem Souri Kishore, author of India: A Culinary Journey, for a session on Indian/Pakistani cooking arranged by the Culinary Historians of Southern California. That event will take place at 10:30 a.m. at the Los Angeles Central Library downtown and is open to the public. Admission is free.