mumbai or bust
July 24, 2006

New York in July: 95 degrees, 100-percent humidity, and half of Queens has lost power. The air conditioner causes a brownout and boiling water can make an entire building uninhabitable.

Want to host a dinner party?

Luckily, someone else does: My friend Kelly is just back from India and has a new apartment up in Inwood. Perhaps the sweltering air seems like vacation nostalgia to her. The rest of us are just glad someone else is standing over the stove.

But people of Southern India may be on to something: Eat hot, chili-infused food and maybe your body will start to feel cool in comparison. That, anyway, seems to be Kelly's method when I arrive to find her sauteing red hot peppers. She's making Bean Dal Poriyal, which arrives in several steps. There's dal, mostly lentil, smooshed up in the blender. Then pepper-in-oil, waiting for small grains to split. Then there's the step Kelly's a bit dubious about. The recipe (from the cookbook Dakshin, like all of the menu) says to add the dal-paste to the oil in the skillet and stir occasionally until it resembles breadcrumbs. We are being told to, essentially, fry paste. And the only thing it's beginning to resemble is play dough, caking on a new layer of Kelly's pan.

We take turns stirring—and eventually slicing with a spoon to try to force crumminess—as the rest of Kelly's guests arrive bearing chutney, flatbread and wine. "We're frying paste," Kelly announces to anyone who ventures near the stove. It never quite mirrors the gorgeously photographed dish in the book, but by the time we add the beans and dish it onto plates, it doesn't seem to matter.

What matters is course after course of—from what we can tell—perfectly authentic South Indian cuisine: In addition to the Bean Dal Poriyal, we eat Buttermilk Sambar, a yogurt-based, coconut-flavored, spicy soup served over rice; Tomato Rasam, another soup, rumored to be killer-spicy, but less so after we'd dulled our taste buds; and Mango Curd Salad, made with yogurt, which you'd think would be mild, but isn't.

For my part, I've flipped to the "exotic takes on summer picnic food" collection of recipes, and have opted for Indian-Spiced Potato Salad and a cucumber relish—decidedly less authentic, but we're thankful for those heat-subduing options. (The ginger and cilantro in the potato salad could, I'm certain, be the star of an average picnic, but "spiced" is a misnomer in Kelly's lineup.)

For dessert there's Carrot and Cashew Payasam, which Kelly apologetically claims should be thicker. She's boiled it twice its requisite time already, and this sweet, milky dish (with flecks of carrot) is as thick as it's going to get. I, however, am in favor of the less pudding-y texture. It goes down easier, like an after-dinner drink, the pick-me-up we all need to keep from being lulled to sleep in our overfed, tropical state. A little drunk and about as far from home as I can get and still be in Manhattan—it might as well be India. It's certainly closer to the country's culinary roots than I've been in a while.

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