When it comes to vegetarian cooking, few cuisines in the world can match India’s, and when it comes to Indian cooking, few authors can match Madhur Jaffrey. The actor, TV host and cookbook writer has been documenting the vibrant foods of her homeland — and other places — for more than four decades, earning seven James Beard awards along the way.
Jaffrey, 82, has written more than 20 books, including the mammoth “World Vegetarian” in 2002, but her latest, “Vegetarian India,” is the first time she has focused exclusively on the nation’s meatless cooking. To hear her tell it, this is the book she has long wanted to write. Among the Eastern countries where vegetarianism thrives, “only India has a robust history of it that covers the diferent classes and regions of an entire subcontinent, from pauper to billionaire and from the mountainous Himalayan peaks in the north to the lush tropics of the south,” she writes in the introduction. More pointedly: “Indian vegetarian foods are perhaps the most flavorful and the most varied in the entire world.”
I interviewed Jaffrey for a recent Smithsonian Associates program. Edited excerpts of our conversation follow:
How did your interest in eating and cooking vegetarian food begin? Did your family eat vegetarian when you were growing up in Delhi?
From the turn of the 19th-20th century to about the 1600s, the north was ruled by Moguls, by Muslims, and the men in my family worked in the courts: everything from prime ministers to clerical staff. The men all learned the etiquette of the Muslim court, and the food of the Muslim court, which was a lot of meat. We lived in what was called a joint family; there was my grandfather and grandmother at the head of the table, a huge table, but there was another table attached to it and another table, and soon it became benches. My grandmother and grandfather sat way at the other end, and I never knew that my grandmother was vegetarian. Later, I began to realize that there were two styles of cooking going on in the household: The men all knew Muslim culture. The women read the Indian religious books, and they were very often vegetarian. They cooked the food for the men. Some of them ate it. But the rest were vegetarian in the old style of a Hindu family. We had both these things going on at the same time.
I learned to be a bit of both. I can be all vegetarian, which I am now most of the time, but I can also eat meat, because my father ate it.
What do you think India can teach America about vegetarian cooking?
What happens in America, and this is one of the things I find difficult, is that cooking goes by trends. And a trend does not a cuisine make. A cuisine is something that settles after centuries of presentation, religious ideas, health ideas; it all forms a cuisine. What India has done is taken its ayurveda, everything it has learned from the humor system of medicine — heating foods, cooling foods — and everything it has inherited from cuisines going back to 4000 B.C. All these have drifted over time, and the bad parts have fallen away, and what is healthful and really tasty has kept going. What you get is a tested and true cuisine. Therefore, you know what vegetarian food does for you, which spices to use with what.
Americans don’t eat enough beans. The Native Americans had a lot of beans, which they dried, but not enough are eaten, not enough are consumed with any variety in this country. Chickpeas are grown in the northeast of America, perhaps more than any other country in terms of volume. But you don’t eat green chickpeas! We would wait with such excitement for the season every spring when green chickpeas came, and rush to collect them, and we would peel each pod and eat them like a pea. You’re missing out on what you have and what will I hope become part of the cuisine. I say you, but I mean me, too, because I’m an American. There are other things that grow here. Like the pumpkin: My God, why don’t you eat your pumpkin? Why do you just make jack-o-lanterns out of them? You get them from the tin and make pie.
What were you trying to do with “Vegetarian India” that’s different from all the other books you’ve written?
When I started writing about foods, I was told in no uncertain terms, I could write about Asia, I could write about India, but I couldn’t write about Europe. So if I’d been to Italy 15 times, and a New York Times critic had gone once, she could write about Italy, but I couldn’t. So it became a thing of great anger within me. I wanted to do a world vegetarian cookbook, years ago, and I was told, “No, you stick to your little cubbyhole and stick to Asia,” so I did that. Then when I was able to do what I wanted to do without constantly being told I couldn’t, I wrote “World Vegetarian.” But the Indian one, because that’s what I knew they expected of me, I never did. It was waiting to be done. Indian vegetarian food, as I say in the book, is the best in the world.
Nobody can know everything about India. It’s an ancient subcontinent with little crevices here and there, and the food is different from home to home. Entirely different. The religions, the communities, the individuals in the communities, and each cooking in an individual style handed down from their grandmother and great-grandmother. That is what I wanted to capture in some way in this book. And also I wanted to give a background to these foods: How do people eat? There’s a part of India in the south, called Coorg, that the British call Scotland of India, because it’s misty and mountainous and cool. I was there because I had heard that in the rainy season people eat what they can forage from the forest, and what they get are the most incredible mushrooms. You don’t associate mushrooms with India, even though we have everything. There are wonderful mushroom dishes in this region. These big mushrooms are grilled over wood fire, and then they’re served with squeezes of lime juice, salt and crushed chilies.
