A culinary journey
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.