Chef Raghavan Iver Works Magic on Traditional Indian Cuisine – With a Vegan Wand
Vegetarianism has been synonymous with Indian gastronomy for more than 3500 years — in a country that has been around for more than 6000 years. Veganism, a relatively more modern occurrence, has emerged in the Western world, not in contemporary India. Why? Maybe the answer lies in how cows are revered in Hinduism. Dairy and dairy products, celebrated as offerings from cows for centuries, were never considered exploiting tools that put the animal in harm’s way. They were, in fact, manna that flowed into culinary and religious rituals in Hinduism. If Krishna, the cowherd and a reincarnation of Vishnu, had a penchant for cream, why not the common devotee?
Yet Indian foods, especially the vegetarian offerings, are easy to “veganize” with no effort, making the end result flavorful, assertive, and vibrant. India is, after all, the land of spices! A sprinkle of cumin, a dash of cayenne, a whisper of cinnamon, and a peppering of roasted mustard seeds will enliven vegetables, legumes, grains, and fruits. What makes a cuisine like this exciting for vegans is the plethora of legumes (over sixty varieties of lentils, beans, and peas) that can paint a cornucopia of textures, colors, and flavors to deliver memorable fare. You wouldn’t have to fake the inclusion of meat analogues and soy-based proteins to dispense succulence because legumes have their own way of providing mouth-feel and lusciousness. Even though ghee (clarified butter) is an intrinsic part of specialty fare and desserts, oils like mustard, unrefined sesame, and coconut can step in and swathe savory creations with panache. To infuse creaminess in curries, think about nut purees from almonds, cashews, and pinenuts instead of heavy cream, buttermilk, or yogurt. As for those particular dishes that traditionally include paneer, a cheese from northern India, you can get the same firmness and texture from extra-firm tofu.
In addition, I find India cuisine one of the most accommodating for anyone who is diabetic, lactose-intolerant, or even suffering from celiac disease. With spices now being recognized, even in the western world, for their curative properties (think turmeric, ginger, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, etc.), they can very well be your panacea for anything that ails you. Here are two recipes from my upcoming book Mastering IndianCooking The Easy Way (Workman; 2012) that proves vegan food is anything but boring, tasteless, and unappealing. And did I mention it was easy?
Bean Sprouts Salad With Potato Croutons
Perfect when it’s hot or cold outside, this nutritional powerhouse combines everything we in the food business look for when we are creating unforgettable flavors. A balance of hot (from the chiles), sweet (from the cinnamon), sour (from the lime), and salty (from the salt of course) for the taste elements, aromas from the cumin, texture from the potato croutons, and chill (temperature) from the sprouts, this sublime salad does a mean tango in your mouth.
2 medium potatoes ( Yukon gold or russet)
2 to 4 dried red cayenne chiles (like chile de arbol), stems removed
2 teaspoons coriander seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
½ -inch piece of cinnamon stick, broken into smaller pieces (see tips)
3 tablespoons canola oil
1 teaspoon coarse kosher or sea salt
1 bag (8 ounces) bean sprouts (do not use alfalfa sprouts)
¼ cup finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems
Juice from 1 small lime
Peel the potatoes and cut them into ¼ -inch cubes. Dump them into a small bowl and cover them with water to prevent the tubers from browning.
Preheat a large, nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Once the pan feels hot (usually this will take 2 to 4 minutes; a palm held close to the bottom will feel the heat), sprinkle the chiles, coriander, cumin, and cinnamon into it. Toast the spices 1 to 2 minutes, shaking the pan very frequently, until the chiles blacken and smell smoky-hot, the seeds turn reddish brown and aromatic (nutty with citrus undertones), and the cinnamon exudes a heady sweetness. Transfer this spice blend to a small bowl to cool, about 5 minutes.
While the spices cool, drain the potatoes and pat them dry between paper towels. Heat the oil in that same large skillet over medium-high heat. Once the oil appears to shimmer, add the potatoes and ½ teaspoon of the salt and stir-fry them 10 to 12 minutes until reddish-brown, crispy (crouton-like), and cooked through. Transfer these to a medium-size bowl.
While the potatoes brown, dump the toasted spices into a spice grinder (like a coffee grinder) and pulverize them until the blend has the texture of finely ground black pepper and an aroma that is incredibly complex and layered, nothing like the whole toasted spices you smelled a few minutes back. Add this to the medium-size bowl that the potatoes will end up in.
Tear open the bag of sprouts into the bowl with the potatoes and spice blend. Sprinkle in the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and the cilantro. Add the cilantro and stir the salad well to incorporate all those incredible flavors and textures. Serve at room temperature.
