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Learn how to cook Punjabi cuisine

BY CAROLINE BERG | MARCH 04, 2010 7:30 AM

Brenna Norman/The Daily Iowan
Manny Ram, the manager of Masala, opens the top of an oven used to make naan, a type of baked bread on Wednesday. Masala, which has been in Iowa City for 18 years, serves only vegetarian and vegan dishes.
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Do you suffer from cough, cold, nausea, liver dysfunction, stress, or high blood pressure? Instead of collecting pharmaceuticals, why not try a spice-stocked plate of tandoori chicken?

“Coriander seed, cumin seed, clove, cinnamon, cardamom, turmeric — these are all the basic spices usually included in Indian cooking,” manager Manny Ram said as he pointed out the ingredients on a spice chart in Masala, 9 S. Dubuque St. “Turmeric. Turmeric is really good. It’s like a kind of antibiotic.”

In India, Ram said, one-fourth teaspoon of turmeric a day keeps the doctor away.

At 6 p.m. today, Sarin will teach the basics of her native Punjabi cuisine at Coralville’s New Pioneer Co-op, 1101 Second St. Admission for the Indian Tandoori Chicken Dinner class is $15. Besides chicken tandoori, participants will assemble aloo gobi (spiced cauliflower and potatoes), as well as chapatti flat bread.

In Punjab, India, wheat is the staple food. The grain is often cooked in a tandoor clay pot to produce naan bread. “Tandoori” describes the food that is cooked or baked in the charcoal- or wood-fired tandoor. Punjabi cuisine is considered gourmet, and its reputation reigns atop India’s seven main food regions.

“India is a small country, but you find quite a variety of food,” said Sarin, who now lives in Waterloo. “I get bored [in Waterloo] because there aren’t as many vegetables available for me to cook with.”

The Punjabi cook said a typical Indian meal consists of two vegetable dishes and one pulse (lentil or bean) dish with a variety of condiments; meat may be consumed every two or three days.

The amount of meat consumption in India depends significantly on climate and geography, Sarin said. Populations in warmer climates and along the coast prefer more vegetables and seafood.

People who live in colder climates, and up in the mountains, customarily eat more meat because the weather is often too harsh for vegetable cultivation.

Despite working in a strictly vegan and vegetarian restaurant, Ram delights in the never-ending possibilities of Indian cuisine.

“I eat at least one meal here every day, and I never get bored,” he said. “Some of our customers come in four days a week, and they’re always looking for something different to eat, which is something we’re able to provide.”

Although Masala’s menu is predominately northern cuisine, the Hindu religion holds its greatest culinary influence in southern India, where cows roam the streets leisurely alongside automobiles. A 2006 study revealed 40 percent of Indians are vegetarians, with 9 percent of this population allowing eggs in their diets. Hindu texts are filled with instructions and warnings against killing anything that breathes.

“He who desires to augment his own flesh by eating the flesh of other creatures lives in misery in whatever species he may take his birth,” reads the Mahabharata Sanskrit text.

Here in Iowa City, however, some vegetarians have a different mindset.

“[Indian food] is light and easy to digest really fast,” Ram explained. He has noticed a particular increase in Masala’s female patronage that is testing out a new diet.

“These days, you have the chicken flu, [mad] cows, all these diseases from meat … but the veggies are always healthy,” Ram said.


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