Kala Chana Quinoa Sundal | VeganMoFo 2018 Day Six

Week One: Inspiration Week
This week is all about using different things as your inspiration for great food.

I didn’t actually intend to make nearly the entirety of this week’s MoFo posts India-themed. In fact, I have a post inspired by a wholly different country ready to go, but I keep pushing it back because I can’t stop making Indian food!

Thus, tonight’s dinner: sundal. Sundal is a South Indian recipe, though not one we tried during our visit. But Vaishali’s spin on the dish adds North Indian kala chana, or black chickpeas, and a bit of a fusion twist by mixing the kala chana with quinoa. (I recommend reading Vaishali’s blog post about the recipe for a really interesting deep-dive into the dish and the holiday where you’re likely to find it!) I don’t quite remember how I stumbled on the recipe, but it looked like just the thing for an early September dinner. I love big-batch recipes you can then use as leftovers for lunch!

I originally thought I’d use plain old chickpeas rather than the kala chana, but since I needed some other ingredients from the shop, I asked Steven to pick up dried kala chana at Global Foods, our local world cuisine market. Alas, I should’ve also asked him to find fresh curry leaves, but I totally forgot, so this dish is admittedly even less authentic than it should be! I omitted the zucchini and subbed carrots instead, and augmented the green peppers with some purple peppers from the farmers market. I used frozen grated coconut (which is a total beast to handle, let me tell you) and some rogue mint that sprouted in the herb garden. It was filling and quite healthful, but I think I need to make it with the curry leaves; most of the seasonings got lost and all I could really taste were the black chickpeas. Next time!

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Vegan Semiya Payasam, or Vermicelli Pudding | VeganMoFo 2018 Day Five

Week One: Inspiration Week
This week is all about using different things as your inspiration for great food.

It was the penultimate night of our trip to India, and we were dining in the sky. Our group was in Munnar, a cool, rainy, cloudy town-on-a-hill surrounded by tea plantations. The drive up to Munnar in our 17-person van had been intense, with hairpin turns, sheer drops off cliffs, and rubble-strewn, broken roads that seemed impassable* to me, yet were somehow navigable thanks to our stalwart driver. We’d barely found our hotel — the Parakkat Nature Hotel — in the dark, but find it we did. By 8:00 we were gathered in the restaurant, the open plate-glass windows revealing nothing but inky black and admitting the chill night air. In the morning we’d gather there gain for breakfast, this time surrounded by fog and clouds, marveling at the sudden breaks that let through bright sunlight and painted the surrounding tea plantations a dappled gold.

Munnar by day.

Now it was dinnertime, though, and we’d stuffed our faces on chapati and parathas and gravies and noodles and a tandoori cauliflower dish that was perfection on a plate. Over at the other end of the table, I saw our dear, thoughtful hostess Jamuna conversing with a waiter. Then she turned to us.

“The chef can make payasam with coconut milk!” she announced. “The restaurant is closing soon but they can deliver it to your rooms. Who wants some?”

I was full, but Steven ordered a bowl, as did a few others. Pragathi explained that payasam was a milky pudding, often made with vermicelli noodles. This version, however, would be made with rice. A rice pudding was easy enough for me to visualize, but a noodle-based pudding? Not so much. I filed it away in my head as something to try later.

And so, back in the States, I turned to Vaishali and Richa for inspiration, using a mix of their two vegan semiya payasam recipes to try it for myself.  I used rice vermicelli noodles since I had them in the pantry and forewent the golden raisins (Because, ugh. Sorry, authenticity.). Flavored with cardamom, cloves, and vanilla and lightly sweetened, the payasam was a pleasant surprise.  Richa has you toast cashews in a little vegan butter first, reserving some of them for a yummy, rich topping. The noodles were a bit slippery and difficult to grasp with a spoon, but we didn’t mind. Steven ate his warm, but I chilled mine a bit first. Both options served us just fine.  This simple recipe is going on my dessert rotation for sure. My only modification? Adding a little cornstarch dissolved in cold water so that the pudding would thicken up a little more.

