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Simple traditions from New Delhi

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Gitika Baveja wrote her first two cookbooks in India after watching some of her young female friends leave their family homes for marriage without much background in cooking and housekeeping basics.

Now living in the United States, Baveja has written an English-language book of recipes for the Bay Area community, because "you spend a lot of money on (restaurant) Indian food, and it's not satisfying enough for the people I know."

Baveja wrote, photographed and self-published "Indian Flavors to Savor" (Morris Press Cookbooks, 2006), from an apartment off Homestead Road at the junction of Los Altos, Sunnyvale and Cupertino.

"When I was growing up, I would sit for hours on a ledge in the kitchen watching my mother cook, enamored. Now, when I eat in a restaurant, I come home and try the dish my way. It's just a passion," she said.

Baveja, who works in the high-tech industry, said, "My work is more stressful. When I come home and cook (in the evening), it's relaxing."

Her cookbook focuses on northern-style dishes, seasoned by Baveja's upbringing in New Delhi.

"In the north, we are also very cosmopolitan. I'd make a lot of Western dishes even when I was in India," Baveja said.

Most of the recipes are intended to take only 15-20 minutes to prepare. The book incorporates healthful spins on traditionally guilty treats, like an olive-oil version of halwa, a sweet that typically relies on rich dairy products.

"There is a misconception that Indian food is very fattening," Baveja said. She described the dishes Westerners are likely to encounter in American-Indian restaurants as filled with butter and cream, more like wedding dishes than everyday fare in India.

"If you put two cups of butter in, people will like it," Baveja said. But she seeks to offer an alternative in her cookbook: a guide to the Indian cooking techniques that infuse flavor without resorting to fat.

"It's satisfying to share knowledge and recipes," she said.

She is interested in leading cooking classes at some point to teach trickier techniques, such as tempering dry spices in a hot pan. Novices have occasionally filled a kitchen with billows of spicy smoke when tempering goes awry. "Indian Flavors to Savor" offers a crash course in such techniques in its first pages, in addition to a plethora of hints crucial for the novice cook: when to add garlic to a skillet, how to balance unfamiliar spices and on which ingredients it is OK to "cheat" and use the canned. With a guide to cookery terms and an English-Hindi introduction to Indian spices, Baveja tries to entice even the most timid chef to an experiment with curry.

"It's really a misconception that Indian food is spicy. You need to know your tolerance level. The food isn't spicy if you don't make it spicy," Baveja said.

Her potato cutlets, subtly flavored with the homemade spice mix garam masala, coriander powder and a hint of red chili, have the crispy, panfried flavor of comfort food. She adds large pearl tapioca to the cutlets, which lends a delicate, surprising substance and texture to the potato patties. They are eaten dipped in a sweet, salty cilantro and mint chutney, which adds a vibrant color and a bite of fresh, raw herb flavor to the side dish.

Baveja's masala tava salmon is lightly coated in spiced rice flour and panfried, resulting in tender, fragrant fish inside a crisp, rich crust, pungent with a hint of mango powder. Her chickpea curry is a standout beginner's dish, low on fat and smoldering with an earthy, sweet, chopped ginger, onion and tomato base.

For more information about "Indian Flavors to Savor," e-mail [email protected]

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