Recently, while kicking around ideas for where to have dinner, a friend asked me, “Why do vegetarians always want to go to an Indian restaurant?” This is something I’ve been pondering for a few days now.
I decided to become vegetarian shortly before my 17th birthday. My older brother took me out for my birthday, to the only Indian restaurant in town. It was my first experience with Indian food, and the memory is a happy one. I ate baigan bharta, a puree of roasted eggplant with peas stirred into it. It was rich, savory and perfumed with spices I’d never encountered before. In that moment, I felt I was eating something exotic and exciting.
If I thought I had experienced something unique, I had only to go to the movies. Indian restaurants are usually portrayed in American cinema as the realm of the uber-cultured and the free spirited (think the 1995 remake of Sabrina and Along Came Polly), some sort of transcendent, worldly food experience. Perhaps it’s like this often, the first time someone eats curry or a korma. I think that’s partly because Indian food has yet to enter the mainstream of U.S. cuisine. Unlike Mexican- or Italian-influenced food, most of us are old enough to remember the first time we encounter Indian food. That initial taste of Indian cuisine is likely to be a complete sensory experience – surrounded by the fragrance of spices, décor imported from India, perhaps with a pop song in Hindi in the background.
When one moves beyond the novelty of that first experience, the feelings this cuisine evokes can grow into something entirely different. For me, Indian food is satisfying and comforting. It sates a craving, puts me in a good mood, makes me feel cozy. It is simple food, rustic even, elevated by the use of aromatic spices and cooking techniques calculated to maximize flavor. It sticks to the ribs and can be eaten without having to worry about whether or not the cook knows that chicken stock isn’t vegetarian. At an Indian restaurant, vegetarians are not relegated to the usual choice between pasta in an over-salted cream sauce and a salad ordered sans chicken. I cannot speak for others, but that is why I “always” want to eat at an Indian restaurant.
Sometimes, though, I like to make my Indian food at home. I often change recipes a little bit to reflect what’s in my cupboards, so my Indian cooking is usually somewhat inauthentic. What follows is pretty close to the real deal, except for the bread, which is nothing like naan but still absolutely scrumptious with a spicy stew such as the one below.
Something Like Chana Masala
5 cups cooked chickpeas
1 ½ pounds plum tomatoes (5 or 6 of them, usually)
2 cups diced onion
3 cloves of garlic, minced
2 tsp. fresh ginger, minced
8 cups water
1 tsp. oil
2 tsp. turmeric
1 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. red pepper (more or less depending on your tolerance for heat; 1 tsp. is medium-spicy)
1 tsp. curry powder (the generic kind sold in most groceries)
½ tsp. salt
Additional salt, to taste
Directions: Place a small strainer over a bowl. Seed the tomatoes over the strainer to save juices. I like to cut off both ends of the tomato and then carefully push the seeds from one end out the other.
Discard the seeds, dice the tomatoes and add them to their juice. Heat the oil in a soup pot over medium-high heat. Add the onions, ginger, ½ tsp salt and garlic and saute for 7-8 minutes, until onions begin to turn translucent. Add the spices to the pan and stir constantly for 1 to 2 minutes, until they become fragrant.
Add tomatoes, water and chickpeas. Bring to a boil, then turn heat to low. Simmer for 2 hours.
Liquid should be thick, reduced to a level slightly below chickpeas and tomatoes. Salt to taste and serve with rice or flatbread.
¾ cup warm water
1 tsp. maple syrup or granulated sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 ½ tsp. yeast
scant tsp. salt
oil (canola or light-tasting olive work best)
Directions: Combine yeast, water and sweetener in a mixing bowl that holds at least 4 cups. Allow the mixture to sit for 10 minutes. The top should be foamy. Add flour and salt and knead for 8-10 minutes, adding more flour if necessary to create a dough that is stretchy and moist but not sticky. Divide the dough into 8 portions, and roll each portion into a ball (balls should be about the size of golf balls). Drizzle the dough balls with oil and roll each one in your hands to coat. Cover loosely with a towel or plastic and let the dough rest and rise for 30 minutes, or until doubled.
Heat a nonstick pan over medium-high heat. Add a small amount of oil to coat the pan. Flatten a dough ball, stretch it gently until it is thin and somewhat translucent in places (it’s ok if the edges are a little thicker than the rest). It should stretch to about the size of a saucer. Place the dough in the pan and cook for 3-4 minutes.
When there are spots of golden brown on the pan side of the bread, flip it over and cook for 1-2 more minutes, or until the other side of the bread is also beginning to brown. Repeat for each dough ball.