Proud Indian Dishes

By Kaumudi Marathé

indian foodGrowing up Indian, I enjoyed meat and fish when it was served, but rarely felt its absence when it wasn’t. The nutrients, flavors, colors and textures of a traditional Indian meal, be it from my state, Maharashtra, or from another part of India, ensure that meat isn’t missed.

Today, as a chef and cooking school teacher in Southern California, I am puzzled by dishes like almond “cheese,” “pasta” made from zucchini strands, and veggie “burgers,” which attempt to impersonate the heartiness of dairy, wheat and meat products but seem nostalgic, rather than proud of their own worth.

The main energy source in Indian cuisine is a carbohydrate, such as rice, wheat or millet. This is supplemented by vegetable proteins—often beans and lentils—that offer their own unique, hearty flavors. When lentils and rice are served together, they provide 99 percent of the amino profile of meat, making them a less expensive, equally nutritious and more easily digested meat-alternative.

The meal is completed by vegetable and fruit side dishes and condiments to provide roughage, vitamins and minerals. When meat is included, it, too, is usually a side dish, consumed in small quantities.

And, of course, there are the spices! These not only add flavor and zest but provide essential nutrients and health benefits when consumed on a daily basis, as they are in India. For instance, turmeric is antiseptic and anticarcinogenic; fenugreek purifies the blood; asafetida breaks down hard-to-digest ingredients like lentils, making them more digestible; and cumin and carum copticum have digestive properties.

While we are relishing the California spring, in India it is summertime. As a child, I looked forward to it because it was mango season! We had climbed the mango trees and eaten our fill of raw, green mangoes sprinkled with red chili powder and salt. Now my grandparents’ house was redolent with the sweet fragrance of luscious, sunset colored Alphonsos ripening in cozy beds of straw.

Summer also brought the delicious green pods, or “drumsticks,” of the Moringa oleifera tree, which is credited with both nutritional and therapeutic properties. Drumsticks were thrown into lentils, sauteed with tomatoes and cooked every which way to make the most of them during their short season.

Although I miss those treats, I cook with what is at hand. Springtime in California brings asparagus, slightly similar to drumsticks in their taste, so they substitute in my recipe. I await the season’s green beans and you’ll love my mother’s recipe with mustard seed and coconut. As for carbs, try this simple rice dish with freshly shelled English peas. Indian food spice box

Khatta (Clatter-Pot Vegetables)
Serves: 4 / Time: 60 minutes

1 medium onion
4 oz. fresh grated coconut OR desiccated, unsweetened coconut
2 red chilies
1–2 tsp. salt
2 1/2 c. or more water
1 c. yellow lentils (toor dal), rinsed
1/4 lb. pumpkin or banana squash
2 zucchinis
1 large potato
2 medium eggplants
1/2 c. taro
1/2 c. jackfruit (optional)
2 cobs of corn
2 drumsticks or 1/4 lb asparagus
1/4 c. tamarind pulp
1/4 tsp. turmeric
pinch of asafetida

Grind onion, coconut, chilies and 1 teaspoon salt into a fine paste in a blender.
Bring 2 1/2 cups water to a boil. Add the lentils and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, 20 minutes. Meanwhile, wash and chop the pumpkin, zucchini, potato, eggplant, taro and jackfruit into 1-inch chunks. Cut the corn cobs into 1-inch discs. Remove fibers from the drumstick skins. Cut drumsticks or asparagus into 1 1/2-inch pieces. When the lentils have cooked for 20 minutes, add the pumpkin. Continue to cook till the lentils are very soft and the pumpkin is falling apart, 15 minutes. Stir in the remaining vegetables (except asparagus) and 1 cup water. Cook covered till the vegetables are tender, 15–20 minutes. Stir occasionally and add more water if needed. When the water has reduced to a thick sauce, mix in salt, the coconut-onion spice paste, tamarind, turmeric, asafetida and asparagus. Stir and simmer 3–5 minutes. Serve with hot white rice and a salad.

Beans chi Bhaji (Beans with Marathi Spice)
Serves: 2–4, Time: 25 minutes

1/2 lb French beans or other beans, washed & strung
2 tbsp. Canola or grape seed oil
1 tsp. mustard seeds
1/4 tsp. turmeric
1 medium onion, minced (optional)
1/4 c. water
1–11/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. jaggery (Indian sugar) or brown sugar
1 teaspoon garam masala (traditionally a spice blend called Goda masala is
2 tbsp. fresh grated coconut or desiccated coconut
2 tsp. lime / lemon juice (optional)
4–5 sprigs cilantro, washed & finely chopped

Line up 4–6 beans at a time and chop them fine. Heat oil in a skillet. Pop the mustard seeds into it. When they burst open, add turmeric and stir. Sauté the onion in the spiced oil, 2–3 minutes, over high heat. Add the beans and stir-fry, 2–3 minutes. Stir in up to 1/4 cup water, reduce the heat to medium and cook covered, 10–12 minutes. Stir occasionally.

Uncover, stir and reduce the heat to low. The beans should be bright green and most of the water should have evaporated. Add salt, sweetener and garam masala. Cook uncovered, 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add more water if needed. Mix in 1 tablespoon coconut and steam the beans, 1–2 minutes. Sprinkle with lime juice and serve hot, garnished with cilantro and the remaining coconut.

Green Peas Pulao (Basmati Rice with Whole Spices & Green Peas)
Serves 4, 30 minutes

1 c. jasmine rice or long-grained rice like basmati
1–2 tbsp. clarified butter (ghee)
2 bay leaves
1-inch stick of cinnamon
2 green cardamom pods
4 cloves
1 tsp. cumin seed
1/2–1 tsp. salt
2 c. water
1 c. freshly shelled green peas

Rinse the rice well, drain and set aside. Heat ghee in a saucepan till hot. Add bay leaves, cinnamon, cardamom and cloves. Stir briefly to release their aromas. Stir in cumin seed. Add the drained rice and stir to coat it with ghee. Mix in salt and water. Cook covered over low heat for 7–10 minutes. Do not stir too much as this causes the rice grain to break. Uncover, gently stir in peas and cook till rice is fluffy, 4–5 more minutes. You can substitute other vegetables in season or leave them out altogether for a simple spiced rice dish.

Kaumudi Marathé, journalist by training and chef by vocation, founded Un-Curry, an LA-based catering company and cooking school ( to shatter the myth that Indian food is curry. Her pop-up restaurant, The Un-Curry Table, offers monthly dining events around LA. All recipes ©Kaumudi Marathé.

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