Indian Vegetarian Cuisine: Exotic and Perfectly Balanced

When I was growing up, my family and I had the privilege of traveling around the globe  extensively. Visiting many regions of the world  provided me with a rich and unique education, and opened my intellectual horizons far beyond the four walls of a classroom.

The broad culinary exposure I received was among the more exciting perks of traveling. While on vacation, every evening brought with it the anticipation of new flavors and aromas, as we tried different  exotic restaurants. And most often, these experiences culminated in the discovery of some unforgettable dish that my brother and I still talk about today.

A decade ago, I  converted to a completely vegetarian diet. Becoming a vegetarian was a response to my compelling drive to practice non-violence and lead a healthier life.  I knew that such a commitment had to begin with my daily habits.

I learned that there were significant health benefits that resulted from being a vegetarian.  Today, there is scientific evidence based on extensive research to support this theory. I strongly recommend reading “The China Study,” a compelling collection of research on the various diets practiced around the world.

India has become one of my favorite destinations these days, and the food of this land is as enchanting as its ancient culture. Most of my friends come from South Asia and I’ve had the privilege of being invited into their kitchens where they have shared with me a wealth of culinary knowledge,  passed down through generations of women.  Dals (lentils), breads and soups will supply the required amounts of protein on a daily basis. Masalas (curries) are customarily made from scratch at home,  and the spices used for preparing them vary from one household to another, giving each home its own culinary signature.   This makes the food always exciting and unique. As you begin to explore the vast selection of Indian dishes, you find that healthy options abound. One of my favorite combinations is the South Indian sambar and dosas.  

Be careful or you can get more than your share of fried-foods with delicacies such as pakodas (fried vegetables in batter), samosas (fried pastry stuffed with vegetables), or vadas (fried dumplings) –  to name just a few delightful items.

For a start, I suggest some basic ingredients to have on hand: fresh ginger, cumin seeds, cardamom, coriander seeds, curry leaves, asofoetida powder, mustard seeds, turmeric, tamarind paste, shredded coconut and green/red chillies.  Some of these items have to be purchased from an Indian grocer.   A pressure-cooker is  recommended to reduce time spent in the kitchen. With a pressure-cooker, a complete Indian meal can be concocted in 20-30 minutes.

Suggested readings:

The China Study: The Most Comprehensive Study Of Nutrition Ever And The Startling Implication For Diet, Weight-Loss, And Long-Term Health, by T. Colin Campbell, and Thomas M. Campbell II. The book describes a monumental survey of diet and death rates from cancer in China. It is an effort to demonstrate the implications that nutrition and diet have on health.

In Pure & Simple by Vidhu Mittal the recipes are written with simplicity and the illustrations are extremely appetizing. In the glossary, there is a photograph for every ingredient which can be very helpful when you are sorting out the wide variety of  lentils and spices.  Try the tamarind flavored potatoes, or the potato fritters; the cool yogurt with vegetables (raita) as a side dish is delightful; the fried flat breads (parathas) are not complicated and can accompany any meal – Indian or western. This is a very nice, user-friendly book to work with.  The idli (savory rice/white lentil semolina cakes) are a famous and nutritious South Indian delicacy that can be served with sambar or any chutney.

The Best of Lord’s Krishna’s Cuisine, by Yamuna Devi.  Although there are no mouth-watering photographs, this cookbook is a very straightforward, simple book to experiment with containing excellent recipes. I recommend the coriander chutney to go along with any flat bread, the curried cauliflower and potatoes, and  my favorite halva desserts, made with wheat semolina.

Yamuna’s Table, by Yamuna Devi – try the mung bean-cabbage cakes with Bengali tomato chutney (better known as vegetarian crab cakes). Another fun dish is the ratatouille spirals with red pepper-tomato sauce, or for a simpler preparation, try the bean salad with three roasted peppers. In one dish you get all your nutrients in a balance!

Vegetarian Times Complete Cookbook, by the Editors of Vegetarian Times. With this book in your hands, you will never be left without ideas on what to prepare. It offers a mutlicultural selection of flavors, and recipes are imaginative and easy to prepare.  Try for instance, the sauteed spinach, garlic and lima beans, to create a balance of nutrients and colors; rice and beans burritos, or the black bean quesadillas among the many vegetarian ideas in this cookbook, originating from Mexico. I would also recommend the Russian bean-and-potato soup,  or the tofu scramble. So much to enjoy!

Main Course Vegetarian Pleasures by Jeanne Lemlin is a solid resource for balanced vegetarian meals, western style. You can vary the recipes and “dress” dishes up or down with spices, as you see fit. Also, there are quick and practical recipes. I like the couscous with provencal vegetables and the broccoli rabe with tomato-cheese polenta.

Another excellent book if you are interested in the medicinal components of most spices and herbs used for cooking Indian food, please read,  Healing Spices (Aggarwal, Bharath B.).

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