One of the misconceptions about Indian food is that there’s such a thing as “Indian food,” wouldn’t you say?
Exactly. India is the size of Europe, and the difference between each state is like going from Italy to Spain to France to Greece. There are certain techniques in common, certain ingredients in common, certain styles, but the food varies entirely. I can go into most kitchens in India, and smell, and know: This is in Kerala, this is in Benghal, this is in Kashmir. Because the smell from the oil — one will use mustard oil, one will use coconut oil, they roast spices differently.
How would you suggest newcomers to Indian cooking dive in?
Look for what strikes you as interesting, but don’t overwhelm yourself. Don’t try to make too many things at the same time, because you’ll get exhausted, and you’ll never go back. Let’s say you make the mushroom curry, which has coconut in it. Serve it on some very nice toast with salad for the first time. So you’ve made one dish that takes 20 minutes to make, and it’s easy, and you’ll have it simply with something familiar. The next time you’ll add one or two things to it. But get the spices for only one or two dishes. Limit yourself to two or three things you want to make, and have it in a Western way. I often serve Indian foods with salads. Try that as a beginning.
When it comes to ingredients, I was particularly taken with your description of poha, which seems like something everyone who likes rice needs to know about. How is it made and used?
It is flattened dried rice. What they do is take rice grains and, with the hull and the husks on, give them a very brief steam over a little water. They steam all the good properties of the hull and the husk into the grain, so it retains them. It’s actually the ancient Indian technique of making parboiled rice, somewhat like Uncle Ben’s. They dry it, then roast it — and every village in India that grows rice does this — then it’s pounded lightly, so the hull and the husk fall off, and what you have is a flattened instant rice.
In ancient times, travelers would carry it in their knapsacks, and all they needed to do was add a little water. What you do, if you’re in a rush and somebody drops in, this is what you serve. You hydrate it. It takes two minutes. Meanwhile, you stir-fry spices with onions or potatoes or any vegetable that you want, but for Indian taste it should be nice and spicy, with salt. I always like to put green chilies in. Now you put the rice in. You’ve squeezed out the water, and you mix it together, and it’s done. You eat it up.
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This colorful side dish from Indian cooking icon and actress Madhur Jaffrey will banish all thoughts of trendy pumpkin-spice drinks and snacks. The spices here are a combination of Northern and Southern Indian seasonings, with a mild back-of-the-throat heat from chilies.
Find brown mustard seeds and urad dal — a split black lentil sometimes used in small quantities as a spice — at Indian markets. Eat this with Indian breads or rice, ideally as part of a meal that also has a spinach dish, a dal and a yogurt relish or salad.
Adapted from “Vegetarian India: A Journey Through the Best of Indian Home Cooking,” by Madhur Jaffrey (Knopf, 2015).
2 tablespoons olive or peanut oil
1/4 teaspoon urad dal (see headnote)
1/4 teaspoon whole mustard seed
1 to 2 dried hot red chili peppers
1 small onion (about 3 ounces), chopped
1 pound peeled and seeded sugar pumpkin or butternut squash, cut into 1/2-inch dice
3/4 cup water
3/4 teaspoon fine sea salt, plus more as needed
1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more as needed
Pour the oil into a medium skillet over medium heat. Add the urad dal. As soon as the dal starts to change color, 30 seconds, add the mustard seed and chilies. Once the mustard seed starts to pop and the chilies darken, just a minute or less, add the onion. Cook, stirring frequently, until the onion just starts to soften,
2 minutes. Add the pumpkin and cook, stirring, until the pumpkin and onion begin to brown, 4 to 5 minutes.
Stir in the water, salt, brown sugar, cumin and black pepper. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low so the liquid is barely bubbling. Cover and cook until the pumpkin is just barely soft enough to pierce easily with a fork, 8 to 10 minutes. Taste, and add salt and pepper as needed.
Increase the heat to medium-high; cook, stirring frequently, until the remaining water almost evaporates yet the vegetables are still moist. Serve warm.
Nutrition | Per serving: 130 calories, 1 g protein, 18 g carbohydrates, 7 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 410 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 6 g sugar
Recipe tested by Joe Yonan; e-mail questions to firstname.lastname@example.org