Spicy Food/Cool Weather in India

October is the beginning of the cool season, the most pleasant time of year to visit India. Neither David nor I have ever been to the subcontinent, but we’re so fond of all things Indian (food, music, movies, art) that we’re almost convinced we must have been Indian in a previous life. For my birthday month, I’m sharing with you some of my favorite recipes from my favorite cuisine. Yes, yes, I know — India is actually host to a variety of cultures and cuisines, but this article is just meant to get you started on what I hope will be a long-term love affair with Indian food.

At first glance, most Indian recipes look daunting, but that’s just because the spice lists are usually quite long. Don’t worry – most, if not all, of these spices can be purchased in small quantities in the bulk bins at Sevananda. If you find that you enjoy cooking Indian dishes, you might wish to purchase a masala daba (Indian spice tin) at one of our local Indian grocers. This traditional tin has a glass lid, and holds seven smaller tins which you can fill with your favorite seven spices. It makes it handy to keep most of your Indian spices together for quick meal preparation. You might notice that “curry powder” is not listed in any of these recipes. What we call curry powder is a generic type of “masala” or spice mix. Each of these recipes has its own unique “masala” which you make fresh as you go.

Most recipes will call for some spices to be fried in oil. This is called the vaghar, or baghar, or tarka. This technique is one of the hallmarks of Indian cuisine . The oil releases the flavor from the fresh spices. Sometimes the spices will be fried whole (especially brown mustard seeds and cumin seeds), and at other times, they will be ground first. If you purchase all of your spices whole and grind them in a spice grinder (a coffee grinder kept for this purpose) or in a mortar as you need them, they will stay fresh much longer, and I promise that you will notice the difference.

Indian dishes are almost all “spicy” (well-flavored) but they are not all “hot”. You can customize this by choosing which fresh or dried chilies to use in your cooking. Cayenne chili powder, for example, can vary in strength from 30,000 Scoville Heat Units(SHU) up to 90,000 SHU, so be careful. Most recipes are written for the weaker supermarket strength cayenne, but since the 90,000 SHU version from Frontier Herbs is what a lot of us have in our cabinets now, I’ve cut the amounts of cayenne in most of these recipes in half. Be careful and add only what you know you will enjoy. I love hot foods, but the 90,000 SHU cayenne is difficult to control (and it will make you sneeze like you won’t believe!). I usually use paprika for color and flavor, and add just a bit of cayenne for heat.

Garam masala (literally “warm spice mix”) is available in all Indian markets and most western supermarkets. The mix of spices will vary from brand to brand, but most have a preponderance of warm spices, like coriander, cumin, cardamom, and cloves. If you wish to make your own, consult Julie Sahni’s excellent book, Classic Indian Vegetarian and Grain Cooking (1985), which is still in print. She gives recipes for three regional versions of garam masala, as well as many other spice mixes. I don’t think I’ve ever made anything from this book that I didn’t like, and the recipes are very clear and concise.

Other Indian cookbooks I have and love are:
Madhur Jaffrey’s An Invitation to Indian Cooking, (1973, currently reprinted by Ecco) and Rachavan Iyer’s The Turmeric Trail (2002, St. Martin’s Press). Neither of these is vegetarian, but the stories and recipes are excellent. I just substitute tofu for chicken or lamb, and skip the fish recipes. The other information is worth reading, but if you find non-veg books offensive, or you only want one Indian cookbook, make it either Lord Krishna’s Cuisine: The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking (1987, Dutton), or the smaller paperback version The Best of Lord Krishna’s Cuisine, both by Yamua Devi. The smaller book is out of print, but you might pick up a copy at a used bookstore. The larger book is impressive – both the first non-Western and the first vegetarian cookbook to win the International Association of Culinary Professionals Cookbook of the Year Award. It is back in print in a gorgeous edition and easily available. The dishes are all Vedic cuisine (no garlic or onions) but very flavorful. The okra dish below is a sample.

Most of the recipes below are adapted from Indian Vegetarian Cookery (1973), by Jack Santa Maria. This little paperback has been out of print for awhile now, but you might still run across a used copy. It was my first Indian cookbook, and I still turn to it regularly. It is written for English cooks, however (calling for aubergines [eggplants] and Lady Fingers [okra] and “dessertspoons” of lemon juice) and has no index – just a rather poor table of contents. I still love it, but it was written when it was more difficult to get Indian ingredients in Western markets, so might not be the most authentic source.

In addition to my shelf of cookbooks, I invested in a series of vegetarian Indian cooking classes with a local restaurateur. If you’d like more information on that, e-mail me and I’ll try to get you in touch with her. I haven’t heard from her in awhile, though, and I’m not sure if she’s still teaching.

If, with all that information, you still have questions about any Indian cooking terms (such as the English names of spices you see in Indian grocery stores), check out:
It’s an exhaustive list of just about everything you need to know.

