A spoonful of English peas, perfumed with chutney and cumin, is Suvir Saran's favorite late-night snack. A fried egg joins the pearl-like petite pois if the chef and owner of New York City's "Devi" Restaurant has had an especially long night.
"This is what I prepare for late-night guests because we always keep frozen peas in the freezer and the chickens on our farm give us four dozen eggs a day. It's simple, satisfying. In a few minutes, you have protein, vegetables—magic."
And Saran's calling as a chef and cookbook author is as straightforward as his food. The New Delhi native is intent on introducing Americans to authentic Indian cuisine, dishes reminiscent of his mother's kitchen that are subtle, clean and a snap to make a home.
"Indian does not equal rich, heavy, heartburn-inducing food. We have a billion people eating this food and they're not throwing back antacids after every meal. Real Indian food has not been shared with America."
I'm impressed with Saran's lofty ambitions but, for a moment, I panic. Does this signal the swift menu death of dishes like saag paneer? The subcontinent's rich, cheesy, intensely satisfying version of creamed spinach—as prepared by various restaurants on New York City's Indian Row— is my ultimate indulgence. Some girls reach for mint chocolate chip ice cream in times of need; I turn to saag paneer.
Fatty Indian food is good Indian food, I think.
And then I cook with Saran, a man who positively effervesces with energy, humor and masala. While the term, masala, on its own, is used by cooks to refer to a spice mixture—like the curry leaves, coriander and turmeric in the Goan-Style Shrimp Curry that we prepare together— it can also refer to a feeling or an attitude. Whatever is in the air or in the sautee pan, I like it.
I stand next to Saran in his outrageously fashionable chef's jacket (if "Cavalli" and "Chef Wear" collaborated, his jacket would be the bi-product) and watch as he carefully warms the spices in a sautee pan, extracting as much flavor from them as possible. Techniques like that, coupled with fresh herbs and gorgeous, glistening, fresh-off-the-boat shrimp, allow him to subtract fats like cream and ghee while never sacrificing flavor.
"In India, we do not cook with excessive butter and cream—it's not part of our tradition. Instead, we take five extra minutes to caramelize the onions, cook our vegetables al dente, adding water instead of oil."
Memories of my creamed spinach move to the back burner as Saran adds tomatoes and coconut milk to the boldly flavored base of browned onions, ginger, garlic and warmed spices. While the sauce simmers for five minutes, Saran—a stove-side raconteur extraordinaire—transports me to India and family lunches in the garden.
"The New Delhi winter is like springtime in the States. My family would take lunch outside in the lovely breeze and sunshine, always eating the simple, good food that my mother and the family cook prepared."
Now, enjoying the fruits of a very successful culinary career, Saran has the luxury of being able to eat under a mango tree or a maple. His little piece of rural heaven, aptly named, "America Masala Farm," is located in historical Washington County in upstate New York. Here, he and his partner raise chickens, goats, alpaca (for their yarn) and tend to a vegetable garden and berry patch that surely rivals Martha Stewart's.