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When a friend asked last week if my husband and I would like to join her and some fellow foodies on a trip to Little India in Artesia, California, we jumped at the chance.
Exploring the sweets shops, the markets and restaurants from different regions of India, as well as the sari and furniture boutiques, always gives us the stimulating feeling of taking a mini-vacation in India.
I have long been fascinated by the incredible talent of cooks from India in preparing vegetables and legumes. Often the secret to tasty recipes lies in the sauce, regardless of the cuisine. This I discovered in Paris in the 1970s, during my years of studying French cooking. When dining out there, I almost always chose dishes by their sauce; I felt that the chef's artistry was best showcased by the sauce's combination of flavors.
In Indian cooking, the sauces magically transform foods, especially vegetables, into entrees that are so delightful that many people feel they don't miss the meat. Usually these dishes are described, even by people from India, as curries. Unfortunately, this term is widely misinterpreted. I heard people give "I don't like curry" as the reason they avoid Indian food; they are under the misconception that all Indian food is monotonously flavored with curry powder resembling the stale-smelling blend in the old jar pushed to the back of their pantry.
In fact, the opposite is true. By judicious use of a wide range of fresh flavorings and spices, Indian cooks achieve an amazing repertoire of sauce recipes. When preparing traditional dishes, they choose flavorings individually according to the particular recipe, rather than relying on a standard mixture of dry spices.
For example, one of the dishes we enjoyed in a south Indian vegetarian restaurant in Little India was described on the menu as onion fritters in curry sauce. The fritters, made with chickpea flour, reminded me slightly of mini-felafels and were served in a spicy, tangy yogurt sauce accented with diced tomatoes, fresh ginger, turmeric and hot peppers. Served with a mound of rice and a small flatbread, the dish made a delicious entree.
Over the years, I've had many vegetable curries. They might be "wet" or saucy, perfect for spooning over rice, or dry like a spicy saute or a puree, and easy to scoop up in pieces of flat bread, as we do with humous.
One of the most luxurious types of wet curries, vegetables korma, might be enriched with yogurt or cream, coconut milk, ground cashews or all three and flavored with a sauteed paste of onions, garlic and gingerroot, as well as cumin and coriander seeds, cinnamon, cardamom and hot peppers. I love fresh green beans, green peas, potatoes, carrots and cauliflower when they are cooked in this sauce, but even when I've tasted this curry made with plain frozen mixed vegetables, the flavor was superb.
Madhur Jaffrey, author of From Curries to Kebabs, notes that many Indian vegetable curries are simple to prepare. For South Indian mixed vegetable curry, for example, "you boil any diced vegetables you like... then cook them briefly in a coconut-cashew sauce" and serve it with rice or rice noodles.
Leafy vegetables like cabbage and spinach shine in dry curries. A typical way to prepare spinach, wrote Jaffrey, is to cook it with sauteed onions, cumin seeds, dried hot peppers and salt. Charmaine and Reuben Solomon, authors of The Curry Cookbook, have a more elaborate version of spinach curry, including sauteed onion, garlic, gingerroot, cumin, turmeric, tomato and lemon juice, and finished with cubes of Indian cheese.
If you like Yemenite food, you'll find Indian flavors familiar. I'll never forget the reaction of one of my husband's Yemenite cousins, the first time he sampled Indian cooking. With an amazed look on his face, he exclaimed, "It's like Yemenite food, only better!"
CARROT, CHICKPEA AND POTATO CURRY WITH SPINACH
You'll find all the ingredients for this recipe in the supermarket. The spices - cumin, coriander and poppy seeds - are toasted whole, then are blended to a paste with fresh hot peppers and garlic. When vegetables are cooked with sauteed onions and this spice paste, they acquire a wonderful flavor. You can substitute lightly cooked cauliflower or green beans for the potatoes.
Serve these vegetables with good quality flatbread, such as Iraqi or Yemenite pita, or with Basmati rice.
If you'd like the hot peppers to be milder, discard their seeds and membranes. If you have fresh ginger, add two teaspoons chopped fresh ginger to the garlic paste. For South Indian flavor, you can also add two to three tablespoons grated coconut or 1/3 cup coconut milk; or, to approximate an Indian curry with cheese, you can stir in cubes of mild feta at the last moment.
225 gr. carrots, sliced 6 mm. thick
1â„2 teaspoon turmeric
salt to taste
450 grams spinach, leaves and small
stems only, rinsed, cut or torn in
bite-size pieces, or 300 to 350 gr.
frozen chopped spinach, thawed
1 tsp. whole cumin seeds
1 tsp. whole coriander seeds
1â„2 tsp. poppy seeds (optional)
2 fresh green or red hot peppers (see
Note 1 below)
1 or 2 large garlic cloves, peeled
1 to 2 Tbsp. vegetable oil or olive oil
1 onion, halved, sliced
a 400-gr. can chickpeas, drained
225 gr. potatoes, cooked, peeled and
1â„2 cup coarsely chopped cilantro
Combine carrots with one cup water, turmeric and pinch of salt in a saucepan. Bring to a boil. Cover and cook over low heat for seven minutes. Add spinach in three batches, covering briefly after each addition so spinach wilts. After adding all of spinach, simmer uncovered for three minutes or until tender.
In a small skillet toast cumin, coriander, and poppy seeds over medium heat, shaking skillet constantly, for two minutes or until fragrant. Transfer to a shallow bowl and cool. Grind in a spice grinder or mortar to a fine powder. (See Note 2 below if you don't have a spice grinder.) Transfer ground spices to a mini food processor or blender. Add hot peppers and garlic and grind to a paste; add a little water if necessary to get the blender started.
Heat oil in a deep skillet, add onion and saute over medium heat for seven minutes. Add spice paste and stir over low heat for three minutes. With slotted spoon, add carrot-spinach mixture, then pour in half a cup of their cooking liquid. Add diced potatoes and chickpeas and bring to a boil. If desired, simmer uncovered for two to three minutes to thicken slightly.
Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve sprinkled generously with cilantro leaves.
Makes about 4 main-course servings, with rice
Note 1: Wear gloves when handling chilies if you are sensitive to them.
Note 2: If you don't have a spice grinder, saute only the cumin seeds and leave them whole. Substitute ground coriander for the whole seeds and add it, along with the cumin seeds, to the hot peppers and garlic in the blender.
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast.