I was taught to cook Indian vegetarian curry by a religious cult back in the 1970s. Except it wasn’t really a religious cult, but that’s another story. I was young: maybe 23 and ‘housefather at an ashram in North Acton. We assumed we were going to India where the ‘cult’ was based, but it turned out to be Pakistan.
Six of us flew to Lahore and then were transported in the back of a truck to a compound on the outskirts of the city. Living conditions were basic: six mattresses in a windowless room. The shower was little more than a pipe dripping warm rainwater from an open tank on the roof.
We spent all day, every day, for more than a week in a hot, sweaty kitchen, going over every aspect of basic vegetarian cookery until we knew it backwards. Our teacher was an elderly man with a swishing lathi called Mr Murza. When we arrived, he presented each of us with a small kitchen knife, some wooden utensils, a chopping block, two aluminium pans and a gas-ring powered from a big red bottle.
Perfect rice: the basis of perfect Indian vegetarian curry
First of all, he taught us to cook perfect rice (more here). Then we moved on to basic ingredient and spice combinations. What goes with what and what doesn’t. The sort of thing Indian mothers have been teaching their daughters for centuries. Although I didn’t realise it then, we were being taught the principles of Ayurvedic cooking.
Ayurveda is a traditional Indian system of medicine and well-being, cooked up a thousand years before Jesus first donned sandals. It remains India’s most relied-on health system. I’ve found that enlightened medical doctors from the subcontinent also practice Ayurveda. I was lucky to stumble on one such in Catford (South London) of all places.
Good health is at the root of the Ayurvedic system. At its most basic, that involves making sure food is easily-digestible. Most of the ‘rules’ of Ayurvedic cookery are to do with only using suitable ingredients and ensuring good digestion. An example I always use is lentils, which are high in protein and hard to digest. You need to add specific spices that will help the body cope: usually asafoetida (hing) and/or cumin (jeera).
I don’t follow every one of the Ayurvedic ‘rules’. As its roots are partly religious and include things like ‘don’t taste the food’ and ‘you have to dedicate the finished dish to the gods before serving’. I treat the food with care and reverence but I also taste as I’m going along.
I’ve included recipes (below) for the simple Indian vegetarian curry dishes I cook and enjoy most often. They were written for a specific person and so it would help to know that the ‘dahl whole spices mixture’ is cumin seeds, mustard seeds, and fennel seeds combined in roughly equal quantities. It mentions Knorr vegetable stockpots, which I use and find useful. Any decent vegetarian stock powder or cube (or even freshly-made stock) will replace them.
Easy one-dish Ayurvedic Khichdi
Khichdi (also known as khichuri) is a hugely popular comfort food throughout the Indian subcontinent. It was the inspiration of the Anglo-Indian kedgeree and a lightly-spiced version is traditionally the first solid food for babies in large swathes of India.
Khichdi is really tasty (and I do mean really tasty) and a doddle to make. This simple Ayurvedic recipe has the added bonus of being a great way to cleanse the body of impurities. I advise you not to try it if you don’t have easy access to a toilet for 12-24 hours.
You can make khichdi with or without chopped vegetables. I prefer it with. It’s up to you what combinations you want to try but I like potatoes and peas; cauliflower, peas and mushroom, cauliflower and carrot; cauliflower and peas; potato and courgette — or any mix you like. Just make sure you chop the vegetables finely enough (especially potato and carrot) to let them cook properly without turning to mush. Getting it right will probably be a matter of trial and error. Provided you don’t burn the bottom, this is a very hard recipe to ruin.
- Heat a thick-based pan (that has a lid) and add 1 teaspoon of the “dahl whole spices” mixture (mustard seeds, fennel seeds, whole cumin seeds) and methi (fenugreek) seeds (optional), with 2 bay leaves, 4 cloves, and 2 green cardamom pods (also optional), and fry over a medium heat until the mustard seeds pop.
- Stir and add a finely chopped onion, 1-2 chopped green chillies, and around an inch of root ginger, finely chopped or grated. (If you don’t have ginger, it’s a shame but not the end of the world.) Fry over a low heat until the onion turns transparent, then add 1-2 sliced or chopped garlic cloves.
- When the garlic is soft, add as much basmati rice as you think you’ll need for the number of people you’re cooking for, and slightly over half of the same volume of red lentils. Stir well and add water that’s two-and-a-half times the amount of rice you added.
- Add half a vegetable stockpot, a little salt, a twist of black pepper, half a teaspoon of turmeric and (if you like it fairly spicy) a half-to-a-whole teaspoon of Kashmiri chilli powder (depending on your heat requirements) — or a quarter a teaspoon of regular hot chilli powder. The extra chilli is optional. Stir the mixture gently and allow it to come to a boil. Cook for five minutes over a medium heat.
- If you’re adding vegetables, put them in now, stir again, and bring back to the boil. Allow to cook over a medium heat for another 3-4 minutes. Check there’s enough water. It should still be fairly moist (though not swimming in water) at this stage. If not, add more from the kettle, bring it back to the boil and stir.
- Cover the pan with a tightly-fitting lid and allow to cook over the lowest possible heat for a further 8-10 minutes. Don’t let the bottom burn (the lentils have a tendency to stick). If need be, open up, add more boiling water from the kettle, stir and bring back to the boil before covering again.
- When time’s up, check it’s cooked, adjust the seasoning if necessary, and stir in a scant half a teaspoon of garam masala (optional). Cover and let it rest.
- Letting the khichdi rest for 10-30 minutes after cooking improves both the flavours and the texture. I like to eat it with the saag bhaji (recipe below).
Simple Restorative Dahl
This easy lentil dish replaces onion, garlic and ginger with asafoetida (hing), which you can buy at any Indian supermarket or online. If you don’t want to use it, simply start by frying a small onion in little oil until soft, then adding a chopped garlic clove and about an inch of chopped ginger root. When it’s all cooked and soft add the lentils and fry for a minute or two before adding the water, stock and tomatoes.
- Put a handful of red lentils into a fairly large saucepan pan with 2-3 times as much water, half a vegetable stock pot and 1-2 chopped (or tinned) tomatoes. Bring to the boil and add a little less than a teaspoon of turmeric (haldi) powder. Simmer for 20-30 minutes (adding more water, if required) until the lentils are soft and mushy.
- Heat a separate pan containing a drizzle of oil. When it gets hot add a sprinkling of Fenugreek seeds. As they start to turn red (after a few seconds) add a teaspoon from the “dahl whole spices” mixture, which contains mustard seeds, fennel seeds and whole cumin seeds. When you hear the mustard seeds pop, remove them from the heat and add a chopped green chilli. Fry this over a low heat for a couple of minutes until it starts to go soft.
- Combine the dahl with the spices and mix together. Cook over a low heat for 5-10 minutes. Taste and season as necessary. Add more water if you want softer dahl.
Saag (Spinach) Bhaji
- Heat some oil in a large saucepan. Add one chopped garlic (or 1x teaspoon garlic puree) and fry gently, taking care not to burn. When the garlic starts to go ever-so-slightly golden at the edges, take off the heat and add half a teaspoon of turmeric and the same of chilli powder. Cook gently for a minute or two to release the flavours.
- Add a covering of water and half a vegetable stock pot. Stir and cook until the water reduces to a paste. Add a little more water and stir in half a bag of washed spinach.
- Cook gently until the spinach forms a thin puree. Add more water, if required. Taste, season (if required) and serve.