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.
Here is Sahibzada's tandoori chicken recipe, abridged from the book. At her restaurant, she served the chicken in naan bread, dressed with chutney and grilled onions. "It was one of the most popular items on our menu," she says.
Tandoori Chicken on the Grill
From: Flavorful Shortcuts to Indian/Pakistani Cooking, by Farhana Sahibzada
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
2 to 3 pounds chicken pieces
2 cups yogurt
1 tablespoon pureed gingerroot
1 tablespoon pureed garlic
1 slightly heaped tablespoon garam masala
¾ teaspoon cayenne
1 tablespoon yellow food color, optional
½ teaspoon egg yellow food color, optional
¼ cup oil
½ bunch green onions, chopped
¼ cup chopped cilantro
1. If using chicken breasts, butterfly them so the marinade can penetrate and they will cook more evenly and quickly. Pierce the meat with a fork or make deep cuts with the tip of a sharp knife.
2. Mix the yogurt, pureed ginger and garlic, garam masala, cayenne, food colors, if using, oil and salt to taste in a large bowl. Add the prepared chicken. Coat evenly with the marinade and rub it into the cuts. Top with the green onions and cilantro. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2 to 4 hours, or overnight.
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3. Clean and preheat the grill and brush it lightly with oil. Place the chicken on the grill and cook over low heat 10 to 12 minutes on one side, then turn and cook over medium-low to medium heat until cooked through. Turn as needed and brush with oil while cooking to keep the meat from drying out.
4. To serve, garnish with lemon wedges, sliced onions and cilantro. Accompany with chutney and naan.