A Taste of India

by Brenda Shafer
photography by Rich Smith
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Philomena Davis loves to cook for friends and family. “As long as there are people who like to eat, I like to cook. I can’t cook small portions though. That’s my problem. So I have to invite people over all the time.”

Originally from Chennai, India, Philomena grew up watching her sister cook for their family of 12. “Once my sister married and moved away, there was no one to cook for our family because my dad didn’t like my mother’s cooking. I volunteered, but I told my dad that he had to buy every ingredient that I wanted. I made chicken curry, and my family was so impressed. It gave me confidence.”

Now a realtor by day, Philomena and her husband Jim volunteer their time with Bradley Sunrise Rotary club, and Philomena uses her gift of cooking to raise money for it. Every year she auctions off a South Indian dinner party. “Many years it goes for up to $1,000. She’s done this for the rotary club and many other functions for the last decade,” Jim says. All the money goes to the club for service projects, and the actual dinner costs Philomena between $500-600. “I cook everything from scratch. I make my own spices and everything is fresh. If it’s not from my garden, I buy it fresh. Nothing is artificial,” she says.

When guests attend Philomena’s South Indian dinner, they can expect to be greeted with a glass of wine and Jim’s playful sense of humor. While explaining traditional dishes, he brags on his wife’s talents, exclaiming, “Her food just has an amazing combination of flavors and spices. She just has a feel about what flavors work well together, and when we go to restaurants, she can pick out what spices and flavors are being used. One time she named 14 spices and ingredients that she tasted in one dish!”

While Philomena and Jim spend time with their guests, they are also busy putting finishing touches on courses throughout the dinner. A fellow rotary club member, John Wagner, and friend, Kala Vijayakumar, help them host. “It is truly a pleasure to serve all of our guests. We serve to help our community in our own way. God has blessed us so much, so we love to share some of our gifts with others to make them happy,” Philomena explains.

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The first course, idli, is a steamed spongey cake served with almond and coconut chutney. Idli’s batter is made from rice and urad dal, a white seed like a lentil. Philomena explains, “I soak rice and urad dal overnight in separate bowls. Then in the morning, I grind the dal and the rice, then put them together and put them in the oven to ferment overnight naturally. It’s about a three-day process.” The almond and coconut chutney is a recipe Philomena created herself.

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Masala Dosai

Masala Dosai

The second course, masala dosai, is made from the same batter as idli, but Philomena fries it into a thin pancake or crepe called a dosai. “You can stuff dosai with anything you want. Here, I add potatoes with garlic and tomatoes. Dosai originated in South India, but it’s popular all over India. Restaurants will make them as big as pizzas or bigger, but I want my guests to be able to eat another course, so I keep it small.”

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Philomena’s South Indian Dinner Menu

1 Idli with Almond & Coconut Chutney
2 Masala Dosai
3 Salad: Roasted Cauliflower with Chickpeas, Cilantro, Mint Leaves, and Lemon
4 Orange Sorbet
5 Main Course:  Chicken Biriyani with Roasted Eggplant, Green Beans with Carrots and Coconuts, and Beef Fry with Spices
6 Dessert: Homemade Cake by Kala Vijayakumar
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Authentic Experience

Jonathan & Sarah Cantrell, Pat Fuller, Holli Collins, and Kathy Hill listen as Jim Davis explains how dosai is made.

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4 cups water
4 cups basmati rice
2-3 tbsp. ginger root, cleaned and chopped
12-15 garlic cloves, cleaned and peeled
2-3 tbsp. vinegar
1/2 cup of olive oil.
1 tsp. funnel seeds
5-10 cloves
2-4 cinnamon sticks
6-7 bay leaves (dried or fresh)
20-30 petals of mint leaves
20-30 petals of curry leaves
2 medium-size onions, peeled, cleaned, and chopped
7-10 hot green chilies, chopped
2-3 large tomatoes, chopped
1 tsp. turmeric powder
2-3 tsp. garam masala
1/2 cup coriander leaves or cilantro
5 lbs. chicken or lamb (or one package of mixed vegetables for vegetarians)

In a rice cooker, pour 4 cups of water and 4 cups of basmati rice with a bit of salt. Cook and set aside. Grind ginger and garlic together with vinegar to make paste. Set aside.

In a large saucepan, heat olive oil on high heat. Once hot, add funnel seeds, cloves, cinnamon sticks, and bay leaves, and sauté. Then add mint leaves and curry leaves, and sauté them. Then add the chopped onions and green chilies, and sauté them 3-4 minutes together until brown. Add the chopped tomatoes and sauté them. Then add turmeric powder and ginger and garlic paste, and sauté them. Add the garam masala to the mixture. Then add salt to taste. Once ingredients are sautéed well, you can add any meat of your choice (lamb, chicken, beef, or even frozen mixed vegetables), about 3-5 lbs. Then close the pot after mixing everything thoroughly. Cook this sauce for about 30-45 minutes, stirring occasionally. Once the meat is cooked (nice & tender), then uncover and add the cooked rice to the mixture. Then cover and cook on a low heat for about 15 minutes. Do not stir. Serve hot. Serves 8-10.

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