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Vegetarian tips from the vegetarian nation

Here in Britain, there are about 3.5 million vegetarians, about 6% of the population. Across the pond in America there are about 7 million, just over 3% of their population. In France it’s just over 1 million, or around 2%. On the other hand, the number of vegetarians in India is estimated at 40% of the population or around 399 million people, over ten times the number of UK vegetarians. It seems clear, then, that if you want good vegetarian food from people who eat it every day then India is the place to be.

SpicesOf course we do have a pretty sizable population of ethnically and culturally Indian people here in Britain and, as a result, there’s plenty of good influence of Indian food on our own cuisine. Indeed, it was only just over a month ago that I was discussing the various curries that could be considered the nation’s favourite food. Certainly it was learning to cook Indian food that really taught me to cook. My mum aside, nobody taught me more about cooking than Madhur Jaffrey.

Often it seems like the brilliant polymath who can turn their hand easily from one profession to a completely different one is a thing of the 19th century and before, but Jaffrey is such a person. As a child obsessed with myths, legends and folk tales, I was entranced by Seasons of Splendour, her book of Hindu myths of Hanuman the monkey god and elephant headed Ganesh riding on the back of a giant rat. Long before that Jaffrey established herself as a successful actress, especially in Merchant-Ivory productions, winning the Best Actress award at the Berlin Film Festival for her role in Shakespeare Wallah in 1965, at going on to co-direct Cotton Mary with Ismail Merchant.

Madhur Jaffrey's Indian CookeryBut it’s in cookery that Jaffrey has made her greatest mark. Her 1973 book Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cookery taught much of what ordinary British households know about preparing and cooking Indian meals and was a book often used in my own home. My second hand copy still has a calendar page from 1984 marking one of the pages, suggesting that whoever owned it before me hadn’t used the book in 20 years before giving it to a charity shop, so not every home loved the book as much as ours. If I was going to make some more tasty vegetarian food than last week, then, it was to India that I should turn and to the pages of Madhur Jaffrey.

In her more recent work Madhur Jaffrey’s Ultimate Curry Bible, an excellent book that tells the story of how Indian food relates to the world, both how it was influenced by and influenced the cuisine of other countries, part-history, part-cookbook, she explains the history of vegetarianism in India as an act of competition between the regions’ mix of religions:

“Around 500 BC, Vedic Inida saw the birth of two new religions that frowned on the killing of animals – Buddhism, which claimed many kings and their subjects as adherents, and Jainism, with followers in central and western India. The old-style Vedic religion, which would eventually turn into Hinduism, began to lose some ground. Perhaps to imbue it with fresh energy and to fight off the popularity of competing paths to eternal salvation, Vedic priests began to come up with a vegetarianism of their own. As Hinduism developed, so did vegetarianism. The cow, always revered, would eventually head towards semi-deification, though this happened over time, and as late as AD 800 beef was still being eaten with gusto.”

This is, of course, a similar history to what I discussed on Sunday with regards to the Buddha’s probable beef eating. While restraint and respect for the lives of animals were always part of all these religions, it is certainly true that the more strict vegetarianism developed more and more as time passed.

So, what does an Indian vegetarian dinner consist of? According to Jaffrey: “Generally speaking, an Indian meal consists of a meat dish, a vegetable dish, bread and/or rice, a pulse dish, and a yoghurt relish (or plain yoghurt)…Vegetarians – of whom there are millions in India – increase the number of vegetable and pulse dishes and always serve yoghurt in some form.” So, I decided to make just that, two vegetable dishes, one pulse dish, some rice and a yoghurt relish.

LentilsStarting with the essential elements, then, Jaffrey says: “You can take meats and fish and vegetables away from an Indian but you cannot take away his dal and his bread or, if he is a rice-eater, his rice. That is the core of his meal.” With regard to the dal, this traditionally meant a dried, split pea, but has come to refer to any legumes and pulses. The Curry Bible offers many recipes for dals that could serve as an accompaniment to a meal. One, using masoor (red lentils), caught my eye, a dish from the Khyber Pass in Pakistan. According to Jaffrey, the origins of this dish are in “the once-a-week ‘no-meat’ day, declared so by the Pakistani government worried by the nation’s excessive meat-eating habits”. A simple mix of red lentils, garlic, cayenne pepper and dried red chillies, it seemed an appropriate fit for my vegetarian meal and would allow me to concentrate on the other elements while the lentils cooked.

Dried chilliesThe other advantage of this particular recipe was that it called for dried chillies. Professor Plum had been growing a chilli plant over the summer and now that the days have turned much colder and we hadn’t used most of the little red peppers that grew on the plant, she had decided to dry them. We’d been wanting to make use of these dried chillies for a while, so this was the perfect opportunity. I as looking through the Madhur Jaffrey book specifically for recipes that utilised dried chillies. As a result, I decided to accompany my dinner with some stir-fried green beans according to a recipe from the South-East of India, using dried chillies, mustard seeds, cayenne pepper and asafoetida.

For the rice I wanted something special, so went with a more special occasion recipe from Jaffrey, a basmati rice with cinnamon and saffron. I was trying to avoid my usual reliance on potato and tomato, so for the other vegetable component I instead opted for a carrot curry from the Tamil Nadu region in the far South of India, using shallots, chilli, fennel and coconut milk. Jaffrey identifies one of the key elements of good Indian food is that: “We try to see that the dishes that we serve vary in colour, texture and flavour.” Thus, I felt that the “dry” unsauced green beans would pair well with the “wet” orange carrots in their coconut milk sauce, and avoid last week’s excessive yellowy-brown stodgy dinner.

Indian vegetarianismFinally, then, there was the question of relishes and Jaffrey’s insistence that a vegetarian Indian meal is always served with yoghurt. I’m not usually a big fan of yoghurt with Indian food, but if the vegetarian option required it, then I was going to make some. I wanted something simple, clear and refreshing, so I made a raita of natural yoghurt, cucumber, tomato and mint leaves and added it to the mix of vegetarian dishes already prepared. Having tasted it, I was pleasantly surprised that this refreshing flavour definitely did add something to the meal as a whole.

In the end this week’s vegetarian dinner was a great deal nicer than last week’s, far more of a mix of flavours and textures than that dish, and definitely more pleasing in terms of colour. Most of the Indian cooking I do is made with lamb or chicken, so it was nice to try this for a change, but my lack of experience at purely veggie food may have shown in how the dal was a little wet from not being boiled down enough. All the elements tasted good, but I couldn’t help shaking the feeling that I was eating a lot of nice side dishes without a significant central element that would have been provided by meat. Having said that, I’d have no problem eating like this more often.

PlumProfessor Plum in the Dining Room: I agree that this felt a little like a collection of side dishes rather than a meal. I don’t think that’s necessarily true of veggie curry normally, but was just the result of the dishes chosen. The beans with mustard seeds in one of my favourite accompaniments to Mustard’s go to curry dish, so I was more than happy with them. I found the carrots a bit sweet, as was the rice on its own, but though the dal was wet it added that savoury flavour that brought the rest together. I’m a little concerned though: I quite like lentils, but somehow I almost never get around to eating them I’ll buy a packet for a dish and move house twice before I give up and bin everything I didn’t use in that first meal. I wonder when we’ll get around to using up the rest of this pack?

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