Are you considering eating more plants in lieu of meats or fish? May I propose that you cook Indian?
I merely guess, but isn’t a chief barrier to entry into vegetarian or vegan cooking that it isn’t flavorful enough? Or, to use an apt word here, is eating plants deemed not as toothsome as eating meat or fish?
Indian cooking simply ignores answering those questions. Because it can.
In its manifest variety, Indian cookery is some of the more appetizing and savory cooking with which I am familiar. (Truth be told, it is my favored form of cooking. Its comestibles are the largest section of my pantry.) Plus, perhaps above all cuisines that I know, it particularly lends itself to the cooking of plant-based foods.
While we think of the Indian people as the consummate vegetarians, note that close to 70 percent of Indians eat meat or fish. Vegetarianism in India is more a cultural, even an inherited, facet of one’s life, unlike here where customarily it is a choice.
India excels at recipes for plant-based cooking because it has devised nearly unlimited variations on — well, let’s devour the fact — anything to eat. That alone is a helpful lesson for other cuisines that might seek to augment or vary a plant-based diet.
The panoply of the Indian pantry is but a list of enticing, heady, exotic and, yes, toothsome tastes, aromas and textures. By and large, Indian cooking does what most delicious food preparations do: it builds up flavors, layering them atop one another.
It also uses time in a happy way. Many preparations begin the day ahead (marinating something, for example). Then, to cook a dish almost always takes a while, one step leading to another, the patience of progress preceding perfection.
And more than in many other cuisines (save, perhaps, other Asian cuisines), Indian cooking begins with flavors that pack a purposeful punch. Turmeric, cumin, coriander, cardamom, chile pepper, mustard seed and the Indian “trinity” of onions, garlic and ginger — you’ll likely find all of these (often more) in merely a single savory Indian vegan or vegetarian recipe.
In order to prepare vegan Indian dishes, as distinct from those vegetarian, you need make only a few adjustments to your kitchen and cooking.
For example, use neutral vegetable oils such as canola instead of the ubiquitous ghee (clarified butter); choose plant-based milks or creams (as in today’s recipe) over animal milks. (This latter, not always a facile transition. In cooking, animal milks and creams often act differently than those based in plants, nuts or seeds.)
And looked at in an inventive way, the basics in many a pantry are already vegan. Grains, rices, beans, seeds, pastas, canned tomatoes, dried mushrooms–all vegan. You don’t even need to go the faux-meat route of using tofu, seitan or tempeh, as such, or as reconfigured into “meat,” to cook vegan Indian, although there are recipes aplenty along that road too.
Nutrition may be the only major thing to watch with a plant-based diet. Because animal-based foods supply the human body with several important vitamins and nutrients (the B-vitamins, for example, and vitamin D, calcium and protein), vegans and vegetarians should also seek out foods that bring those to their diets.
So, just make today’s recipe. Sweet potatoes, lentils and kidney beans, for example, are generous with calcium. Chile pepper and tomatoes, in vitamin C. And so on.
Baked Sweet Potato Stuffed with Chana Masala Lentils and Cashew Cream
From “Heavenly Vegan Dals and Curries,” Rakhee Yadav (Page Street, 2019)
“There is a huge variety in cooking methods for potatoes in India, with some stuffed versions, but none of them involve stuffing them in this way. Potatoes make a perfect vessel for stuffing because they take on other flavors so wonderfully.” Serves 2-3
- 2 medium sweet potatoes, scrubbed clean
For the filling:
- 2 tablespoons oil
- 1 red onion, chopped
- 1 teaspoon oregano
- 1 red chili, chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 3 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 teaspoon chana masala powder
- 5–6 sun-dried tomatoes, cut into strips
- 8–10 black olives
- 1 cup canned brown lentils (whole masoor dal)
- 1/2 cup canned red kidney beans
- Salt and pepper to taste
- For the cashew cream:
- 1/2 cup unsalted cashews, soaked for 2 hours
- 1 clove garlic
- 1/2 cup water
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking tray with foil. Poke the potatoes with a fork and set them on the baking tray. Bake for 40-45 minutes or until completely cooked through. A knife should slide through easily.
For the filling, heat the oil in a pan on high heat. Once hot, add the onion and cook until the onion begins to brown a little, 2-3 minutes. Lower the heat to medium and add the oregano, chili and garlic. Cook until the raw smell of the garlic is gone, 2-3 minutes. Add the tomato paste and mix well. Add the chana masala, sun-dried tomatoes and black olives. Cook for another few minutes. Add the lentils and the kidney beans and let the filling simmer on low heat for a few minutes. Add the salt and pepper.
Drain the soaked cashews and add them to a food processor with the garlic clove and water and blitz until a very smooth paste. This will take 5-7 minutes on high speed. Once done, transfer to a bowl and set aside. Cut open the sweet potatoes, add a scoop of the lentil-bean filling and top with some chopped onion, tomatoes and parsley. Drizzle with the cashew cream and serve hot.