Week One: Inspiration Week
This week is all about using different things as your inspiration for great food.
I don’t think I tried Indian food until college. Not that my parents were unadventurous eaters, but we didn’t splurge on meals out much during my childhood, and for the most part we were pretty unaware of Rhode Island’s Indian restaurants during that time. But during college in small-town Minnesota, of all places, I would occasionally splash out for dinner at Chapati, the local Indian joint. The flavors were new to me and utterly delightful; I quickly fell in love with paneer-based dishes in particular. (I was a vegetarian at that point. Isn’t paneer always the gateway ingredient?!) Sure, I wouldn’t have been able to point out any differences between North and South Indian dishes — much less regional or state-based variations — but I was game to try just about anything veg.
Since then, I’ve broadened my affinity for Indian food, and our trip to South India this summer deepened it further. What surprised me most about the dishes we enjoyed was how few of them included rice. Sure, the lunchtime thalis featured a big scoop of rice, and we had some delicious fluffy local rice during a traditional meal in Kerala, but for dinner? Not so much. Instead we’d order platters full of bread: pillowy garlic naan, flaky paratha, simple chapati. It would arrive, piping hot, alongside small tureens of rich gravies, three or four or five to share. We’d tear into the breads, using them to scoop up the gravies, everyone sharing everything. For a lighter dinner, I sometimes ordered a dosa, the crispy, thin crepe-like bread served either stuffed or plain, with chutney and sambar for dipping.
It was all very different from the typical Americanized Indian food experience, where you order a bowl of rice and a curry and eat it for yourself. So, after being back in the States for a few weeks, I wanted to recreate — on a small scale! — a more authentic Indian-inspired meal. I knew just where to turn: to my two favorite vegan Indian bloggers, Richa and Vaishali.
Dal is one of my all-time favorite dishes of any cuisine, so Richa’s dal fry recipe was a no-brainer. Yellow lentils are tempered to create a creamy, flavorful, rich dish that’s perfectly scoopable. I paired the dal with Richa’s okra and onion stir fry. I’ve been buying okra just about every week at the farmers market, and my go-to preparation is to halve it and roast it with olive oil, salt, and pepper. This time, I sautéed it with lots of onions, turmeric, and a little chili powder. Delicious! On the side? Kachumbar, a simple tomato, cucumber, and onion salad, also featuring veggies from the farmers market. Finally, I turned to Vaishali for the bread: Her flaky oil-based parotta came together easily (and quite tastily).
Although this meal was smaller in scale than some of the epic spreads we enjoyed in India, the experience — sitting at the table with Steven, using our hands to tear the bread and scoop up portions of dal — was just reminiscent enough of our trip to satisfy me. And the tastes? They were pretty close, too.
I’m calling this India-inspired dinner a win.