Many Americans who see veganism as downright unappetizing may be in for a surprise to learn of the richly flavorful Indian vegan dishes.
Exotic aromas and finger-licking flavor may not be the first associations that come to mind when most people think of vegan food. But forays into Indian cuisine, especially through a cookbook like Anupy Singla’s Vegan Indian Cooking, will have many actually hankering for this healthy diet option.
The momentum towards healthy eating is undeniable and rising. Veganism, where the primary source of food includes fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, beans, and soy products, but no dairy, is on the cutting edge of this momentum. The benefits of such a diet—lower LDL cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, and lower rates of hypertension and type 2 diabetes—are no longer debatable. Vegans also tend to have a lower body mass index, lower cancer rates, and fewer deaths from ischemic heart disease.
But with an increasing shift towards vegetarianism and veganism, people are also searching for creative options that don’t sacrifice taste. That’s where the spice of Indian cuisine saves the day. Not only does it add oomph to the natural foods, but it also furthers the emphasis on health that is so much a part of veganism. The health benefits of the spices found in South Asian cuisine combine well with the health benefits of vegan foods. Considerable research has been done on the health aspects of turmeric, cumin, and coriander. They act as natural supplements that help with digestion, and prevent swelling, high cholesterol, and cancer.
Author and cooking instructor Singla, whose previous bestseller, The Indian Slow Cooker, was named a Top 10 Cookbook of 2011 by the Atlantic, makes a strong case of eating “real food” in her latest book. She believes that as Indians we need to go back to our roots and show appreciation for our old ways. A fast-paced modern lifestyle has led families to eat fast food and prepackaged products. Even households that cook Indian at home may opt for pre-assembled masala packets that have high salt content and frozen naan made with white flour and preservatives.
Singla’s book has 100 recipes for vegetables, lentils, and breads using alternatives to processed foods and dairy. For example, Singla recommends using grapeseed oil for cooking instead of the usual vegetable oil or ghee we are so familiar with. Grapeseed oil has a high smoking point but is much healthier. Organic tofu is used instead of paneer to make some of the popular Indian dishes, like Matar Paneer. There are instructions to make homemade soy yogurt. If you are allergic to gluten or have celiac disease, you can still eat bread made with chick pea or corn flour following the easy directions. The recipe for dosa, a South Indian favorite, incorporates brown rice, which has fewer calories and more whole grains.
Singla recommends cooking in crock pots or slow cookers, as opposed to pressure cookers. Slow cooking breaks down the essential oils of the spices and enables you to get richer flavors from the dish. If you are wondering if dry lentils can be cooked in a slow cooker, the answer is yes. It takes about 6-10 hours but you can leave them in the crock pot when you go to work and they’re ready just in time for dinner. Cooking in crock pots allows busy moms to still be able to prepare healthy meals without spending too much time on the stove. The book contains several recipes using a slow cooker for delicious dishes such as rasam, lentil stew, and paneer biryani.
A great time-saving tip is writing out a weekly menu for your household and creating shopping lists accordingly. The introduction section of Vegan Indian Cooking talks about how to prepare basic ingredients (such as stock, tofu, spices) ahead of time and organize your spices in a masala box.
While it may not be practical to go vegan 100% of the time, Singla urges us to step back and reassess how we eat. If we cut down on meat and eat more fresh foods, we are likely to feel healthier and more energetic, as well as notice a change in existing health issues. When eating fewer animal products but more fiber, you will feel fuller with less food, which in turn will make you feel better. Our bodies crave nutrition and our minds control what we eat, so we need to take charge and make better choices.
Sucheta Rawal is a business consultant and writer. She blogs about exploring the world and learning about different cultures through food and community service at www.goeatgive.com.
South Indian Crêpes (Dosas)
YIELD: 3½ CUPS (830 ML) OF BATTER MAKES ABOUT 24 MEDIUM-SIZED DOSAS
1 cup (190 g) brown basmati rice, cleaned and washed
¼ cup (48 g) whole black lentils with skin (sabut urad dal), cleaned and washed
2 tablespoons split gram (chana dal)
½ teaspoon fenugreek seeds
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt, divided
1½ cups (356 mL) water
Oil, for pan frying, set aside in a small bowl
½ large onion, peeled and halved (for prepping the pan)
1. In a large bowl, soak the rice in ample water.
2. In a separate bowl, soak the black lentils, split gram, and fenugreek.
3. Add ½ teaspoon salt to each bowl. Place each bowl in a warm area (I like to keep them in a warm oven that’s turned off) with a loose lid and soak overnight.
4. In the morning, drain and reserve the water.
5. Grind the lentils and rice together in a powerful blender, such as a Vitamix. Add up to 1½ cups (356 mL) of water as you go. (You can use the reserved soaking water.)
6. Let the batter sit for 6 to 7 hours in a slightly warm place (again, such as a warm oven that’s been turned off) to ferment slightly.
7. Heat a griddle over medium-high heat. Put 1 teaspoon of oil in the pan and spread it out with a paper towel or dish towel.
8. Once the pan is hot, stick a fork into the uncut, rounded part of the onion. Holding the fork handle, rub the cut half of the onion back and forth across your pan. The combination of heat, onion juices, and oil will help prevent your dosa from sticking. I learned this from a South Indian family friend, Parvati Auntie, and it truly makes all the difference in the world. Keep the onion with the inserted fork handy to use again between dosas.
9. Keep a tiny bowl of oil on the side with a spoon, you’ll use it later.
10. Now, finally on to the cooking! Ladle about ¼ cup (59 mL) of batter into the middle of the hot, prepped pan. With the back of your ladle, slowly make clockwise motions from the middle to the outer edge of the pan until the batter becomes thin and crêpe-like.
11. With a small spoon, pour a thin stream of oil in a circle around the batter.
12. Let the dosa cook until it is slightly browned and pulls away from the pan slightly. Flip and cook the other side. Once it is browned, serve immediately layered with spiced jeera or lemon potatoes, coconut chutney, and a side of sambhar.