*A few weeks after we left, Munnar was absolutely ravaged by the horrific flooding in Kerala, with hundreds of people requiring rescue from the mountain after the roads became truly unsafe and literally impassable. Scary stuff.

Two Weeks in South India: Vegan Food Galore, Street Animals, and my Plastic Penance

As an opportunistic traveler, I’ve always got my ear to the ground for chances to travel. Friend is spending the last year of her art history master’s program in Florence? Book a flight to Italy. Other friend accepted a temporary position in Auckland? Time to fulfill my dream of visiting New Zealand. So when my brother Ian announced that he and his then-girlfriend P. were getting married, and that they would be celebrating not just in the U.S. but in India, I was thrilled. Hello trip to India! (And, y’know, yay for them getting married and stuff.)

Rear-view mirror in our van

That was a couple years ago. Since then, Ian and P. got married in a small civil ceremony in Seattle (where they live) and celebrated with their west coast friends. My parents began thinking of an east coast reception. In the meantime, P.’s parents — who are from India but currently live in Thailand — began planning the Indian wedding. We were invited, of course, but not just for the wedding: They wanted to take us on a tour of South India. They wanted to plan everything for us, from organizing a big van with a driver to booking our hotels to engaging tour guides for the temples we’d visit. A little stunned by all this work they were doing on our behalves — on top of planning the wedding itself! — we said, “…okay!”

Last month, all their planning came to fruition. Steven, my parents, my cousin, my sister, my sister’s boyfriend, and I (and Ian and P., of course) all trekked to South India for a two-week wedding and road trip extravaganza. Truthfully, I wondered whether all the planning would diminish my enjoyment. I’m not typically a group traveler, preferring to plan things myself and strike off on my own or with another travel companion. So how would a weeklong road trip with 11 other people, where our itinerary was scheduled in a massive Excel spreadsheet, work out?

Well. It worked out juuust fine. As soon as I realized I’d have to give up any control over our destinations and day-to-day plans, I did just that. I readjusted my expectations and decided this was an opportunity to sit back and enjoy myself, stress-free. No planning needed. No worry about scheduling intra-India flights or booking a tour guide or deciding where to visit. P.’s parents took care of everything, from providing bag upon bag of homemade vegan road trip snacks to booking hotel rooms in some seriously beautiful locations. I can’t imagine how different this kind of trip would’ve been if I’d been left to my own devices, and I’m actually glad they took the reins. India can be kind of a tough country to travel through, and I appreciated all the insider guidance. We packed a lot into our two weeks, with stops in Kochi, Coimbatore (for the wedding!), Chennai, Mahabalipuram, Pondicherry, Chidambaram, Swamimalai, Darasuram, Thanjavur, Srirangam, Madurai, and Munnar… whew! During the week-long tour portion, we stayed in a different city location every night, packing our days full of sightseeing. The majority of sites we visited were temples, with a few museums and local attractions (including a tea plantation!) thrown in to spice things up.

Of course, we had to fuel those long temple tours under the blazing Indian sun… and we did so with gusto. And since we’ve been back, curious friends have asked a common question. They’ve seemed less interested in the sites and more interested in the food! Ha. We’ve been barraged with questions along the lines of, “How was the food?!” And, “Was it difficult finding vegan food in South India?”

The food was, in a word, plentiful. It was also delicious. And rich. Very, very rich. Fully half our group was vegan (!), and we also had one vegetarian with nut allergies, so we were quite a mixed bunch with very specific needs. We were able to get vegan food with relatively little fuss, though the nut-free requirement for my sister was a little more challenging.

IMG_4831

Ian and P. (the happy couple!) are both vegan, so their wedding meals (yes, meals plural) were vegetarian, with ample vegan options. Those fancy catered meals went on and on — we sat down to a big banana leaf “plate,” which had a little pile of salt and a scoop of my new favorite food: pickle. (This kind of pickle, not pickled cucumbers.) And then the food started coming. Big scoops of fluffy rice. Steaming hot chapati or naan or parotta. Three or four types of gravy, what many of us in the U.S. call curries. Another gravy. A small dish of raw veggies in coconut milk. Another gravy. A bowl of vegan carrot halwa for dessert. Waiters coming by every few minutes, pressing us to take another scoop of this, a little more of that. Me, stomach bursting, having to say no, I can’t, I really can’t, I’m going to explode if I eat more food!

…and then doing it again a few hours later for another meal.

South Indian thali for lunchReader, I am not exaggerating. Those catered meals were epic. But even our everyday meals — whether at the hotels we stayed at or at the little roadside restaurants where we stopped for lunch mid-drive — were also incredible. We’d roll in to a restaurant, all 12 of us, and P.’s mom would start her schpiel with the head waiter: “No ghee or butter in the gravies for these six. Please cook the naan in oil. No cashew paste in the gravies for this one. No ground nuts for her either, she has an allergy!” Then, ten minutes later, out would come a stack of metal platters for a thali. Or, more frequently, a vast assortment of breads and gravies, and maybe some rice (but not usually), and we’d begin stuffing our faces again. Protestations of “But I’m not hungry; I rarely eat this much at home; really I can’t eat now!” were met with alarm and were typically ignored.

If my stomach was protesting another heavy, rich meal, I’d opt for a ubiquitous offering on nearly every menu: Chinese noodles. This Indo-Chinese fusion dish was deceptively simple and could be ordered with lots of veggies; my favorite iteration was a peppery garlic dish I would love to recreate. Another favorite for a lighter meal? A crisp, thin masala dosa, served with coconut chutney and assorted other gravies, maybe stuffed with potatoes. So good.

IMG_4928One thing I didn’t indulge in very often? Dessert! Nearly all South Indian sweets are made with milk, so ordering off the menu could be difficult. That said, P.’s lovely mom had a friend specially make some vegan coconut burfi for us, which we gobbled down during our road trip (along with assorted other homemade Indian snacks). One hotel was able to specially make payasam with coconut milk, and another hotel gamely attempted a vegan chocolate cake for P.’s dad’s 60th birthday (an especially important birthday, which we were happy to celebrate together). And the halwa we had during the wedding was superb. We did also indulge in some uber-rich vegan chocolate gelato at Auroville, a sort of utopian settlement with an earth-friendly vibe. It was more than welcome in the heat.

IMG_4787In that gelato photo, you can see the mehendi on my hands. Since my sister, mom, cousin and I were all part of the wedding ceremonies, we were encouraged to get some mehendi done. Of course, our designs were tame compared to the beautiful — and expansive! — bridal designs that covered P.’s entire lower arms, hands, and feet. P.’s mom also provided saris for us to wear during the wedding, taking our measurements for custom-made blouses and specially ordering jute (rather than silk) saris for my mom and me, which I so appreciated. I felt a little hesitant about wearing a sari at first, not wanting to engage in cultural appropriation. But since we were part of the wedding and were being encouraged to wear them, I obliged (and loved it!). Two women came in to wrap us, then they pinned fragrant jasmine blooms in our hair and encouraged us to put on bindis and our matching jewelry. P.’s mom also bought tunics and pants for us to wear during the tour portion of our trip, which was so gracious. I just surrendered to the experience. :)

Street dog in KochiAnother new experience for me? Seeing street dogs. I’ve traveled pretty extensively in Europe, but never anywhere with a large population of street animals. I won’t lie; it was difficult. I felt like I had to turn off the part of me that sees an animal and automatically wants to pet/love/save her. Actually, though, the dogs we saw didn’t seem to be too badly off. Most looked relatively healthy, not emaciated or otherwise ill, and a few even had collars. We only saw one really unhealthy-looking dog, and that was admittedly pretty difficult. But watching a mama dog curl up by the side of a random woman one night while we sat listening to some traditional music at a temple? Beautiful. The woman was a little unsure at first, only petting the dog hesitantly, but soon they warmed up to one another and it was so sweet to see.

Street cow in Mahabalipuram

We also saw plenty of cows and goats (obviously owned), and they all seemed pretty happy, scrounging for fruit and veg on the side of the road. It was a little hard to watch when they were nosing among piles of trash, though. We couldn’t help wondering how much plastic waste they accidentally ingest. Which leads me to the biggest thorn in my side during this trip: my usage of plastic.

