Vegetarianism is the last refuge of scoundrels.”
That was the slogan (fictitiously attributed to Winston Churchill)—crudely scrawled with a black marker pen—on the walls of every room my younger brother occupied when we were growing up.
Photographs by Samar Halarnkar
It was cool. It was defiant. It indicated the family motto: If it moves, we’ll eat it.
Growing up, I never knew how to cook vegetarian food. To this day, if we’re getting vegetarians for a meal, my mother shuffles around nervously and overcompensates by flooding the table with greens and salads.
Yet, today, I have my wife’s permission to say a vegetarian won’t feel uncomfortable in our home. The wife is vegetarian, and after a nervy start I won over her stomach (the heart, obviously, followed).
For this, I would like to thank my wok.
My harried parents, eager to buy their son a gift, bought the wok after scouring the stores of Florida six years ago. It was not easy. I don’t like getting shirts, pants, socks, belts, watches and sundry other personal accessories as gifts.
Woks I like. Spoons I like. Knives I like. You get the picture.
A stir-fry in a wok is perhaps the easiest, tastiest, crunchiest and most nutritious way to toss up vegetables. Most of my stir-fries last no more than 10 minutes (once the ingredients are assembled) and are always a hit.
You can infuse a stir-fry with any flavour you like: From soya sauce to rice-wine vinegar; from jeera (cumin) powder to fresh rosemary; from til (sesame seeds) to star anise. If you aren’t familiar with marrying spices and flavours, the good news is that it’s really hard to go wrong in a wok. If you do falter, you’ll learn fast anyway.
The funny thing is, I have never made a stir-fry with meats. Well, almost never. This may be because when I dish out a stir-fry, my wife needs nothing more (at most, a dal and a salad). So, the wok is usually occupied keeping this important constituency happy.
Over the years, this singular devotion to veggies has—in my family’s eyes—made me a wok star. Whatever the spices, sauces and veggies, I follow these basics:
• Heat the oil (I use olive, sesame or normal vegetable oil) in the wok on high heat
• A wok heats fast, so keep all ingredients ready
• If using whole spices, toss them in quick
• If the oil starts smoking, keep the wok moving and the ingredients coming
• Assess your veggies: Broccoli and zucchini should be tossed in first; mushrooms later; capsicums, spinach, bok choy (Chinese cabbage) even later; fresh herbs or fresh pepper last
• If you use Indian spices—which I often do—either stir them into the hot oil or sprinkle and stir-fry with the first lot of denser vegetables
• If you want to keep it ultra-simple, simply stir-fry garlic, a sprinkle of chilli powder and one veggie, maybe broccoli.
The Big Bang Stir-fry
1 tsp sesame seeds
½ tsp black onion seeds (kalonji)
6-7 dried chillies
8-9 large garlic pods, smashed or chopped fine
1 tsp fresh, grated ginger or galangal (Thai ginger)
1 flat tsp red chilli powder (or paprika)
1 medium broccoli, cut into florets
1 small zucchini, halved and sliced
1 small red capsicum, deseeded and chopped long
1 small yellow capsicum, deseeded and chopped long
1 tsp fresh rosemary
2 tbsp soy sauce
Red-wine vinegar (or red wine) to sprinkle
Heat olive oil in a medium-size wok. Throw in sesame, dried chillies (snap them into half) and black onion seeds. When the seeds start to sputter, add garlic. Cook till lightly brown. Add ginger. Stir quickly. Add chilli powder. Add broccoli and zucchini. Sprinkle with vinegar (or wine) so that it sizzles. Add soy sauce for the next sizzle. Toss on high heat until almost cooked. Add the capsicum and salt. Toss all vegetables. Sprinkle with fresh rosemary and fresh ground pepper, and serve.
This is a fortnightly column on easy, inventive cooking from a male perspective. Samar Halarnkar, managing editor of the Hindustan Times, writes a food blog, My Daily Blog, at www.htblogs.com
Write to Samar at email@example.com