Indian Vegetarian Cooking: Potent Spices and Veggies Fend Off Disease
by Bushra Bajwa
Vegetarians seeking flavorful variations can turn to 9,000 Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi grocery stores nationwide.
“We are now seeing 20 percent non-Indian customers in our store,” says Vipul Patel, owner of the Louisville, Kentucky, branch of Patel Brothers, the largest Indian U.S. grocery store chain. “Usually, new customers come in with an Indian recipe and we help them find the ingredients.”
Vegetarianism has been a way of life in India for millennia. Some Indian vegetables may already seem familiar; winter melon, or white pumpkin, for example, is a squash that cooks and tastes like its orange counterpart. Eggplants native to India are egg-shaped and smaller than the American variety; they cook in less time and have a less bitter taste.
Other popular Indian vegetables, such as okra seedpods (eaten as a curried entrée or side dish and also used to thicken stews and soups), fenugreek leaves and aromatic seeds from the pea family have become common American crops. Tindura, a gourd used in curry, and daikon, often eaten raw in salads or seasoned as stuffing in flatbread, are relatively new here.
“By eating a larger variety of vegetables, consumers benefit from an increased array of vital nutrients and specialized phytochemicals that have healing and medicinal qualities,” says Ronald Hubbs, a practitioner at NW Naturopathic Medicine, in Portland, Oregon. He advises against overcooking vegetables to maintain their nutritional qualities.2 Tbsp ground coriander 1 Tbsp ground cumin 1 Tbsp ground cardamom 1 Tbsp ground black pepper 1 Tbsp ground fennel seed 1 tsp ground mustard ½ tsp ground cloves ½ tsp ground cinnamon 1 tsp ground cayenne red pepper 2 Tbsp ground turmeric
Mix the spices in a small bowl, place in an airtight container and store in a cool, dry place.
Hubbs notes that bitter gourd is probably one of the most underappreciated Western foods, yet studies on mice sponsored by the Garvan Institute of Medical Research, in Sydney, Australia, and the Chinese government show that it contains four compounds that are effective in reducing blood glucose levels in diabetic patients.
Also consider pickled vegetables, known as achar. “Naturally fermenting vegetables can turn some of them into superfoods, with enhanced properties that are rich in healthy bacteria and support digestion and immunity,” says Hubbs, citing studies in the Journal of Nutrition andClinical Microbiology Reviews.
Daals, or lentils, including Indian diet staples peas and beans, provide a good source of protein that is also high in fiber, he says. Lentils—highly versatile and available with or without the skin, whole or split—can be eaten thick and creamy, soup-like or dry, cooked with other vegetables or simply enhanced with basic Indian spices. Popular legumes include black-eyed peas and garbanzo beans. Different regions in the Indian subcontinent have their preferred daal spices and cooking methods, but all citizens often serve them with boiled rice or Indian bread, called chapatti.
Although often considered “hot”, the blend of aromatic herbs and spices used in many Indian dishes, including those incorporating dairy, can be layered in for tantalizing flavors without necessitating frequent water breaks.
Many commonly used herbs and spices have proven medicinal properties, historically recognized for their healing properties in ayurvedic therapies and more recently, in Indian alternative medicine. According to University of Illinois research, fennel flower (black seed) and fenugreek improve lactation. University of Maryland Medical Center research shows that fennel seeds aid digestion. Further, the Journal of Phytopathology reports that carom seeds have antiseptic properties.
Recently, researchers at Penn State University found that antioxidant spices such as turmeric, oregano, cinnamon, cloves and paprika reduced triglycerides in the blood by 30 percent, helping to reduce the risk of chronic disease. “That’s because adding spices to a meal decreases the amount of fat in the bloodstream after eating,” explains study leader Ann Skulas-Ray, Ph.D. “There are clear benefits to adding spices to your meal, even if you’re only adding them occasionally.”
Sprinkling a little turmeric and ginger on legumes or other vegetables while boiling or sautéing them can create a palate-pleasing dish with health benefits. Numerous studies, including those from the University of Michigan and the University of Minnesota, show that these ingredients may help fight several kinds of cancer, reduce inflammation and relieve arthritis pain, among other benefits.
Americans can easily learn to bring out the best in their own Indian cuisine with the subcontinent’s alluring blends of herbs and spices delivering both unforgettable flavor and nutrient-rich fare.
Bushra Bajwa is a freelance writer in Issaquah, WA. Connect at [email protected].
Spicy Indian Family Recipes
3 Tbsp olive oil 2 finely chopped medium yellow onion 2 finely chopped vine tomatoes 18 oz okra (about 50 pieces), washed, dried, ends trimmed and then cut into ½-inch pieces Sea salt to taste Red chili powder to taste ½ tsp coriander powder ½ tsp turmeric powder Fresh cilantro for garnish
Heat oil in a 2-quart saucepan to lightly brown the onions.
Add salt, chili powder, coriander powder and turmeric. Mix.
Add tomatoes and cook on medium heat for 5 to 6 minutes, covered.
Add the okra, mix well and simmer for another 8 to 10 minutes.
Serve garnished with cilantro.
Organic Baby Potatoes and Chickpeas
1 Tbsp olive oil 2 cups chickpeas, cooked, drained and rinsed 3 baby potatoes, washed and diced 1 finely chopped tomato Sea salt to taste 1 tsp garam masala blend of ground spices 1 jalapeño finely chopped (optional) ¼ tsp baking soda 2 Tbsp purified water Fresh cilantro for garnish
Heat oil in saucepan before adding ingredients.
Add chickpeas, potatoes, tomatoes, salt and garam masala to saucepan and bring to a boil.
Add baking soda and water, and then simmer for 7 to 8 minutes or until potatoes are tender.
2 Tbsp olive oil 2 cups maash (urad) lentils 1 medium yellow onion, peeled and finely chopped 1 tsp ginger, peeled and finely chopped 1 clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped ½ tsp turmeric ½ tsp coriander powder 2 cups purified water Sea salt to taste Chili powder to taste 2 tomatoes, finely chopped Fresh cilantro and chilies for garnish
Wash lentils and soak in warm water for 1 hour.
Heat oil in saucepan to brown onions.
Add ginger and garlic, spices and tomatoes and stir for a few minutes to make a paste.
Add lentils and water, and then bring to boil.
Simmer on low to medium heat for 30 minutes.
2 Tbsp olive oil 5 bitter gourds 1 medium yellow onion, peeled and sliced finely 2 tomatoes, chopped finely 1 tsp turmeric Sea salt to taste
Wash and trim bitter gourd ends. Cut in half lengthwise and remove the seeds.
Slice the halves into ¼-inch pieces.
Rub salt into the pieces and set aside for 20 to 30 minutes (to remove the bitterness).
Rinse out the salt and dry the bitter gourd.
Heat oil in saucepan and then add bitter gourd, turmeric and salt.
Sauté on medium heat for 3 to 4 minutes. Add onions and sauté for another 5 minutes.
Add tomatoes, mix well and cook on medium heat for another 5 minutes.
Recipes courtesy of Bushra Bajwa.