From seasonal ingredients to community favourites, two cookbook writers shine a spotlight on the best of vegetarian fare

05 February,2023 08:04 AM IST |  Mumbai  |  Jane Borges

Two cookbook writers dip into the best of culinary traditions across India to put together compendiums on vegetarian dishes

Beetroot kola

Since 2006, nutrition expert and wellbeing advocate Dr Nandita Iyer*s blog, Saffron Trail, has been an important resource for vegetarian cooking. But if there*s one grouse she has against Indians who love their vegetables, it is their "lack of understanding of seasonal eating". Most of us living in cities, have no idea what*s in season anymore," Bengaluru-based Iyer tells us over a phone call. "…that*s because everything is now available year-round. And if we order online, the algorithm just shows us the top 10 foods that we always order." It*s only at the open farmer*s market, she says, that you realise that seasonal foods are available plentifully - "they are all piled up together and cost cheaper".

Her new cookbook, The Great Indian Thali: Seasonal Vegetarian Wholesomeness (Roli Books), is her attempt at documenting the wide variety of vegetarian produce available at our disposal, and the science behind cooking them according to changing seasons.

Kohra no patiyo (red pumkin stew)

Vegetarianism in India, she shares, is around 2,500 years old, becoming popular after the advent of Jainism and Buddhism in the sixth century BCE. "These faiths, which sought to compete with the prevailing Vedic faith, introduced ahimsa [non-violence] to mainstream Vedic belief, which otherwise was rather meat-heavy…" she writes. A typical vegetarian diet today, she says, comprises grains and flours, lentils and beans, vegetables and fruits, dairy, spices, oils, and nuts and seeds.

While her recipe book is designed around the four seasons typical to India - spring, summer, monsoon and winter, she also encourages the pursuit of creating a wholesome vegetarian thali. A typical thali is centred on a starch component (rice, wheat or millets), with side dishes such as vegetable-based curries, dal, legumes, green leafy vegetables, buttermilk or yoghurt-based dishes. Apart from condiments and preserves (chutney, pickles etc), there*s also a sweet dish, without which no thali is otherwise complete. Dipping into this collection, all the dishes that have been tried and tested over the last many years, she hopes "you can pick, choose and curate your own version of the thali that absorbs the best of different regions".

Nandita Iyer, doctor, nutrition expert and wellbeing advocate

"Simplicity was the backbone of this book," she says, explaining the process of researching it. "I didn*t want to include dishes with ingredients that were complicated or difficult to procure. They also had to be readily available, especially during season. The challenge is that India is home to many micro climates - something that is in season in Bengaluru, might not be in Delhi. I was fully aware of this when putting the recipes together."

Simple dishes such as khamang kakdi, a Maharashtrian cucumber salad, and which Iyer says "deserves a place among the most iconic salads of the world for its gentle touch of fresh coconut, bold flavours of coriander, and the crunch from peanuts" sit alongside the more time-consuming gavar dhokli (cluster beans with sorghum pasta), which nearly takes an hour to prepare. The book also has the usual suspects: Khichdi, sarson ka saag, and idli-dosa and sambar. "But you can*t talk about Indian vegetarian food without discussing the basics and the favourites," she says, adding that she also tried to be as close to the most common recipes. "Or close to the real thing," she says, adding that "our obsession with authenticity needs to end, because it leaves little scope for any recipe to grow or survive."

Canada-based, award -winning cookbook author Niloufer Mavalvala had a completely different motivation to bring out her recently published compendium of Parsi recipes, The Vegetarian Parsi: Inspired by Tradition (Spenta Multimedia Pvt. Ltd). Mavalvala, who hails from Karachi with a large part of family having moved to Mumbai pre-partition, says when you talk about Parsi food, the first names that come to your mind are patra ni machi, sali boti or mutton dhansak. "I do not recall bheeda, vengna, karela, dodhi ever being mentioned," she shares. "But we Parsis have vegetables in all our foods… knowingly or unknowingly. None of our meats, for instance, are prepared in isolation. The base of most of our dishes are coriander, chillies, ginger, onions and tomatoes," she tells us over a call. There are standalone, popular vegetable dishes, as well. The Parsi vegetable stew, for instance, also referred to as lagan nu istu (wedding stew), and which is traditionally prepared with fresh root vegetables, green beans, eggplant, peas and okra, is a staple at weddings and navjotes. "It*s just that at feasts and parties, we have a lot more non-vegetarian dishes… but we do not celebrate every day," she says.

Niloufer Mavalvala, author

She admits that many scoff at the idea of a "Parsi vegetarian". But that*s a myth, she says. "Traditionally, we as a community, would observe a month Bahman [falling mid-June to mid-July], where we were required to avoid eating meat of any kind… the annual cleansing was to maintain balance and respect nature. So, how can we say our cuisine is all about meat and fish." Her book, however, she says, is for those who enjoy their vegetables alongside everything. "Every Parsi cookbook will have a few vegetarian recipes in it, but we [my publisher Maneck Davar and the author] felt the need to give these recipes its own rightful place. We didn*t want to hide it anymore," she says, adding, "People are also now making healthier lifestyle choices, slowly gravitating towards vegetarianism and veganism. They need to be aware of what is available in Parsi cuisine."

