Everyday Indian

By Bal Arneson
Published by Whitecap 2009, softcover, $29.95; 184 pages

When Bal Arneson realized that “quick, healthy” and “Indian food” were words that were not often used in the same sentence here in Canada, she knew her work was cut out for her.

Punjab-born Arneson came to Canada as a young woman who had already learned the seasonal and seasoning secrets of authentic Indian cooking from the women in her village. The heavily sauced and  caloried dishes we have come to think of as Indian were not what she had been eating and cooking, and Arneson was encouraged to begin teaching Canadians her way of creating the fresh, fast and very flavourful dishes she grew up with. “My mother and other women in the village never used butter, relying on a few spices and seasonal fresh herbs and vegetables for flavour,” she says in the  introduction. Her passion for healthy, organic and fresh foods is clearly evident here and is repeated throughout the book like a mantra.

Her recipes are arranged like building blocks, beginning with the spice mixes (garam masala, chat masala, chana masala, fusion curry paste, turka and sambar powder) that — along with turmeric, garlic and ginger — are the flavour pillars on which most Indian cuisine is built.

Once you understand the role of such seasonings, you’re well on your way to becoming a successful Indian cook. And you don’t need to mix the masalas yourself; you can buy them prepared, but if you’re so inclined, Arneson encourages you to try mixing your own.

The dishes presented here are rooted in Arneson’s early Punjab experiences, but also incorporate the various new foods in the wondrous multi-cultural cornucopia she found here upon her arrival. “I still remember my very first visit to a grocer; I thought I had died and gone to heaven when I saw the amount of food from every season and many different countries. What fascinated me most was a row containing hundreds of spices from all over the world. I had never imagined I would have the privilege of exploring all those spices in my cooking.”

Thus you’ll find Curried Spaghetti Sauce, Pasta with Buffalo Bacon, Bocconcini and Olives  and Mushrooms with Wine and Low-fat Cream Cheese alongside Paneer in Tomato Sauce, Kidney Bean Masala and other more traditional Indian dishes.

Here’s a perennial favourite, done in the Arneson style of quick, healthy and delicious.

BAL’S NO-BUTTER CHICKEN

Growing up vegetarian, I had never eaten butter chicken. The first time I tried it was in a restaurant here in Canada and I could see why people loved it — chicken cooked with cream and ghee (Indian butter) — but I was turned off by the heaviness of the sauce. It inspired me to create my own healthy version of this popular Indian dish. My 14-year-old daughter cannot get enough of this and every time her friends stay over, they request my no-butter chicken.

¼ cup grapeseed oil
2 large onions, chopped
2 tbsps. finely chopped garlic
2 tbsps. finely chopped ginger
2 tbsps. tomato paste
1 tbsp. cumin seeds
1 tbsp. garam masala
1 tbsp. brown sugar
1 tsp. red pepper flakes
1 tsp. ground turmeric
1 tsp. salt
1 lb. boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut into bite-sized pieces
¾ cup low-fat plain yogurt
¼ cup water

Place oil in non-stick skillet over high heat, add onions and sauté until dark golden brown Add garlic and ginger, reduce heat to medium, and cook for 2 minutes Add tomato paste and cumin seeds and cook for 30 seconds.
Reduce heat to low, add garam malasa, brown sugar, red pepper flakes, turmeric, and salt and cook for 2 minutes. Mix in the chicken and cook until the chicken is almost done, about 5 to 7 minutes. Add yogurt and water, and cook until chicken is fully cooked, about 5 minutes. Serve with brown rice or plain rotis. Serves 4.
Note: Feel free to use whipping cream instead of yogurt. Even I give in and indulge from time to time!
From Everyday Indian