Now, here are the recipes. Mix and match any of them, with a dish of basmati rice and some Indian pickle (available at any Indian grocery) and you’ll have a wonderful meal. You needn’t worry about serving in courses, as Indian dishes are served all at the same time. If you want an appetizer, however, the samosas can be served first, or by themselves with drinks. I often take them to potluck parties.

Samosas (Potato Stuffed Pastries)
I first had these in high school at an Indian friend’s 16th birthday party. It was several years later before I found a recipe and learned what those heavenly morsels were! The potato and pea filling is traditional, but you can use other vegetables if you have some to use up.
Recipe By Jack Santa Maria, Indian Vegetarian Cookery
Serves 8
Preparation Time: 1 hr 30 minutes

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour or whole wheat pastry flour, or a mix
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons canola oil
5 tablespoons water (or more as needed)
2 medium potatoes (russet)
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
1/2 inch piece ginger, grated
1 cup green peas, (or other vegetables finely chopped)
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon coriander powder
1/2 teaspoon paprika (or 1/4 tsp cayenne)
1 tablespoon cilantro, chopped
1/2 teaspoon garam masala
2 teaspoons lemon juice
canola oil for frying

Sieve the flour with 1/2 teaspoon of sea salt. Rub in the canola oil. Add enough water (beginning with 5 tablespoons) to make a smooth dough. Knead for 10 minutes, cover with a damp cloth and allow to stand.

Boil the potatoes, cool, peel (or not – your choice), and dice or mash. If using frozen green peas, put them in a colander and pour the potato water over them to thaw them.

Heat 2 tablespoons canola oil in a large frying pan. Fry the onion for a few minutes. Add the ginger, peas, salt, coriander powder, paprika or cayenne, and fry for two minutes. Add the cooked potatoes, cilantro, garam masala, and lemon juice. Fry for a few more minutes, then allow the filling to cool.

Pre-heat oil in a pan or deep fryer to 370 F.

Knead the dough again and divide into 20-24 small balls. Roll each one out quite thin, fold in half, then roll out again to make a semi-circle. Place about 1 tablespoon of filling on dough, and fold the dough over like a small turnover*. Press the edges well together and deep fry until crisp and golden (about 3 – 4 minutes). Drain well on paper towels.

Serve hot with a date-tamarind chutney (purchased or see recipe below) and/or cilantro chutney (best made fresh, and very easy).
*Notes: The traditional shape of samosas is something like a tricorn hat. Put the (roughly) triangular piece of dough in the flat of your less-dominant palm. Place the filling in the center, then pull the three points up to meet in the middle. Press the three seams together carefully. When you fry these, you’ll have to turn them over to get the tops nice and golden, but they look very festive and authentic.

Cilantro Chutney
Recipe by Hema Kundargi (www.massala.com )
Serves 8
Preparation Time: 10 minutes

4 cups cilantro leaves, washed and chopped, (approximately 2 bunches)
4 whole green chilies
2 tablespoons grated coconut (fresh or dried – unsweetened
2 tablespoons lime juice
2 teaspoons unbleached sugar
1 teaspoon sea salt (to taste)
1/2 cup warm water

In a blender, add all the ingredients to make a smooth paste. Add water slowly as needed to keep the blender running.

Date-Tamarind Chutney
Recipe by chef2chef.com
Makes 2 1/2 – 3 cups
Preparation Time: 30 minutes

1 cup tamarind pulp (packaged – seeds removed)
3/4 cup jaggery (Indian brown sugar) or Sucanat
1/2 cup pitted dates
1/4 cup unbleached sugar
2 cups water
1/2 teaspoon red chili powder (cayenne)
1/2 teaspoon crushed cumin seeds
1 tsp salt

Place the tamarind, jaggery, sugar, dates and water in a deep saucepan.
Soak for a few minutes. Set over medium flame and boil for about 7-8 minutes.
Cool to room temperature. Blend in a blender til smooth.
Strain and transfer to the pan again. Boil til thick enough to coat the back of a spoon lightly. Add the seasoning. Cool again. Store in clean airtight bottles and refrigerate.

Amti (Spiced Dal)
Recipe adapted from Jack Santa Maria, Indian Vegetarian Cookery
Serves 4
Preparation Time: 45 minutes

1 cup lentils
2 tablespoons canola oil
1/2 teaspoon brown mustard seeds
3 whole green chilies, chopped
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon paprika (or 1/4 tsp cayenne)
12 whole black peppercorns
1 cinnamon stick (1 inch, broken)
4 whole cloves, crushed
The seeds from 2 whole green cardamom pods, crushed
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon sea salt

Pick over and rinse the lentils carefully, removing any stones or dirt. Pour lentils into a medium saucepan and cover well with water. Add a dash of salt. Bring to a boil, cover, lower heat, and simmer for 30-40 minutes, or until lentils are soft.