The cookbook is divided into five sections - Parsi choi ni saathay (celebrating teatime) with a range of cakes, pastries and biscuits, think daar ni pori (sweetened lentils in pastry) and limbu nu cake; takarai ni tokri (vegetable basket) with dahi na vengna (spiced eggplant with yoghurt) and asparagus mousse and takarai ni curry; chawal daar nay kathore (grains, lentils and pulses) and mohnu samarvanu (desserts to sweeten the palate). The most interesting section is eeda saathay (vegetable dishes with eggs) that brings us to the unresolved question - can eggs be considered vegetarian? "Someone on social media asked me why I was calling this a vegetarian book, when a significant number of recipes incorporate eggs. But this is how we eat our vegetables," she says, explaining, "Parsis love their eggs in almost every dish. It could be because of their Persian heritage or to just cover up the vegetable - either way, for many who grew up in a typical Parsi household, an egg meal was always there as a side dish for lunch. So, it would be a tomato per eedu [eggs on tomatoes] one day, or turia per eedu [eggs on ridge gourd]. That*s how the week went by, and the cycle continued. I couldn*t ignore it when putting this book together."

The closest that Parsi vegetarian cuisine is to any community, is that of the Gujaratis, she says. "But, it*s still unique. You won*t see oil floating on vegetable dishes. It*s about keeping oil to a minimum. The spices don*t stand out. Let the vegetable be the star of the show. All this [must be maintained] while striking a balance between tikkhu-khattu-mitthu [spicy, sour and sweet]"

Dhun Dar nay Sekhta ni Singh no Patiyo
Serves 6

For the daar (lentils)
227 gm tuar daar (split pigeon peas)
227 gm masoor daar (red split lentils)
3/4 tsp turmeric
1 tsp salt
113 gm salted butter

For the patiyo
3 tbsp oil
2 large onions, finely chopped
200 gm coconut, ground to a paste
2 tsp ginger paste
2 tsp garlic paste
2 finely ground green chillies
2 whole green chillies
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp red chilli powder
1 1/2 tsp cumin powder
1 1/2 tsp salt
180 ml/ 6 oz tomatoes - pureed
2 unripe green mangoes, peeled and chopped
3/4 cup fresh coriander, finely chopped
24 scraped moringa drumsticks cut into 10 cm/4-inch pieces
3 cups water
1 tbsp jaggery
2 large tomatoes cut into chunks
2 cups basmati rice, boiled in salted water

For the tarko
1 tbsp ghee
1 tsp whole cumin
1 tbsp fried onion

Daar: In a stock pot combine the tuar and masoor daars, turmeric, salt, and 4 cups of water. Bring to a boil and cook the daar over medium heat for 40 minutes, adding additional water as needed.
Add the butter and mash or process the lentils until thickened but still liquid. Set aside and keep warm.
Tarko: Heat the ghee, add the garlic, cumin, and onions. Sizzle for a few seconds and immediately pour over the hot daar-lentils.
Patiyo: Heat the oil and fry the onions till golden brown. Add the ground coconut, stirring constantly, until the coconut turns very light pink. Immediately add ginger and garlic and cook for 1 minute. Add all the chillies, turmeric, chilli and cumin powders and salt. Cook for a minute and add the pureed tomatoes, mangoes, and fresh coriander. Add water stir and bring to a boil. Place the bundles of moringa sticks. Cover and cook for about 45 minutes on a medium flame. Add the scraped jaggery stir gently to dissolve it. Check that the moringa is cooked through. Finally place the chunks of tomato- skin side up, cover and steam for another 10 minutes. The patiyo should have a slightly thick in consistency and perfectly balanced between tikkhu-khattu-mitthu. Serve as a trio of plain boiled rice, topped with the daar and the patiyo.


Motorshutir Kochuri
Serves 10

Ingredients for the dough
1 cup (150 gm) all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
4 tsp cooking oil

For the filling
1 cup shelled peas (fresh)
3 green chillies
2 tsp finely grated ginger
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
2 tsp oil
1/2 tsp nigella seeds (kalonji)
1/8 tsp asafoetida
2 cups oil for deep-frying

Combine the ingredients for the dough in a bowl. Make sure the oil is well combined into the dough. Add warm water, a little at a time to make a smooth dough. Cover the bowl and allow it to rest for 15-30 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare the filling. In a saucepan with 2 cups of water, boil the peas for 3-4 minutes until they soften. Drain well. Combine with chillies, ginger, cumin powder, salt, and sugar and grind to a fine paste without using any extra water. Heat 2 tsp oil in a pan. Fry the nigella seeds and asafoetida for a few seconds. Scrape the prepared paste into the oil. Stir it over low-medium heat to dry out the moisture. This is to ensure that filling is not soggy. Keep stirring until the mixture comes together into a ball. Remove into a dish and let it cool. Divide the dough and the filling into 10 portions each. Flatten out the dough and make it into a cup in your palm. Add in the filling and cover well and roll into a ball. Using an oiled rolling pin and base, roll out into thick puris 5" diameter size. Heat oil in a wok and deep-fry each such kochuri separately over high heat until it puffs up. Flip it over with a slotted spoon and fry the other side for 20-30 seconds as well. Drain on a kitchen paper to absorb the excess oil. Serve with aloor dom (baby potatoes in Bengali style curry.

PICS AND TEXT COURTESY/The Great Indian Thali: Seasonal Vegetarian Wholesomeness, Roli Books

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