Lamb curry, spicy beef kebabs, tandoori chicken — such meat-based dishes, surrounded by a medley of condiments, are fundamental fare in most Indian restaurants in the West. Yet hundreds of millions of Indians shun meat; they have developed sophisticated and endlessly varied ways of presenting grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables with the help of complex blends of herbs and spices.
Herbs and spices play multiple roles in Indian cuisine. They add to or enhance flavor in ways that are often surprising to Western palates: bitterness (as in fenugreek seed) and sourness (as in powdered green mango and Tamarind paste) are prized, and spices we might consider sweet, such as cinnamon and mace, are often used in savory dishes. Certain ingredients are used as much for color as for flavor; saffron is a notable example for the rich golden color it imparts to rice or milk dishes. Others have cultural origins: onions and garlic are forbidden among some Indian vegetarians for their traditional associations with meat; asafetida (a foul substance when in powdered form) resembles these alliums in aroma and flavor when fried and is used accordingly.
Indian culinary herbs and spices also have long-standing medicinal traditions and are incorporated into the cuisine for reasons of health as well as flavor. Herbs are often paired with specific foods to alleviate digestive problems the foods might cause on their own; spices are thought of as “warm” or “cool”, and consequently have seasonal or regional use to modulate body temperature.
The pleasures and complexities of Indian vegetarian cooking have become much more accessible in recent years through the writings of Yamuna Devi, Madhur Jaffrey, and other Indian-American food writers. We have used recipes from Jaffrey’s World-of-the-East Vegetarian Cooking (Alfred A. Knopf, 1981) to create an eclectic menu for six whose ingredients are readily available in most Western supermarkets. Most of the dishes can be prepared ahead, making them ideal for entertaining.
Traditional Indian meals are served as a single course in many small dishes presented on a large, round platter (thali). Bread, held in the right hand only (one never eats with the left hand, which is considered unclean), is used in lieu of other utensils. Sweets are generally eaten as snacks rather than at the end of the meal, but we’ve presented a cake in deference to Western preferences. At the conclusion of the meal, betel nuts or spices wrapped in a betel leaf are chewed to freshen the breath or aid digestion. We suggest, instead, a mixture of fennel and cardamom seeds with clove buds (the berrylike tops of whole cloves) and perhaps a few festive silver dragées, as is offered in many Indian restaurants in the West.
— Madhur Jaffrey, originator of these recipes, was born in Delhi, India. At age 20, after graduating from Delhi University, she went to England to study drama. There, homesick for India and disappointed in the school’s bleak fare, she finally began learning Indian cooking from recipes that her mother sent from India. Since she arrived in New York in the early 1960s, she has been enlightening Americans on Indian cooking and culture through lectures, a television series, and several books.
Recipes copyright 1981 by Madhur Jaffrey. Reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.