- The most common form of sprouts available in your supermarket are those from a green legume called mung (or moong) beans. Two to three inches in length, off-white in color, these watery-crisp nutritional worker bees are bursting with vitamins A, B, and C. Even though these are legume-based, sprouts are much easier to digest than their unsprouted counterparts because during the sprouting the complex starches convert to simple sugars, making it easy for you to process them without the fear of indigestion or flatulence (this is one instance where the more you eat the less you toot). Even seeds that are used as spices, namely fenugreek, shoot sprouts that are also pleasantly bitter. For a more complex-tasting experience, purchase a mixture of various bean sprouts should you see them at the market or if you happen to visit a health food store. Refrain from using the spindly alfalfa sprouts as they are much too grassy for this particular combination of ingredients.
- Cinnamon sticks usually come tightly furled about three-inches long. To get a small piece of it, I place it on a firm cutting board and with the sharp blade wedged in-between the crack, I give the knife a good whack. It usually breaks up the cinnamon into a few shards and I grab what I need for this recipe and save the rest for later use.
Popeye Dream Soup
If you crave spinach the way Popeye or I do, this creamy soup (without any cream) satisfies the hankering without adding to your waist line. Nutritious and chock full of flavor with only two spices (a combination that is common to the western parts of India), every mouthful is akin to the proverbial potato chip – you can’t stop at one. I often make a batch, sip a few cups as if it’s tea, and then freeze the rest for up to two months. It’s always on hand when the next wave of yearning flows through you. Serve it with some crusty baguette for a winter dinner by the roaring fireplace.
Makes a brimming 6 cups
½ cup red lentils (also called Egyptian lentils)
1 medium potato, peeled and diced
1 medium onion, diced
2 to 3 fresh green Serrano chiles, stems discarded, coarsely chopped (do not remove the seeds)
1 ½ teaspoons coarse kosher or sea salt
1 medium tomato
1 pound pre-washed, fresh baby spinach leaves
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 teaspoon black or yellow mustard seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
Measure the lentils into a large saucepan or Dutch oven. Add enough water to cover the lentils. Give
them a good rinse with your fingertips, making the water cloudy. Drain the water (I tilt the pan into the sink to drain it.) Repeat this once or twice. Then pour in 4 cups water and plunk in the potato, onion, chiles, salt, and the whole tomato.
Bring the water to a rolling boil over medium-high heat. Fish the whole tomato out of the pot, now looking shriveled with the skin loose (I may very well be describing me). Transfer it to a bowl. Lower the heat to medium and cover the pan. Simmer its contents, stirring occasionally, until the potato is fork-tender and the lentils are now yellow, about 15 minutes. Even though the lentils start with a beautiful salmon color, cooking them yields a yellow color. It’s the nature of these lentils and does not signify any wrongdoing on your part. As the bobble-head Indian said, “eh, it is the will of Rama.”
While the pot of soup simmers, core the tomato and shed the loose skin. As soon as the lentils are cooked, add the tomato, including any juices to the pot. Pile in the spinach and cover the pan. Continue simmering the soup, no need to stir, until the spinach wilts, about 5 minutes.
While the spinach sags, heat the oil in a small skillet over medium-high heat. Once the oil appears to shimmer, add the mustard seeds, cover the pan, and cook about 30 seconds until the seeds have stopped popping (not unlike popcorn). Turn off the heat and sprinkle in the cumin seeds, which will instantly sizzle, turn reddish brown, and smell incredibly nutty.
Once the spinach wilts, ladle a third of the contents of the pot into a blender jar. Hold the lid down and puree its contents by pulsing it to a bright green puree. Pour this into a bowl. Repeat twice until all the soup is pureed, adding the contents each time to the soup in the bowl. Alternatively, if you have an immersion (stick) blender, puree the soup in the pot in one smooth batch.
Stir in the spiced oil including all the seeds into the soup. Ladle into individual bowls and serve warm.
- The potato in the soup provides a silky texture, thanks to the starch that it harbors. For a sweeter presence and an impressive dose of antioxidants, switch it with a medium-size sweet potato.
- The process of seasoning oil with whole spices to flavor a pot of dal or curry is the hallmark of Indian cooking, a technique known as tadka. This key infusion, usually after the ingredients are cooked, asserts a layering of flavors that provide a sharp burst to that first mouthful. The sweetly popped mustard seeds and the aromatically nutty cumin seeds do just that in this soup.
About the author:Raghavan Iyer, CCP is an award-winning cookbook author, teacher, consultant, spokesperson, and product developer. Chef Iyer’s work has won accolades from the New York Times, National Public Radio, the Boston Globe, and Food and Wine. He is a two-time James Beard Award winner and Julia Child Winner for Cooking Teacher of the Year. In addition to his upcoming book Mastering Indian Cooking The Easy Way, his recent books, 660 Curries, TheTurmeric Trial and Betty Crocker’s Indian Home Cooking include some vegan recipes.