Before this trip, I couldn’t have told you the last time I drank out of a disposable plastic water bottle. Truly. I have my own metal bottle, and I just abstain if I’m without it. Steven and I try to cut down on our single-use plastics, but on this trip? We went through so. many. plastic. water. bottles. It hurt my heart.

To ensure that our drinking water was safe and wouldn’t make us ill, our hosts bought water bottles in bulk. I drank from them; sometimes there wasn’t an alternative, and I was glad our hosts had provided them. Becoming dehydrated during our tours was not exactly a viable alternative! That said, I did have my reusable bottle with me, so whenever we saw potable water available, I filled up. But that happened only rarely; there were filling stations at the Coimbatore airport when we were flying to Chennai, and the aforementioned Auroville also had them. I also drank from the pitchers at restaurants whenever possible, but still: I used a lot of plastic. And I feel terrible about it.

So now that I’m back in the States, I’ve imposed a kind of plastic penance on myself. I’m being extra conscious about my plastic usage; a new grocery store with an expansive bulk section just opened nearby, so I want to increase the amount of staples I buy in bulk. Shopping at the farmers market and gardening helps, too. Plus, our local Trader Joe’s is moving to a much less convenient location; while I’m gutted that I won’t be able to drive five minutes during the workday to pick up ingredients for dinner, I’m also kind of glad not to have the temptation to pick up whatever vegan convenience product catches my eye! I’m definitely guilty of making impulse Trader Joe’s purchases, and they’re rarely packaged sustainably. A lot of their produce also comes pre-packaged in plastic; I try to avoid that stuff, but sometimes I cave. No more.

That’s a bit of a diversion from my ramblings about India, but it’s all related. My actions here in Maryland have a greater, wider effect, and I try to be conscious of that fact. The movement to cut down on single-use plastics is worldwide; while reading Indian newspapers, I saw plenty of articles about plastic bag and plastic straw bans, and the one time I bought something (tea and spices, ha), the shop put my purchases in a reusable bag that’s become my lunch bag. (That said, the spices were packaged in plastic. I buy bulk spices here, but I couldn’t pass up the super-cheap pack of bay leaves, fennel seeds, coriander seeds, dried ginger, star anise, nutmeg, and peppercorns.) But again, I digress. :)

…so, India? Yeah, it was a pretty good trip. And I can’t wait to go back.

Cookbook Review: Made in India has plenty to offer vegans

One of my favorite library-related pastimes is browsing the cookbook section. In the past, I limited myself to checking out vegan cookbooks only —- but then I realized that I was doing myself a disservice. Now I’m happy to grab any cookbook that appeals to me, and Meera Sodha’s Made in India: Recipes from an Indian Family Kitchen appeals on many levels.

First, it’s beautiful. The cloth-covered hard-bound cover bursts with color, including a sweet elephant illustration. Inside the book, the photos themselves are lovely and generous. Second, it was the runner-up in this year’s Food52 Piglet cookbook tournament, a wholly enjoyable competition wherein food writers, cookbook authors, and others review two cookbooks and select a winner, with that book advancing to the next round. Given how highly Made in India placed (and the words of enthusiasm bestowed upon it by its reviewers), I knew it merited at least a check-out from the library.

made in india -- cookbook review

Made in India stands out in my stack of library books.

What I found when I cracked open this book is an homage to home cooking, Indian-style. Sodha manages to make dishes you might’ve only ever eaten in restaurants seem utterly doable at home. I’ve renewed this book three times (the limit, alas), and I don’t want to give it back. It’s going on my Christmas list for sure.

Yes, there are recipes for meat in here. But there are also veg-friendly recipes a-plenty, and the techniques Sodha shares can easily be applied to meat-free cooking. I do have a few vegan Indian food cookbooks already, but I think this one outshines them. I loved everything I made from this book.

