A culi­nary jour­ney

The Herald on Sunday - Sunday Herald Life - - Food & Drink - By Su­mayya Us­mani

TRAV­EL­LING a lot this month has meant that my food has been quick and sim­ple – but I find it hard to do cook­ing with­out spice. For most peo­ple on the go, the last thing they think of is adding spices to food, but to me it is the only com­fort that keeps me grounded when feel­ing rather un­set­tled with con­stant move­ment.

I think a lot about what the var­i­ous spices bring to a dish and how best to use them. I have al­ways felt that spices are what bring life to veg­eta­bles, and as of late I am closer to be­ing a veg­e­tar­ian than ever be­fore – even though I refuse to la­bel the way

I eat, as I pre­fer to be rather un­pre­scrip­tive about my eat­ing habits. As much as meat and spice works well, I still think it re­mains a lit­tle one-di­men­sional, but veg­eta­bles dance and sing when spice is added to them. Here are some of my top tips when cook­ing veg­gies with spice.

Grow­ing up in a coun­try usu­ally as­so­ci­ated with heady meat dishes, it would per­haps sur­prise peo­ple that Pak­istan dishes are packed with sea­sonal veg­eta­bles, store cup­board lentils, pulses and beans, their flavour height­ened by ro­bust herbs and haunt­ing spices. Partly be­cause eat­ing veg­e­tar­ian is a frugal way to feed tra­di­tion­ally large Pak­istani fam­i­lies, but more be­cause there is in­her­ently strong cul­ture of eat­ing sea­sonal pro­duce, sown in and har­vested from the land.

Glob­ally, there are so many eclec­tic ways to cre­ate veg­e­tar­ian dishes, but I per­son­ally feel that South Asian recipes, with their unique in­cor­po­ra­tion of spice and cook­ing tech­niques, make for a great veg­e­tar­ian cook­ing style to in­cor­po­rate into your reper­toire.

I learned to cook while grow­ing up in Pak­istan from the women in my fam­ily, who never wrote down any recipe, but cooked and taught me by “an­daza” (cook­ing by es­ti­ma­tion), or what I like to call sen­sory cook­ing. They recre­ated a recipe from mem­ory and the cook­ing I do to­day I learned vi­car­i­ously watch­ing my mother, grand­moth­ers and aunts. Not many peo­ple are com­fort­able with cook­ing this way, es­pe­cially when it comes to spices, so in the list be­low I have given you some fa­vorite spices and tech­niques that en­hance veg­eta­bles the South Asian way, and have also shared a recipe for raw mango, pome­gran­ate and chick­pea curry I used to make with my grand­mother, af­ter pick­ing raw man­goes and us­ing left­over spring pomegranates in the early sum­mer of Karachi.

1. South Asian veg­e­tar­ian recipes can some­times ap­pear daunt­ing. De­pend­ing on what re­gion of the In­dian sub-con­ti­nent they come from, some dishes use a hefty list of spices, while some are very sim­ple and use very few. In Pak­istani cook­ing, veg­e­tar­ian recipes are sim­ple, usu­ally with one or two spices only, con­cen­trat­ing on en­hanc­ing the pro­duce rather than mask­ing it. One of my fa­vorite pair­ings would be sweet pota­toes with nigella seeds (kalonji), and dried red chilli ground to­gether with dry roasted co­rian­der seeds with pota­toes. Sim­ple, yet so ef­fec­tive.

2. Make your veg­e­tar­ian dish main course wor­thy of the in­gre­di­ents. Cre­ate au­then­tic South Asian veg­e­tar­ian show-stop­pers by com­bin­ing green veg­eta­bles with sweet nutty in­gre­di­ents. A clas­sic is green beans stir fried in gar­lic, mus­tard seeds and gar­lic, tossed in shaved or des­ic­cated co­conut – fla­vors of the south of the In­dian sub-con­ti­nent.

3. Heat, fresh­ness and stir-fry­ing – these are clas­sic South Asian meth­ods of pre­par­ing and cook­ing veg­eta­bles. Try toss­ing kale, broc­coli or mange tout in spiced tem­pered co­conut or wal­nut oil. This means veg­eta­bles cook for shorter time re­tain­ing their fresh­ness, but spices in­fuse quickly and cre­ate flavour.

4. Let one or two spices lift fla­vor in veg­eta­bles rather than go­ing for heavy over­pow­er­ing rich­ness. Some ex­am­ples are:

Mus­tard seeds: When used with onions, curry leaves and gar­lic, they trans­port me to a balmy Asian beach.

Fenu­greek seeds: When in­fused into your cho­sen cook­ing oil, these add a deep aro­matic curry fla­vor, re­sult­ing in an in­tensely spiced dish, with­out many in­gre­di­ents.

5. Veg­eta­bles just love curry. South Asian veg­e­tar­ian cur­ries, are both sat­is­fy­ing and good for you. Try ex­per­i­ment­ing with un­usual veg­eta­bles, and use sea­sonal ones to cre­ate your own take on the South Asian veg­etable cur­ries. For in­spi­ra­tion, try my raw mango, pome­gran­ate and chick­pea curry – this takes me home to Pak­istan.

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