As demand for meatless meals grows, try subji, a spicy, Indian vegetarian stew

Feb. 12, 2020
Subji Indian vegetarian in a bowl
Spices boost the flavor of subji, a delicious Indian vegetarian stew. Photo: Getty Images.

Twinned observations: Many meat-eaters kvetch that vegetarian food doesn’t have enough taste, while many vegetarians (vegans especially, it appears to me) are ever manipulating plant-based foodstuffs to resemble meat or fish. Tofurky is the elder of this clan.

Another observation, itself the twin of my own cooking extraordinarily flavorful vegetable-based Indian recipes for years and the discovery that around 30 percent of the population of the Republic of India eats vegetarian: 446 million Indians cannot be wrong.

Those are a lot of votes that vegetables, deliciously prepared, can satisfy. Subji, today’s recipe, is one such preparation. And it is aimed at your Lenten dinner plate, where the meat was during wintertime. Grocers put a big emphasis on selling fish for Lent, but vegetarian fare is also a fine substitute.

My Indian grocer (the very user-friendly Bombay Bazaar on South Parker Road in Aurora) tells me that “subji” means merely “vegetable dish.” (It is also spelled sabji, bhaji and, in Persian cooking, sabzi or sabzi khordan).

In Indian cooking subcontinent-wide, it is prepared as a wet, stew-like dish, or drier, all depending on how much moisture remains. The Iranian sabzi khordan is a platter of raw, cut-up vegetables, adorned with a profligate fan of fresh green herbs such as basil, mint, cilantro or dill, and radishes and cress.

Served with rice, an Indian bread such as naan or roti, subji is not only eminently nutritious, it is as flavorful and filling — aromatically and sensually — as any non-vegetarian dish from any of the world’s many menus.

To my recipe, you may add the contents of a can or two of garbanzo beans, or a final flourish of a bag of baby spinach leaves, or certainly any combination of starter vegetables that you fancy. Many subji are made with merely one or two vegetables, that’s all. As such, it is an extremely flexible recipe, save for the obligation to utilize the many Indian-based spices, garlic, ginger, and pepper heat.

Without them, no subji; just another vegetarian dish that eaters of steer rightly might complain about.

Indian vegetarian stew: Subji

Serves 10-12

To make this dish vegan, merely use plant-based oil instead of ghee. Ginger-garlic paste is readily available at all Indian grocers, and now at many Asian and other grocers too. It’s one of the great inventions for the kitchen for cooks unused to Indian cooking.


1/3 cup canola oil or ghee, plus more of either in reserve

2 large onions, peeled and cut thinly

4 heaping tablespoons ginger-garlic paste (or 8 cloves of mashed, peeled garlic cloves and 4 tablespoons finely grated fresh, peeled ginger)

2 serrano peppers (or peppers of equivalent heat), seeded and minced

4 teaspoons yellow mustard seeds

2 tablespoons cumin seeds

2 tablespoons coriander powder

2 tablespoons turmeric powder

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper powder

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 tablespoon freshly grated black pepper

1 tablespoon fenugreek powder (optional)

2 14-ounce cans small diced tomatoes or the equivalent seeded and chopped fresh

4 large carrots, peeled and cut along the bias into 1-inch thick chunks

3 cups waxy potato, peeled if desired, cut into 1-inch chunks

3-4 cups summer squash (such as zucchini, chayote, yellow or grey squash), lightly peeled, cut into 1-inch chunks

1 large head cauliflower, broken into florets, thick large stems omitted

2 cups frozen peas

1 cup frozen cubed butternut squash (optional)

Garnishes of cilantro leaves and wedges of lime


In a very large pot, heat the oil or ghee and, in it, lightly brown the cut onions over medium-low heat, 15-20 minutes. Don’t burn or darkly brown the onions, but you want them very soft and golden. Remove them from the pot and set aside. Add a small amount (2-3 tablespoons) oil or ghee to the pot if none remains from the onion browning.

Add the ginger-garlic paste and the minced peppers and stir for 1 minute over medium-high heat; add back the onions and all the spices and flavorings and mix well, stirring together for another minute. Add the tomatoes and stir everything together, then let the mix bubble for 5-7 minutes or until the mix thickens noticeably.

In steps, add the cut-up vegetables; stir in and coat with the sauce after each addition. Begin with the carrots and the potatoes, letting them cook for about 10 minutes; then the squash and cauliflower, letting everything cook for another 15-20 minutes, or until the vegetables begin to soften. If, at any time, the liquid dries up, add a healthy splash of water or vegetable broth, scraping up the bottom of the pot.

At this point, you may put the pot on a super-low burner for another 45 minutes of cooking, covered, stirring occasionally; or into a slow (275-degree) oven for the same amount of time, covered; or into a large slow cooker on High, then Low when the subji begins to simmer there.

It’s now up to you how you want the final subji: the vegetables still a bit crunchy, or softened and beginning to break down into each other. Whichever, about 15 minutes before serving, add the frozen peas and butternut squash (if using) and stir them in so that they cook as well, being sure the flame or heat on the subji is sufficient to do that. Before serving, check for salt.

Serve with the garnishes, and with steamed basmati rice and bread, if desired.

Reach Bill St John at [email protected]


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 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.