Sunday, March 21, 2010

Film Review – Cooking with Stella

Writer: Deepa Mehta and Dilip Mehta
Director: Dilip Mehta
Producer: David Hamilton
Cast: Don McKellar, Seema Biswas, Lisa Ray, Shriya Saran, Vansh Bhardwaj, Maury Chaykin
Light satirical comedy, 1 hour 43 minutes

Recently, we’ve seen a number of fine Canadian films successfully made as international co-productions. Many were made with European countries (e.g. Ireland: Fifty Dead Men Walking, Love and Savagery, soon-to-be-released A Shine of Rainbows) but another prominent partner has been India. Deepa Mehta’s Water was a Best Foreign Language Film nominee at the Oscars in 2006, while Richie Mehta (no relation) made the exquisite Amal in 2007. Now Deepa’s brother Dilip Mehta arrives with the delightful comedy Cooking with Stella.

As with Water and Amal, Cooking with Stella was made in India with a lot of Canadian talent. Don McKellar and Lisa Ray play a Canadian couple Michael and Maya who move to New Delhi with their baby Zara because of Maya’s diplomatic posting. Their Indian servant Stella (Seema Biswas) is a fine cook, which delights Michael as he was a chef back in Canada. But Stella is also wily in finding ways to scam the new arrivals and pad her salary. The arrival of a new and honest nanny Tannu (Shriya Saran) threatens her schemes.

Like Julie and Julia, this film loves food and luxuriates in food porn. The cooking and shopping scenes feel detailed and accurate. The relationship between Michael and Stella is occasionally inconsistent in that he alternates exuding culinary skill and being slow on the uptake. But McKellar and Biswas give the characters much-needed charm. And Saran as the nanny Tannu is a radiant beauty.

Dilip Mehta is himself a very funny and affable man. His introductions and Q and As for recent screenings of this film were hilarious and got plenty of laughs. Cooking with Stella succeeds in capturing something of his personal character. It’s quite different from his first film, the dead-serious documentary The Forgotten Woman that was twinned with his sister’s drama Water.

He guaranteed that those who watched this film would be hungry. One of the recipes featured in the film is the following shrimp curry dish.


1 pound frozen, cleaned shrimp, or 1 ½ pounds fresh medium shrimp
½ teaspoon turmeric powder
Large pinch of Indian dried red chile powder, or cayenne
Generous pinch of salt
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 medium red onion, peeled and thinly sliced
1 teaspoon brown mustard seed
½ teaspoon fenugreek seed
2 medium tomatoes, chopped
About 1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon minced ginger
2 green cayenne chiles, seeded and minced
16 to 20 fresh or frozen curry leaves
½ teaspoon turmeric powder ½ teaspoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon Indian dried red chile powder, or cayenne
1 tablespoon tamarind pulp
Scant ½ cup boiling water
1 cup canned coconut milk
About 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
Handful of fresh coriander leaves

Rinse off shrimp. Place in a medium-sized bowl, add the marinade ingredients, stir well, and set aside.
Chop the tamarind pulp coarsely and place in a bowl. Pour in the boiling water and mash tamarind a little with a fork. Set aside to soak for about 10 minutes.

In a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan or a wok, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring frequently, until a pale golden colour, about 8 to 10 minutes.

Raise the heat to medium-high. Add the mustard seeds (they may pop or sputter) and cook for 30 seconds. Add the fenugreek seeds and tomatoes and stir well. Add the garlic, ginger, green chiles, curry leaves, turmeric, coriander, and red chile powder. Cook, stirring, for a minute or two, then add the coconut milk and a pinch of salt. Lower the heat and simmer, uncovered, for about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile strain the tamarind mixture through a sieve into a clean bowl: Using a wooden spoon, press the tamarind pulp against the mesh of the sieve to extract as much liquid as possible. Set aside the liquid and discard the pulp.

Stir three tablespoons of the tamarind liquid into the simmering curry. Taste, and then adjust the balance of flavours if you wish by adding more tamarind liquid, and/or salt.

Shortly before you wish to serve, add the shrimp, and any marinade, to the curry and cook until the shrimp has just changed colour, about three minutes. Garnish the curry with chopped coriander and serve with plain rice and lime wedges.

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