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Flavors of India

August 04, 2010|By DEMORRIS A. LEE / St. Petersburg Times

EAST LAKE, Fla. - They sat around the bar area of Surinder Dhaliwal's spacious townhouse kitchen on a recent Friday evening and watched as she gracefully moved around the room.

From refrigerator to stove to sink and back to the stove, where she stirred sizzling garlic or ginger, Dhaliwal never stopped talking. Her magenta scarf flowed with her every move. The strands of her hair, perfectly clipped in a bob, never swung out of place for long.

Dhaliwal, 60, was in her element teaching others how to cook authentic Indian cuisine.

"It's such a satisfaction when they enjoy your food, they learn something and it just makes you feel you are doing something worthwhile," Dhaliwal said. "It's intercultural, too. The class is not just food. You make new friends."

The 2-1/2-hour cooking classes end with participants sitting around her dining-room table, enjoying the feast they have watched come to life.

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On this Friday evening, the meal consisted of Dahi Bhalla (Lentil Dumplings in Yogurt Sauce), Beef Rogan Josh (Beef Curry in Fragrant Garlic Red Sauce), Aloo Palak Sabzi (Potato Spinach), Saffron Basmati Pilaf and Gajjur Halva (a carrot dessert).

Dhaliwal instructed the students on how to store leftovers and how to adjust spice levels in the food. She gave her blessings on microwave use to shorten cooking time.

She interspersed lessons on history and food while sauteing onions and ducking into her refrigerator. While the lesson wasn't hands-on, students got a chance to stick their noses in a pot or two to catch the aroma of sizzling spices.

"We pick up stuff here that we can't get anywhere else," said Ken Deffenbach of North Redington Beach, Fla., who attended the class with his wife, Mary Ann. "Little tips on how to do the cooking. Surinder is a very gracious, warm and friendly person and she really knows how to instruct you in the techniques of her cooking.

"Also, (Dhaliwal) provides a lot of cultural information that is not available anywhere else."

Dhaliwal, born in Punjab, India, migrated with her family to England where she was raised. Her father often got spices from their homeland and spent hours cooking Indian cuisine.

"My mother had no patience for it, but he would make all the desserts, cook all the meats," Dhaliwal said with a laugh. "Around my house, there was always too much food, especially Indian food."

Four years ago, Dhaliwal came to Pinellas County, Fla., from Rochester, N.Y. Her husband, Jagdish, retired from the building industry and the two moved south to be near his two older brothers. Dhaliwal took an early retirement from the Rochester City School District where she taught elementary school for 33 years.

In Rochester, Dhaliwal would cook for friends on the weekends, showcasing recipes that her father taught her as child.

"A lot of my friends loved Indian food and they wanted lessons," Dhaliwal said. "They brought their friends and it just expanded."

After the move, Dhaliwal began volunteering at the East Lake Community Library, where she teaches English to immigrants. She also started tutoring reading and math at the nearby Cypress Woods Elementary School. But something was still missing.

"The first year, it was so lonely, so different from Rochester that I needed to do something," said Dhaliwal, who has three adult children. So she started classes "about a year and a half ago. It's slow but steady."

When she lived up north and in Europe, there were many places to eat "good Indian food," Dhaliwal said. She was surprised, after moving to Florida, by how some local people react to it.

"The first thing they say is, 'It's so hot, it's so spicy,' and to me that is very negative," Dhaliwal said. "Indian food is not hot, it's not spicy. It's the way you present it. You've got the spices in front of you. You choose the quantity."

Dhaliwal said she can cook any style of cuisine and loves making desserts. She wants her students to enjoy cooking Indian food as much as she does.

"When they go home, I want them to be able to say, 'Yes, I can make it and I feel comfortable, and it's not as complicated as it seems,' " Dhaliwal said. "I want them to say, 'If I enjoy eating it, I can enjoy making it.'


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BEEF ROGAN JOSH (Beef Curry in Fragrant Garlic Red Sauce)



For the marinade:

3 inches fresh ginger, chopped
8 cloves garlic, chopped
3 large onions, sliced
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1-1/2 teaspoons cayenne pepper, or to taste
3 teaspoons paprika
1-1/4 cups plain yogurt
2 teaspoons salt, or to taste
3 pounds beef sirloin, cut into 1- to 1-1/2-inch cubes
2 tablespoons oil

For the sauce:

6 tablespoons oil, divided
1 cup water
4 whole black cardamom pods, crushed
2 bay leaves
6 peppercorns
1 (2-inch) stick cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1-1/2 cups tomato puree

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