Indian cooking likely uses more spices and flavoring than any other cuisine

March 2, 2021

In the shadows of this year’s resolutions, might you be considering eating more plants in lieu of meats or fish? May I propose that you try Indian cooking?

A woman selects spices from a market for Indian cooking.
Indian food is likely the most flavorful cuisine with its rich layers of deliciousness. Photo: Getty Images.

I merely guess, but isn’t the chief complaint about cooking and eating vegan and vegetarian that they’re considered “bland,” generally not flavorful, all starch and fiber and, well, vegetables? Or, to use an apt word here, is eating plants deemed less toothsome than eating meat or fish? Indian cooking simply ignores dealing with or answering these questions. Because it can.

Get more great recipes and tips from Bill St. John.

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 consummate vegetarians, note that close to 70% 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.

An array of Indian spices used for Indian cooking
An array of Indian spices used for Indian cooking. Photo: Getty Images.

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 (certainly often more) in merely a single savory Indian vegan or vegetarian recipe.

In order to prepare even strictly vegan Indian dishes, as distinct from those vegetarian, you need make only a few adjustments to your kitchen and cooking.

Get more recipes and tips from Bill St. John.

For example, use neutral vegetable oils such as canola instead of the ubiquitous ghee (clarified butter), and choose plant-based milks or creams 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. Merely attend to the difference.)

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 textured “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.

The recipe that I offer here is a favorite of mine and always solicits those ego-boosting oohs and aahs that any cook loves to hear. But — an Indian dish with rhubarb? Trust me on this one; the play of the different flavors is electric and the rhubarb seems to act like a fretboard against which they play.

If rhubarb is out of season or not available frozen, you may substitute fresh or frozen cranberries or frozen and defrosted sour cherries in equal measure. In order to make the dish vegan, simply do not use ghee; instead, begin the recipe with a bit of canola or other mild-tasting vegetable oil.

Lentil dal with rhubarb (or cranberry or sour cherries)

Ingredients

3 tablespoons ghee or neutral cooking oil

1 yellow or white onion, peeled and chopped

2 cloves garlic, peeled and mashed or grated*

1 1-inch piece ginger, peeled and grated*

1 teaspoon turmeric powder

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon coriander powder

1 teaspoon garam masala

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper powder

1 small or 1/2 medium serrano pepper, seeded and minced, or more to taste

1 14-ounce can small dice tomatoes

1 and 1/2 cups red, orange, green, black or yellow lentils

1 and 1/2 cups rhubarb, washed and cut into 1/2-inch lengths

Directions

Melt the ghee or heat the oil over medium-high heat and, when shimmering, add the onion, letting the onion sweat for 3-4 minutes or until translucent. Add the garlic and ginger and the serrano pepper and mix in, stirring, for another 2-3 minutes. Add all the spices, mixing them in well, and stir so that they will heat up and release their aroma and flavor, 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes, stirring in, and let the whole mixture bubble up, 2-3 minutes.

Add the lentils and the rhubarb (or cranberries or cherries) and enough water to cover by 2 inches and stir. Bring to a boil, uncovered, then lower the heat to a slow simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, with the cover ajar, for 35-40 minutes, or until the lentils have softened completely and the rhubarb has mostly or completely broken down.

Serve as is, very warm, or with rice or naan or roti, or all three. Garnish with flavored oil and/ or chopped cilantro leaves.

*Indian grocery stores sell jars of “garlic-ginger paste,” a miracle for any kitchen. Use 1 tablespoon for each clove of garlic stipulated in a recipe calling for both grated or mashed garlic and ginger. For instance, in this recipe, use 2 tablespoons garlic-ginger paste.

Reach Bill St. John at billstjohn@gmail.com

About the author

For more than 40 years, Bill St. John’s specialties have been as varied as they are cultured. He writes and teaches about restaurants, wine, food & wine, the history of the cuisines of several countries (France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, and the USA), about religion and its nexus with food, culture, history, or philosophy, and on books, travel, food writing, op-ed, and language.

Bill has lent (and lends) his subject matter expertise to such outlets as The Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post, The Chicago Tribune, 5280 Magazine, and for various entities such as food markets, wine shops, schools & hospitals, and, for its brief life, Microsoft’s sidewalk.com. In 2001 he was nominated for a James Beard Award in Journalism for his 12 years of writing for Wine & Spirits Magazine.

Bill's experience also includes teaching at Regis University and the University of Chicago and in classrooms of his own devising; working as on-air talent with Denver's KCNC-TV, where he scripted and presented a travel & lifestyle program called "Wine at 45"; a one-week stint as a Trappist monk; and offering his shoulder as a headrest for Julia Child for 20 minutes.

Bill has also visited 54 countries, 42 of the United States, and all 10 Canadian provinces.

ADVERTISEMENT