Monday, March 19, 2007

Ker & Little India: The Spice of Life on Black Mountain Road

Last week I was introduced to the charm and wisdom of Shital Parikh. A maven of Indian cooking, Shital taught the class “Indian Delights” I attended at—yes—Great News, but she also teaches at the Balboa Park Food and Wine School, Kitchen Witch and Sur La Table. And, she’s working on a cookbook.

My criteria for taking a cooking class is to make sure I’ll learn either new techniques or the mysteries of an unfamiliar cuisine—or, even better, both. Shital taught me how to make ghee (clarified butter), a staple of Indian cooking, and a variety of lovely dishes, like Khamman, a savory steamed yellow cake made with besan flour; Kadhi Chutney, made with yogurt, besan flour and spices and Massor Dal, a red lentil soup combining onions, tomatoes, ginger and spices. I was intrigued by Asofetida powder (which smells strongly of garlic and onion), black mustard seeds and pappad, a flat dry spicy tortilla-like bread that can be roasted or fried.

All this is by way of saying that while I’ve always enjoyed the occasional Indian meal, Shital enticed me into exploring Indian food in a way I’d never much considered—and sent me off the following day to Ker & Little India on Black Mountain Road, just north of Miramar. Ker & Little India is one of several markets and restaurants that make up the Little India Center. It’s a huge warehouse, a grocery store, but with the added attraction of video, clothing and toiletry sections. And, a vegetarian restaurant that also does catering. This is where Indian ex-pats come to shop from all over San Diego County.

And, no wonder. I imagine that anyone from India feeling homesick for the familiar takes comfort seeing shelves filled with bottles of Thums Up and 20-pound burlap bags bulging with basmati rice, the air itself fragrant with cumin, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, dhana jeera powder (a blend of coriander and cumin), turmeric and chillis. There’s an entire wall lined with freezers and refrigerators stocked with prepared foods, yogurt, paneer and butter. You can find a variety of teas, masoor and other lentils, beans and a variety of produce, including tiny round purple eggplants, cucumbers, okra and bitter gourd.




I had a long list of ingredients I was searching for, based on Shital’s recipes. I found those and more. Like the packaged fresh methi tepla, which looks like a thick yellowish tortilla. All you need to do is heat them up in the microwave. With no ingredients listed on the label, I had to guess what they were made of and was convinced they were based on chickpea flour but Shital later told me they are a combination of whole wheat flour, turmeric, salt, sugar, sesame seeds, garlic, ginger, methi (from the fresh leaves of the fenugreek plant—often used as a digestive aid and to fight infection). I figured they'd be good with yogurt, so I mixed about a cup of yogurt with a couple of tablespoons of a spicy red garlic chutney I found on the shelves. That was delicious, but Shital sent me a recipe for Cucumber Raita to accompany methi tepla that she has kindly allowed me to publish here:

CUCUMBER RAITA

Cool and soothing yogurt that complements spicy Indian food.

About this dish: Yogurt is used in the daily diet almost all over India. Though this dish is more popular in the Northern and Western regions, variations of seasoned yogurt can be found in all regions of India.

Difficulty level: Beginner

Preparation time: 10 minutes

Mixing time: 5 minutes

Serves as a side dish in a meal for 6

INGREDIENTS

Plain Yogurt - 1 cup, whipped

English cucumber grated – 1 cup packed. Peel and grate.

Roasted Cumin powder – ¼ tsp

Pepper powder – 1/8th tsp

Yellow Mustard powder – 1/8th tsp

Sugar – 2 tsp

Salt – ¾ tsp or to taste

METHOD

Mix all the ingredients. Refrigerate until serving.

OPTIONAL HOT SEASONING

INGREDIENTS

Canola Oil – 1 tsp

Fresh curry leaves – 4

Serrano Chili – ¼ , sliced into thin rounds

Black Mustard seeds – ¼ tsp

METHOD

Heat the oil in a small pan. Add the black mustard seeds when the oil is hot. They will start to crackle and fly about. Turn off the gas. Add the Serrano Chilies and curry leaves. Restart the gas to a low flame. Cook for a minute or until you can smell the flavor of the chili and the leaves. Add to the cucumber yogurt mixture and refrigerate until serving.

Serve cold. Refrigerate until serving.

Reprinted courtesy of Shital Parikh

I also discovered the snack section. The choices were astonishing, but I selected a bag of Charkri/Muruku made by Surati. This is an extruded flour twist, coiled into a crunchy round the size of a dollar coin, made with flour, green chilli, sesame seeds, ginger, salt, chilli powder, turmeric and caraway seeds. It’s got a bit of kick to it—always a plus for me.

When I wandered over to the produce, I was struck by the unfamiliar—to me—bitter gourd, long and bumpy with a little twirling string at one end. Fortunately, I found someone to ask about this strangely shaped fruit.

Nita, with her adorable little girl Parishi, stopped to explain that bitter gourd—also known as Karela, Balsam pear or bitter melon—is native to South Asia. Nita slices and fries them with salt and pepper. They are bitter, of course, when eaten raw, so I learned that the gourd should be peeled lightly, have the ends trimmed and a deep slit sliced into it lengthwise. Sprinkle it generously with salt and let it exude the bitter juices for an hour or two before rinsing it thoroughly and drying before cutting. Then, they can be fried as chips, made into pickles, stuffed or stir-fried. A good resource for bitter gourd recipes is bawarchi.com.

All this marketing can lead to a grumbling stomach. I purposely didn’t buy anything that would spoil so I could walk over to Ashoka for their buffet lunch. Buffets can be a disappointment, but Ashoka offers flavorful food on the line. I had a taste of a dark, rich lamb curry, heavenly Tandoori chicken, a mushroom masala and for dessert, a bowl of kheer, a sweet rice pudding. With that comes a large basket of nan.

So, now to check on the next class Shital teaches…

Ker & Little India is located at 9520 Black Mountain Road.

Ashoka is located at 9474 Black Mountain Road.

Both are in the Little India Center on the west side of Black Mountain Road just north of Miramar near the I-15.

Have some thoughts about Ker & Little India or other Indian markets in San Diego? Add to the conversation by clicking on comments below: