KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 19 — It’s that time of year again. For our Hindu friends, Deepavali, the Festival of Lights, symbolises the victory of light over darkness, and good over evil. For most Malaysians, it also means a feast of delicious Indian treats such as biryani, varuval and murukku.
I have always wondered how Deepavali, or Diwali as it’s also known, is celebrated in India though. My best friend recently got married and her new Indian family has introduced her to a variety of different cuisines from all over the subcontinent, each a nod to the particular region’s geography, ingredients and local cultures.
I can’t wait to visit India and experience this first-hand but until that happens, I’ve been fortunate enough to sample some authentic home cooking from Kerala, Goa and northern India, all without leaving Kuala Lumpur! Imagine delicacies such as chicken xacuti curry from Goa and grilled tiger prawns in turmeric leaf from Kerala — perfect for a Diwali spread!
The beautiful, talented and super-friendly cook behind these dishes is Sapna Anand, author of New Indian Kitchen. Currently an instructor at 19 Culinary Studio in Damansara Heights, Sapna wants to explore the boundaries of Indian cooking in her new cookbook.
“What ‘New Indian’ cooking means to me is adapting to your environment and not being afraid to use new ingredients in traditional recipes. For example, I try to add a local twist by incorporating ingredients common to Malaysian cooking so these dishes can be slightly different from if I had prepared them in Bangalore or San Francisco,” she says.
For example, instead of making a traditional chicken xacuti curry, a typical dish from Goa, Sapna replaces potato with chestnut which adds some bite. She says, “There are two ways of making xacuti — the Hindu way and Catholic or Portuguese way. The Hindus don’t use vinegar as the smell of anything fermented or not fresh isn’t sacred. The Catholics in Goa, however, prefer preserved ingredients.”
As she dry toasts some grated coconut — the smell of which reminds me of my own childhood in Malacca, when my mum would prepare Malaccan Portuguese dishes — and blends other spices, Sapna lights up with the stories she’s telling.
“Food has so much to do with religion and culture. When the Portuguese king ordered Vasco da Gama to find an ocean route to India, he didn’t just want da Gama to bring back spices but also to spread Catholicism. Did you know that in Asia, we never had chillies and tomatoes before the Portuguese brought them? Originally the Hindus thought the red colour of the tomatoes were sinful, possibly because food was offered to God first and these were red as blood.”
Sapna is a bit of an explorer and world traveller herself. She first came to Malaysia 14 years ago with her husband who was setting up an R&D centre here for his company. “We came over from the UK in 1999 when I was pregnant with my daughter. She was born in Malaysia in 2000, and my son in 2002. Honestly, my children are more Malaysian than Indian — they are Malaysian kids! They prefer Malaysian food, and their comfort food is Malaysian.”
Born in Kerala, Sapna grew up in Goa before moving to north India to study, where she met her future husband. She recalls, “We got married when I was only 22, and soon after, my husband was asked to move to the US by his company. So we were very young when we uprooted ourselves. Initially I worked with him in the same start-up in San Francisco but I soon got bored of that IT job because I knew that wasn’t my passion.”
Sapna’s passion, as it turned out, was cooking. This doesn’t mean, however, that cooking came naturally to her. “I remember when I first got married I was asked to cook a vegetarian dish for my husband’s family who were vegetarian. I grew up eating fried chicken so this was a challenge! In the end I made a terrible curry for my in-laws. My mother-in-law tells me how surprised she is that I cook so well now!”
From that first kitchen disaster, Sapna has improved over time thanks to her natural curiosity about food and the stories behind every dish and ingredient. “While I wasn’t into cooking back then, I was always into food. I remember, as kids, my sister and I would play at cooking. We’d steal flour from the kitchen and try to make chapati over wood fire. Once, I tried making French fries; I had to wait for my mom to leave the kitchen before getting the potatoes out of the sack and trying to get the French fries right. My mom then would go, ‘Where have all my potatoes gone?’” she laughs.
After moving to Malaysia, Sapna decided to join Le Cordon Bleu in 2008 when she heard that it had opened in Bangkok. “I always wanted to attend their classes and learn proper techniques. I studied French pastry and graduated in early 2009.
This meant I had to travel between the two countries for a whole year — I would study in Bangkok from Monday to Thursday, fly back to KL on Friday to cook for my family and freeze meals for them, and then leave on the last flight on Sunday and reach Bangkok in the early hours of Monday. It was a crazy time but worth it.”
She credits her family and friends for her success. “A lot of people can’t believe I did it. It was a huge step and big challenge. Without my husband’s support, I couldn’t have done it. We don’t have relatives in Malaysia so other people — our friends and colleagues — become our support system. I think that’s the case with most expat families.”
After completing the Le Cordon Bleu training, Sapna started teaching cooking classes at home and at 19 Culinary Studio. Encouraging response led to her writing her first cookbook, New Indian Kitchen, for the MPH Masterclass Kitchen series. The e-book version of New Indian Kitchen recently was ranked number two in the Amazon.com bestseller list for European Cooking. (“Possibly due to some of my recipes being seen as fusion,” Sapna observes.)
Ultimately, Sapna believes that there is a place for tradition and learning the original recipes. She says, “If I don’t know how to make the original dishes, I wouldn’t know how to make changes to them. I love playing with new ingredients.”
Chestnut and Chicken Xacuti
(Traditional Goan chicken curry with chestnuts)
1 kg whole chicken, cut into pieces
1 large onion, thinly sliced
1 small lime, juice only
1 cup chestnuts, peeled and diced into 4 pcs
2 tablespoons lemon juice for drizzling
Coriander leaves for garnishing
For the spiced coconut paste:
1 cup heaped freshly grated coconut
1/4 cup poppy seeds
8 cloves of garlic, peeled
7-8 small shallots
4 dried red chillies
A 4-inch cinnamon stick
1 small star anise
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 tablespoon black pepper
1 teaspoon nutmeg powder
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
Salt to taste
Clean, rinse, and drain any excess liquid from the chicken. Marinate chicken with salt and lemon juice. Set aside.
Put a non-stick pan on low heat. Dry roast the grated coconut and poppy seeds, stirring constantly for about 5-7 minutes until the coconut turns a golden brown. Empty onto a plate and set aside.
In the same pan heat 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil. Sauté shallots, red chilies, cinnamon, cumin, fennel, coriander seeds, cardamom, cloves, black pepper and star anise for about 2 -4 minutes on low heat. Add the turmeric and nutmeg powder at the end and stir for only 50 seconds to avoid burning the powdered spices.
Blend all the spices as well as the roasted coconut and poppy seeds to a fine paste, using a little water.
Heat a large heavy bottom pot with 4 tablespoons of oil. Stir in the sliced onion. Sauté until the onions turn translucent. Add the chicken and stir for about 5 -8 minutes. Add the spiced coconut paste, and continue to stir for another 10 minutes until the paste starts to turn deeper in colour. Add chestnuts and enough warm water to cover the chicken. Cook curry for about 20 minutes on medium-low heat until the chicken is cooked and the gravy has a thick consistency.
Drizzle with lemon juice and garnish with coriander leaves. Serve hot with rice or ciabatta bread.
New Indian Kitchen by Sapna Anand is available at all good bookstores. To learn more, visit www.facebook.com/mytestkitchen