What I cooked

  • Badshah kitchari (p. 159). If you’re looking for a way to dress up your rice, this might just be the answer. Tender basmati and a few tablespoons of whatever dried lentils you have on hand meet cinnamon, garlic, onion, and a handful of other spices, and the result is a nuanced rice dish that just about stands on its own as a main.
  • Bateta nu shaak (p.63). A testament to the transformative power of spices on relatively humble ingredients, this Gujarati potato and tomato curry is dead simple and tastes like much more than the sum of its parts.
  • Chana dal with golden garlic tarka (p. 162). “I think I could eat dal for every meal,” said Steven, as we sat down to a bowl of this gorgeously golden dal for a late Sunday lunch. As if this dal isn’t luscious enough on its own, Sodha’s garlic tarka adds another dimension of flavor to bring this seemingly simple dish over the top. (Check out the photo below.)
  • Green beans with mustard seeds and ginger (p. 181). I didn’t think this recipe would work. But when Sodha asks you to mix tomato paste into your green beans, just do it. Yes, it will look a little strange and you won’t be sure if it’s supposed to clump up like that. But the end result is a super-tasty spin on green beans and a great way to make them a much more filling side dish.
  • Hot flaky paratha (p. 198). Truth be told, I’ve always been a little intimidated by Indian breads. But I decided to try making parathas because there’s no rise time and they seemed pretty straightforward. A soft dough is rolled out, dotted with canola oil and flour, folded, sprinkled with more oil and flour, folded again, then finally rolled into a long, irregular triangle before being cooked briefly on a hot skillet. The result is a rich, flaky bread you’ll want to use to scoop up all your curries. It took me a few tries to get the skillet heat and cooking time right, but once I did, these came together beautifully.
  • Jyoti’s peanut soup (p. 169). If you’re thinking, “Hmm, isn’t peanut soup typically an African recipe?” then you’re right on the money. This recipe comes from a woman who was raised in Uganda, before Idi Amin banished that country’s Asians. Instead of using pre-made peanut butter, you’ll need to roughly grind roasted peanuts yourself, resulting in a thick, creamy, yet textured soup.

What I loved, beyond the food itself

  • Sodha’s voice. It’s friendly and welcoming, yet confident; it’s personal, yet not self-centered. She’s sharing her family recipes from a place of love and respect without straying into sappy sentiment, and it works so well.
  • Her method for perfect basmati rice. Although I’ve never been one to bemoan rice cookery, my technique was not exactly failproof. Sodha introduced me to a no-fail method for basmati rice that I’ll use for years to come.
  • The design. I already mentioned the beautiful cover, but the rest of the book is also infused with this colorful, charming aesthetic. From the bold illustrations that introduce each chapter to the just-styled-enough photos, this book pleases the eye in every way.

What I didn’t quite love

  • The index. It’s not comprehensive. Sodha includes multiple recipes for eggplant, but check E in the index and “eggplant” isn’t even listed. Personally, I like to use an index to find inspiration when I have a particular ingredient on hand, but that’s not possible with this book.
    Ed. note: The indexer of this book reached out to me, and it sounds like there was something ‘lost in translation,’ as it were. The index published in the U.S. version of the book is the same version originally published in the U.K. version—meaning I should have looked for “aubergine” instead of “eggplant.” Typically books are re-indexed for a new country of publication, but it sounds like it didn’t happen in this case. So if you’re in the U.S., be sure to search using U.K.-friendly terms!
  • The directions, on occasion. Some recipes could’ve used a little clarification. For example, I’d never made parathas before I attempted Sodha’s recipe and technique. And while I found it mostly easy to follow with solid results, the last paragraph included this line: “Check for any uncooked [dark] spots of dough, then take off the heat…” Okay, but what do I do if I find those dark spots? Cook the whole thing for longer, or maybe press down on the dark spot so it gets more targeted heat? Some expert advice would’ve been much appreciated. I had a similar issue with the green beans — I wasn’t sure what to do when I added the tomato paste; it didn’t blend into the beans easily and seemed a little out of place (though, as previously mentioned, it tasted great). More direct instruction would not have gone amiss.

To sum up, I loved this book. It’s a joy to read through slowly and a joy to cook from, a perfect marriage for a cookbook. Made in India is a book that I would happily find space for in my home.

If you’ve used this book, let me know what you think!

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