An Indian Vegetarian Feast

The first thing you need to know about Indian cooking is there is no such thing as a “Curry.” Yet we ALL talk about eating Curries. Why is that?

It is said that the East India Officers who left Bengal at the end of their tours of duty found themselves missing the food their Indian cooks had made. They asked for a spice blend so their cooks in England could replicate these dishes. The Indians gave them a mix of powdered turmeric, cumin, coriander, chili and other spices, including possibly ground up green kari leaves. Curry powder is not used in Indian cooking, but it is used in Anglo-Indian cooking. My favorite place to use curry powder is in spicy scrambled eggs. Or how about tuna or chicken salad? I am not a snob about curry powder, but I do not use it in Indian cooking. The spicy stewed vegetable dishes below should technically be called sabzis, not curries. But I don’t care what name you use; I’ll just be glad you tried Indian cooking at home.

We don’t eat Indian food on a daily basis, because you can’t serve just two things and get away with it. An Indian meal, especially from the state of Bengal, is supposed to include tastes that are bitter, sweet, salty, spicy, stewed and fried. Only people with servants or very zealous mothers can eat like that. At my house, I make Indian food about one night per week, and with rice I would usually serve a dal, one or two vegetable sabzis, and cucumber raita. There might be chicken kababs or a fish curry (oops, I said it!) or lamb or bison kofta meatballs if company’s coming.

Most of the Indian dishes available in restaurants come from the meat-eating, milk-loving Punjab region. Bengal, where my father’s side comes from, is more centered on dishes made with fish, vegetables, and rice. Flavorings include mustard, both from seed and oil, ginger, garlic and chilies; desserts are often milk-based, molded sweets that are insanely delicious and virtually impossible to replicate.

Over the years I have developed some very simple recipes that my whole family and most guests will eat.

A Vegetarian Feast:

Tinda (sautéed green squash)
Mixed Vegetable Curry (Chorchori)
Cauliflower and Peas (Fulkopi Chorchori)
Cucumber Raita
Serve with: cooked basmati rice
Dal (Lentils; check out Aarti Sequeira’s Mum’s Everyday Red Lentils)
Rotis, Chapattis or Naan (from grocery freezer section)
Kulfi “ice cream” pops (from Indian grocery freezer section, or make Aarti Sequeira’s Food Network recipe)

Tinda (Indian Squash)
Serves 4 as part of a meal

A very petite (pinkie-length) cylindrical light green squash is known as Tinda or Tindora and sold at Indian stores with fresh vegetable departments. I am thrilled when the tiny green zucchini are available, but more often use zucchini, patty-pan or yellow squash to make this. Note: my father says Bengalis look down on tinda and prefer to use a similar bitter petite squash called potol. I’ve had all the squashes and prefer tinda or zucchini.

1 or 2 tablespoon grapeseed or canola oil
Pinch of asafetida powder (hing)
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
¼ teaspoon of turmeric
Salt to taste
Cayenne powder or chopped green Serrano chillies (optional)
2 cups of squash such as green zucchini, yellow crookneck or pattypan, diced about ½” by ½”.

  1. Heat an average sized frying pan to medium. Add oil and when it starts to shimmer (about one minute) sprinkle the pinch of asafetida followed shortly by the turmeric and mustard seeds.
  2. PUT LID ON PAN while mustard seeds pop. When popping stops, add the squash and salt to taste. Stir-fry until cooked through and lightly browned.

Those who like spicy food can add half a chopped green chilli or sprinkle with cayenne.

Bengali Mixed Vegetable Curry (Chorchori)
Serves 6 as part of a meal

2 tablespoons grapeseed, canola or sunflower oil
One medium onion, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon fresh ginger root
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
½ teaspoon turmeric powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 potato, diced large, about 2” by 2”
1 cup sugar snap peas, cut in half cross-wise
1 zucchini, diced about same size as the potato
1 large carrot or half a sweet potato, diced same size as the other vegetables
1 tsp garam masala
½ teaspoon cayenne powder (optional)

  1. Heat oil; when it shimmers add the mustard and cumin seeds. When the mustard seeds start to pop, add the onion and ginger and sauté a few minutes.
  2. Add turmeric, sauté one minute with the onion and ginger. Then add the potato and sweet potato or carrot cook till halfway done (about ten minutes), stirring frequently and adding more oil if it starts to stick.
  3. Add zucchini and sugar snap peas and ¼ to 1/3 cup of water. Cover and cook on low until these vegetables are done. Then add the garam masala and extra salt to taste and cayenne pepper for people who like hot food.

Fulkopi Chorchori (Cauliflower and Peas)
Serves 6 a part of a meal

2 tablespoons sunflower, grapeseed or canola oil
1 tablespoon mustard seeds
1 small onion, diced large
2 tablespoons grated or minced fresh ginger root
3-4 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon cumin
2 teaspoons coriander
1 small head cauliflower, core removed, the remainder cut into large florets
1 16-ounce can diced tomatoes or two medium to large fresh tomatoes, diced small
1 cup frozen green peas
3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro/coriander
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice.
Cayenne powder (optional)

  1. Over medium flame, heat oil until it shimmers. Add mustard seeds, putting a lid on to contain the popping.
  2. When popping stops add onion, ginger, garlic and turmeric. Saute one minute and then add cauliflower pieces. Saute 2-4 minutes, until cauliflower is starting to soften. Add powdered cumin and coriander.
  3. Add chopped tomatoes and put lid back on. Check after 5 minutes to see if there’s enough liquid; if not add a few tablespoons of water. Turn off range when the cauliflower is just tender and add the green peas, putting lid back on, to allow the to gently steam before serving.
  4. Add cilantro, fresh lemon juice, mix well and serve.

Cucumber Raita

1 average cucumber, peeled if you like, with seedy inside section spooned out
1 cup plain lowfat yogurt
½ teaspoon fresh lemon juice
½ teaspoon salt
sprinkling of cumin powder

  1. Grate cucumber over a plate. Then squeeze out as much water as you can and put the squeezed cucumber shreds in a mixing bowl.
  2. Add yogurt, lemon juice, salt and mix.
  3. Sprinkle cumin powder over top before serving as an accompaniment to a meal with rice and other Indian dishes.