Unlike many girls of her generation, Meena Rustgi was banished from the kitchen as a child.
Rustgi grew up in New Delhi, India, in a family with five brothers and a sister. “When I was a young girl, our mother never let us cook,” Rustgi remembered. “She said, ‘Do your studies. Get an education. All your life you’ll be cooking and cleaning.’ And she was right.”
Rustgi, The News’ October Cook of the Month, didn’t start cooking until a home economics class in 11th grade. “I learned how to make cake that summer,” Rustgi said.
In 1965, her parents arranged for her marriage to Om Rustgi, an Indian scientist living in Los Angeles. “When I get married and I was coming here, how am I going to please my husband?” she wondered. Her answer was in studying cookbooks, volumes by Dharam Jit Singh and Premila Lal, and getting recipes from friends and family.
As it turned out, you can learn a lot from a cookbook (Her mother did give her recipes she uses today, including her favorite carrot halwa dessert.) After moving to Buffalo in 1973, so her husband could teach physics at Buffalo State College, the Rustgis moved into a house in Williamsville. They raised two children.
Meanwhile, Rustgi had taken to cooking with such enthusiasm that she eventually started teaching cooking classes at the Amherst YWCA. Not just Indian cuisine, but Chinese, Mexican, Danish and even French dishes, like a Grand Marnier souffle.
“I was really into cooking, and my children and husband were guinea pigs,” she said with a laugh. “You try it, make it in front of everybody, and it comes out right – that’s the best part.”
Rustgi would later return to school at Erie Community College and get her bachelor’s degree in information systems management from Buffalo State College. She worked at the Phillips Lytle law firm as a programmer analyst, retiring in 1996. These days, with her children grown, she cooks low-fat, low-salt dishes for her husband, and Indian dishes like rice pilaf for a monthly international student gathering at the University at Buffalo.
She still makes her own yogurt regularly, using a starter culture that came from India. “One of the grandmothers of friends brought it over for her children,” Rustgi said. “She said, ‘My children missed it.’ ”
Rustgi remembers how hard it was to find ingredients for Indian cooking in the 1970s. There was the India Trade Center on Bailey Avenue, she said, or trips to Toronto and Queens for supplies. Nowadays Indian ingredients are widely available in supermarkets, though she prefers specialty markets like Spice Bazaar on Sheridan Drive.
Lots of people still have the wrong ideas about Indian food, Rustgi said. “That it’s spicy, with all the pepper,” she said. While cayenne, hot chile powder, is an ingredient in some recipes, cooks can choose to simply use half as much as the recipe calls for, or leave it out, she said. It still will be delicious.
Also, curry powder? “We don’t use curry powder in India,” she said. “That is a British invention.”
Instead, Indian cooks blend spices for each dish.
Rustgi offered her version of a famous Indian dish called butter chicken. First you marinate chicken breast chunks in spices and yogurt, then stir in browned chickpea flour and cook it on a grill or in the oven. (The dish is designed for a tandoor, the fierce Indian clay oven, but those are hard to find in the United States.)
Once the chicken is cooked, you can serve it as is, she said. It’s less fattening, though still remarkably tender for chicken breast because of the yogurt marinade. That’s what she serves her husband, with his restricted diet.
Or, you can brown some butter, add tomato, cream and sugar, and turn it into an “Indian” dish that’s an almost surefire crowd-pleaser.
And Meena Rustgi does like to make people happy. “With cooking,” she said, “it’s a little effort, but it pleases a lot of people.”
North Indian Tikka Masala
1 pound boneless chicken breast
½ teaspoon chile powder
2 tablespoons lemon juice.
1 cup plain yogurt
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon garam masala
1 teaspoon salt
4 cloves fresh garlic, grated
2 tablespoons fresh ginger root, grated
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons chickpea flour (besan)
Cut chicken breast cut into small cubes. Add chile powder and lemon juice to chicken. Mix yogurt, turmeric, coriander, garam masala, salt, garlic and ginger in a small bowl, then add to chicken. Marinate overnight.
In a small skillet, melt butter, add chickpea flour, and sauté and stir till light brown. Stir mixture into yogurt marinated chicken, helping bind mixture to chicken. Put meat on skewers and grill, or cook in broiler pan with yogurt marinade, in 550 degree oven, until done, about 20 minutes. Drain and discard yogurt from broiled chicken. Can be served warm, as is, or turned into butter chicken.
4 tablespoons butter
1 cup tomato sauce
1 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 recipe chicken tikka masala
Heat butter in heavy skillet till browned. Add other ingredients except chicken, and simmer for 10 minutes. Add chicken, and cook until hot. Garnish with fresh chopped cilantro. Serve over hot basmati rice. Makes 4 servings.
Basmati Rice Pilaf with Mixed Vegetables
2 cups basmati rice
4 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil
4 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon cumin seed
1 teaspoon turmeric
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper
½ teaspoon garam masala
8 ounces frozen mixed vegetables
1½ teaspoons salt
In a bowl, rinse rice until water runs clear. Drain. Cover rice with water and soak for 1 hour.
In a heavy skillet, heat oil and butter. When hot, add cumin and fry for 1 minute. Add turmeric, garam masala and red pepper, and fry for 1 minute. Add frozen vegetables to pan, and stir to combine.
Drain rice. Add to skillet with 2 cups water, add salt, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and cover pan. Cook until all the water is absorbed, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes. Serves 4.