Publication: The New York Sun; Date: May 28, 2003; Section: Food & Drink; Page: 16

Passage to India Cooking With Shoba Narayan By JOANNA SMITH RAKOFF ‘In a proper Indian meal you have to balance six tastes,” explains food writer Shoba Narayan, a native of Madras. “Salt, sweetness, tartness, bitterness, sour, astringent. So every family strives to have these six tastes in every meal.” She flashes a mischievous grin.”Of course, no one ever really does. Or at least not in our family. Balance is a goal.”

Ms. Narayan may not manage to get those six tastes onto her dinner table every night — bitterness “falls by the wayside,” she says, as no one much likes acrid vegetables — but she’s still something of an expert on balance. In the elegant personal essays that she writes for Gourmet and Saveur and reads aloud on National Public Radio, she offsets sentiment with humor, ornate descriptions with absorbing anecdotes, startling candor with childlike coyness. The essays, which include Indian food recipes in the context of vivid personal stories about growing up in Southern India, have won her a James Beard Award — the ne plus ultra of the foodie world — and a loyal following. A collection of Ms. Narayan’s work, “Monsoon Diary” (Villard, $22.95), arrived in bookstores last month.

Recently, Ms. Narayan invited me to the Upper West Side apartment she shares with her husband and two daughters for a lesson in Southern Indian cooking. The cuisine of Southern India, she explains, bears little resemblance to the North Indian dishes served in most of New York’s Indian restaurants. “Southern Indian food is closer almost to Thai food. North Indian food … is richer and they have masalas, a mix of spices. … In North India they use a lot of cheese. … It’s because of the weather. In North India, they have winter.They need that sustenance,” she says. Southern Indian food, in contrast, is light (as befits a tropical climate), flavored by just one or two spices, and is heavily reliant on coconut.

Though ostensibly simple, the dish we are to make — a crunchy snack called bhel puri — offers a crucial lesson in balance. “It’s all about proportion. You have to know how to balance the ingredients. It’s a mix of boiled mashed potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, and bhel puri mix, which here you can buy at Indian grocery stores,” Ms. Narayan says, laying out the ingredients on her large dining room table. “You mix it all up with spicy cilantro chutney.”

The chutney, which Ms. Narayan has prepared in advance, is thin, almost watery, and brilliant green. “It’s gorgeous, isn’t it?” she says, pointing to the mixture.

Standing at the head of the table, Ms. Narayan — clad in a purple salwar kameez (an Indian women’s garment) — takes up a worn knife and begins dicing an onion with quick, careful strokes. “The trick to this is to fine — all the vegetamake it really bles — so that they kind of meld together,” she says. At age 20, Ms. Narayan came to America on a scholarship to Mount Holyoke College. One summer, while working at a Michigan sleep-away camp, she learned to chop in the rapidfire manner of a professional chef. But she’s nowhere near as fast, she insists, as a typical bhel puri vendor that one would find on the beaches of Southern India. “His hands are like lightning,” she says. “A little of this, a little of that…and in a couple of minutes he has this beautiful plate set out.”

Moments later, Ms. Narayan is ready to compile her own beautiful plate. A stainless steel serving dish holds piles of perfectly minced onion, tomato, and cucumber.She grabs a handful of bhel puri mix — a blend of toasted basmati rice and fried chickpea-flour vermicelli, seasoned with paprika, turmeric, and asafetida — and piles it on a plate. Deftly, she adds smaller handfuls of the vegetables, crumbles bits of boiled potato on top,then pauses,her hands in mid-air.

“What’s your spice tolerance?” she asks, with a knowing glance. “Low?” It’s low. “We’ll give you just a little of the chutney.” She splashes a bit of green on the plate, squeezes a lemon over it, adds a dash of salt, and mixes everything together with her hands. The result: an addictive, pungent blend of paprika and lemon, with tomato and cilantro binding it all together.

The plate Ms. Narayan prepares for herself is bright green, loaded with cilantro chutney. “You build up a tolerance for spice,” she says.”After awhile, you can’t eat non-spicy food anymore. It tastes like nothing.” Ms. Narayan’s six-year-old daughter, Ranjali, refuses to eat spicy food, much to Ms. Narayan’s dismay. “She was born and raised here. … I keep asking her, ‘You’re an Indian kid, how can you not like spicy food?’”

Between mouthfuls of her fiery snack, Ms. Narayan lists the benefits of bhel puri: “Vitamin C, beta carotene. … Tomatoes have lycopene. Onions are very good for opening your sinuses up.” And potatoes? “Potatoes are just potatoes. Comfort food,” she says. “It’s okay to go a little overboard with that.”