We recently attended a lively seminar at the Los Angeles Central Library on the differences and similarities between Indian and Pakistani cuisines, given by two cookbook authors who were born in these countries.When asked to detail the biggest misconception about Indian and Pakistani cuisine, Prem Souri Kishore, who is from Bangalore in South India, said, “People think every Indian dish is a curry, and is hot and spicy.” Farhana Sahibzada of Lahore, Pakistan, commented that another common erroneous belief is that the cuisine is complicated.Indians and Pakistanis agree on the importance of spices. “An Indian family prides itself on storing at least 15 to 20 fresh spices and spice blends,” wrote Kishore in India: A Culinary Journey.“... Every Indian home around the world has one precious spice box in the kitchen... There are hundreds of combinations with varying ingredients. Proportions and balance are the secret...No spice should dominate, but a calculated and artful blending of different seasonings will create the indefinable, delicate nuances that characterize Indian cooking... Subtle or potent, the masala – a mixture of ground or whole spices – is the essence of Indian cuisine.”Yet for many dishes, said Sahibzada, author of Flavorful Shortcuts to Indian/Pakistani Cooking, “you can get by with five basic ground seasonings: cumin, turmeric, coriander, cayenne pepper and salt.” For cooking rice and making stocks, it’s good to also have three spices in their whole form: black pepper, cinnamon and cloves. The important fresh flavorings are ginger, garlic and onion.However, she said, you don’t need all these flavorings for every dish; “if you have ginger, garlic, onions, tomatoes, salt and cayenne, you will have a good dish.” Only cayenne makes the food hot, and you may add as much as you want.Spices act as a preserving agent, noted Sahibzada, and thus make many Indian and Pakistani dishes satisfying options for make-ahead meals. Another advantage, wrote Dr. Afzal Sahibzada, Farhana’s husband, in the introduction to her book, is that the spices and other flavorings which are popular in the cuisine of the Indian subcontinent – cayenne pepper, turmeric, cinnamon, onion, garlic and ginger – have significant health benefits.In response to the question about the differences between Indian and Pakistani cuisines, Kishore said that India actually has 29 states, and they are like different countries, with different languages, customs, religions and foodstuffs.Her grandmother could tell from tasting a dish not only what region the cook was from, but how wealthy he or she was and what caste he or she belonged to.“Each region is passionate about the best way to make a signature dish,” wrote Kishore. “Food from one region is strikingly different in taste...from that of other regions... Until railways were built..., there was little contact between the states, and food was integral to the identity of a particular state.”Sahibzada wrote that until 1947, Pakistan and India were one country, “so in addition to sharing a similar history, the two countries shared the same culture, traditions and of course, food.”Some regional differences are due to geography and climate, she said. For example, Kashmir is cooler than other regions, and therefore has richer curries and nut sauces.Today, regional differences are less important, said Sahibzada, although people do travel to other areas to enjoy local specialties. She fondly remembers her family trips to Peshawar in northern Pakistan, and the round chapli kabobs she savored there.Naturally, religion is the reason behind major dietary differences in the subcontinent. Unlike Pakistan, where the majority of the population is Muslim, in India most people are Hindus, said Kishore, and therefore do not eat beef. However, beef is not that popular in Pakistan, commented Sahibzada. Mutton, goat and chicken are preferred, especially for serving to guests, as beef is considered cheap meat. In the US, if you see beef on the menu of an “Indian” restaurant, it’s most likely Pakistani or Bangladeshi.“Indians seem to be in a perpetual state of celebration,” wrote Kishore, “with music, dancing, rituals and food traditions forming an integral part of festivals.” The most important festival in India, Diwali, which began on October 23, is celebrated for up to five days with all kinds of sweets.For Id al-Fitr, which is observed in Pakistan and in Muslim homes in India, the highlighted dish is biryani, a sumptuous dish of chicken or meat cooked with rice.When Kishore asked 20 people to identify the most precious thing they brought home from India, every one of them said spices. Unfortunately for Sahibzada, when she brought cumin from Pakistan to use in her home in California, it was confiscated at the airport.Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast. A Quick Chicken Masala Stir Fry This recipe is from Flavorful Shortcuts to Indian/ Pakistani Cooking. Author Farhana Sahibzada recommends this quick curry as a starter dish for becoming familiar with the techniques of Indian/Pakistani cuisine. She serves the chicken with rice, chapati (Indian flatbread) or, for a nontraditional accompaniment, even cooked pasta.Once the prep is done, the cooking takes just a few minutes. One of the flavorings is pureed ginger and garlic; Sahibzada calls it a great time-saver, and advises preparing a batch and storing it in an airtight plastic container or a jar with a tight lid in the refrigerator.Makes 2 to 4 servings ❖ 2 Tbsp. olive oil❖ ¼ tsp. cumin seeds ❖ 1 Tbsp. julienned (very thin strips) ginger ❖ 2 to 3 Tbsp. chopped cilantro (fresh coriander) ❖ 2 tsp. pureed ginger and garlic (see Note below), or more to taste ❖ ¼ tsp. crushed red pepper (pepper flakes)❖ ¼ tsp. cayenne pepper ❖ Salt to taste ❖ ½ bunch green onion, chopped ❖ 450 gr. (1 pound) boneless chicken breast, cut in 2.5-cm. (1-inch) pieces ❖ 2 plum tomatoes, chopped ❖ ¼ sweet red pepper, cut in chunks In a large, deep frying pan, heat oil over medium heat. Add cumin seeds, julienned ginger and 2 tablespoons cilantro, and sauté for 15 to 20 seconds. Add 2 teaspoons pureed ginger and garlic, and continue to sauté for additional 15 seconds.Add the crushed red pepper, cayenne pepper and salt and sauté for 7 to 9 minutes, stirring often and adding a few drops of water as needed to keep the contents from sticking to the bottom of the pan or burning.Add the green onion and prepared chicken; cook over medium heat, stirring for even cooking, about 15 minutes.Reduce heat, push the chicken to the edge of pan to make room in the middle of the pan, and add the tomatoes, more pureed ginger and garlic if desired and 1 tablespoon chopped cilantro.Cook uncovered for 5 minutes. Cover and cook about 15 minutes, checking to see if most of the water in the pan has evaporated and the oil has started to surface. At this point, add the sweet peppers and cook over very low heat, partially covered, for 3 to 5 minutes. For a richer consistency, simmer for another 2 minutes.Note: Pureed ginger and garlic Wash a 10-cm. (4-inch) piece of fresh ginger well and peel, if desired. Remove knotty parts or dried-up edges with a knife. Put in food processor with 1 cup of peeled garlic cloves, and process until finely pureed.Bell Pepper and Potato Sukke This recipe is from India: A Culinary Journey. Author Prem Souri Kishore writes that this dish is from Mangalore, a seaport in southern India; it is flavored with coconut, tamarind paste and roasted hot peppers.Makes 4 servings❖ 2 dried hot red peppers ❖ 4 tsp. vegetable oil ❖ 1½ tsp. mustard seeds ❖ 1 medium onion, sliced ❖ 2 sweet peppers, sliced lengthwise ❖ 1 large potato, cut in cubes ❖ Salt to taste ❖ ¾ cup grated coconut ❖ ½ tsp. tamarind paste ❖ ½ tsp. sugar ❖ ¼ tsp. fenugreek seeds ❖ 2 tsp. coriander seeds Remove stems from the hot peppers, and pour out seeds. Put the peppers in a small skillet and dry-roast briefly, until aromatic but not burnt. Remove from skillet.Heat 3 teaspoons of the oil in a deep skillet over medium heat. Add mustard seeds and sauté until they pop. Add onion and sauté until slightly brown. Add sweet peppers and sauté until beginning to soften.Add potato cubes and fry for 2 minutes.Sprinkle with salt. Cover and cook until the vegetables are tender, about 15 to 20 minutes, adding a little water if the mixture becomes too dry.Grind the roasted hot red peppers, coconut, tamarind paste, sugar and a little salt, with enough water to make a smooth paste in a small food processor or blender. Leave in the food processor.In a small skillet, heat the remaining oil and briefly sauté the fenugreek seeds and coriander seeds. Add the mixture to the coconut paste and blend the mixture well to chop the seeds.Stir the mixture into the cooked vegetables in the pan. Heat well over medium heat. Reduce heat to low and cook uncovered for 5 minutes.