Heat oil and fry the mustard seeds til they sputter. (You might want to have a lid handy to keep them from popping all over the stove.) Add green chillies and onion and fry until golden. Stir in the turmeric and paprika or cayenne (or both). Crush the peppercorns, cinnamon stick, cloves, and cardamom in a mortar or spice grinder and add to the pan. Fry for 2 minutes. Stir this mixture into the dal. Add lemon juice and salt, mix well, and simmer. Serve hot with rice and a curry or two.

Notes: This recipe was written originally for yellow split peas (channa dal). Substitute one cup of channa dal for the lentils. Soak them in water for 1 hour, then proceed as for lentils. I usually forget to plan dinner until too late to soak the channa dal, and the lentils are easier for me. They’re also delicious!

Bhindi Sabji (Okra Supreme)
Recipe by Yamuna Devi, The Best of Lord Krishna’s Cuisine
Serves 4
Preparation Time: 30 minutes

1 pound fresh okra
3 tablespoons canola oil or peanut oil
1 1/2 tablespoons ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon paprika (or dash cayenne)
1/2 teaspoon garam masala
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon sea salt

Wash the okra and dry thoroughly with paper towels. Trim off the tip and stem and slice into 1/3 inch rounds.

In a large, heavy frying pan (preferably non-stick), heat the oil over moderately high heat. When it is hot but not smoking, add the okra in a single layer and reduce the heat to moderate. Cook for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally to brown the okra evenly. Toward the end, add the ground spices, raise the heat to moderately high, and stirring steadily, fry until golden brown and fully cooked. Remove the pan from the heat, sprinkle with salt, toss to coat the okras evenly, and let it sit, covered for 1 minute before serving.
Notes: This dish is so simple, and SO delicious! Even okra “haters” will love it. The texture is absolutely not slimy in the least.

Phulgobi Ki Kari (Cauliflower Curry)
Recipe By: Jack Santa Maria, Indian Vegetarian Cookery
Serves 4
Preparation Time: 30 minutes

1 medium cauliflower (1 1/2 – 2 lbs)
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 inch piece of ginger
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon paprika (or 1/4 tsp cayenne)
1 teaspoon turmeric
juice of 1 lemon (2-3 tablespoons)
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 teaspoon garam masala

Wash the cauliflower and cut it into sprigs. Grind the garlic, ginger, sea salt, paprika, and turmeric, adding the lemon juice to make a paste. Heat the oil and fry the paste for a few minutes. Add the cauliflower, cover and cook over low heat. When cauliflower is barely tender, sprinkle the garam masala over the cauliflower and mix.

Serve hot or at room temperature.

If you have leftovers, taste before serving. If the flavor seems flat, add a bit of lemon juice to brighten it.

Aloo Saag (Potatoes and Greens)
Recipe By: Jack Santa Maria, Indian Vegetarian Cookery
Serves 4
Preparation Time: 30 minutes

2 tablespoons canola oil
1 onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 inch fresh ginger, grated
1 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon paprika (or 1/4 tsp cayenne)
1 teaspoon coriander
1 pound potatoes (russet preferred)
1 pound spinach or other greens, fresh or frozen
1 teaspoon garam masala

Heat oil and lightly fry the onion, garlic, and ginger. Add the salt and spices and fry for two minutes.

In the meantime, wash the potatoes and chop. Add to the spices and fry until about half cooked (about 10 minutes). If using fresh greens, wash them carefully and chop them. If using frozen, allow them to thaw, but don’t press the liquid out.

Stir the greens into the potatoes and continue frying until the potatoes are tender. Sprinkle with garam masala before serving.

Khir (Rice Pudding)
Most Indian desserts are full of dairy ingredients (Krishna loves milk), but khir made with soy milk is amazing – delicious and creamy.
Recipe by Lisa Bennett, adapted from Usha Modi
Serves 6
Preparation Time: 30 minutes

1 tablespoon vegan margarine
7 cups soy milk (VitaSoy or Soy Dream)
1/3 cup basmati rice, soaked for 2 hrs.
3/4 cup unbleached sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
2 tablespoons sliced almonds and/or chopped pistachios
1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 tablespoon yellow raisins
1/8 cup vermicelli (Indian, very thin – see note)

Heat oil or melt margarine in a large pot. Add soy milk and bring to a simmer/slow boil. Add rice and turn heat down to medium. Let simmer for 15 minutes.

Add sugar, cardamom, almonds and/or pistachios, nutmeg, and yellow raisins. Cook about 10 more minutes.

When almost done, add vermicelli (broken) and cook another 5 minutes.

Garnish with ground cardamom and a few nuts. Serve warm or chilled.
Notes: The vermicelli for this dish can be found in Indian grocery stores. It is much thinner than Italian or even Mexican vermicelli – it is like thread. It is optional. If you can’t find it, use an additional 2 tablespoons of rice at the beginning of the recipe.

You can use dark raisins if you prefer, or leave them out entirely.