As a boy growing up in the sun-baked vastness of the Deccan plateau, I did not eat too many vegetables or salads. If I did on rare occasion—possibly because of a no-meat-until-you-finish-veggies ultimatum from my mother—my mind seems to have blocked out such traumatic events. For years, I could not distinguish between palak and methi.
Why, after all, would I bother with spinach and fenugreek when I could eat paya, that ambrosial soup of trotters? With my younger brother, this resolutely meat-driven childhood became an article of faith. One wall in every house we inhabited was given over to his credo. “Vegetarianism,” said his slogan, emblazoned with a black sketch pen, “is the last refuge of scoundrels.” This wasn’t something he had made up, my brother claimed. He attributed it to Winston Churchill. This was entirely believable. The favourite food of Britain’s doughty World War II prime minister included raw oysters and roast beef with Yorkshire pudding.
So, though I had mixed feelings about Churchill, given his opposition to Indian independence, I admired his spirit, determination and, above all, his supposed dismissal of vegetarianism.
Garden fresh: (left) Assorted vegetables on a bed of couscous; and steamed vegetables in coconut-based curry. Photographs by Samar Halarnkar
The problem, as I realized much later, was that Churchill never said any such thing. He rallied his embattled nation to never surrender “in God’s good time”, during which he admitted to eating vegetables with a gravy sauce and a spot of marmite, however horrific that might sound.
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My brother appeared to have misused a famous quote from the 18th century English author Samuel Johnson, who said patriotism was the last refuge of scoundrels. Since then, prayer, politics, even journalism, have been similarly implicated, but never vegetarianism.
My antipathy to vegetarian food faded somewhat only after I married—a vegetarian.
My friends did not let me live this down for years because I had brashly sworn never to marry one. Older today, and certainly wiser, I confess that not only do I eat some vegetarian food—though an all-vegetarian meal is as rare as a moon landing—I also cook it. My repertoire is limited to what my wife likes.
Some readers of my blog and this column often complain that I never offer vegetarian recipes. This is not true. I have served up some veggie entrées, but I guess they tend not to be noticed because they always accompany recipes of how to cook one of God’s creatures.
Well, this column is seminal in that sense.
There is no fish, meat or chicken to be had. It is the result of an all-vegetarian meal that I cooked last week for the wife and our neighbours, both Canadians, both vegetarians, a fact that surprised me. It shouldn’t have, of course. I was guilty of stereotyping and ignorance, knowing of no other vegetarian Canadian food aside from, er, maple syrup and fiddleheads, a delicate woodland sprout.
It’s hard to say how my experiments panned out. The wife is given to closing her eyes, rolling her head and saying “Oh my God, mindblowing,” whenever I ask. And Canadians, as we know, are some of the world’s politest people.
It’s up to you to tell me the truth.
Couscous with Grilled Vegetables
1 mug of couscous
1/2 zucchini, cut into 5-6 thin, long slices
1 large red pepper, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 large yellow pepper, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 large carrot, boiled or steamed and chopped into stamp-size pieces
3 pieces of garlic, unpeeled
3-4 small, fine pieces of galangal (optional)
1 tbsp of pine nuts
1 sprig of rosemary
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
Salt to taste
For the stock
3 cubes of vegetable stock
1 onion, thinly sliced
1 tomato, thinly sliced
2 garlic pieces, finely minced
2 mugs (coffee-sized) of water
First, grill the vegetables. Preheat the oven to gas mark 4. In a small, non-stick baking dish, mix peppers, carrots, garlic, galangal, rosemary, salt and fresh pepper. Rub fresh pepper, salt and a few leaves of rosemary on the zucchini slices. Place the zucchini side by side on foil and place in the same oven. Let peppers and zucchini roast for about 30 minutes, basting the zucchini with olive oil when necessary and tossing the peppers occasionally. Turn up the heat to gas mark 5 after 20 minutes, so that the vegetables char lightly.
Second, as the vegetables are halfway done, prepare the stock. In a saucepan, fry minced garlic lightly in olive oil. Add sliced onions and sauté till transparent. Add sliced tomatoes and toss for 30 seconds. Pour in the water and drop in the soup cubes. Wait till the water boils.
Third, lay the couscous in a flat dish with a cover (I use a baking dish). Pour the stock so it is a centimetre or so over the couscous. Cover tightly. The couscous will swell and absorb the stock. Open after 5 minutes and toss with a fork. Cover again. The grains must be soft and separate.
When ready, transfer the couscous to a serving dish. Pour the grilled peppers and carrots atop the couscous. As a final layer, lay down the grilled zucchini slices.
Coastal Coconut-Vegetable Curry
2 carrots, chopped
2 potatoes, chopped into small cubes
250g pumpkin, chopped into small cubes
A handful of green beans, snapped into three pieces
1 tbsp olive oil
1-2 sprigs of curry leaves
1 onion, finely sliced
15 pieces of kokum, roughly torn, soaked in a tablespoon or two of water
For the masala
1/2 fresh coconut, roughly cut into pieces
1 onion, roughly cut into 4-5 pieces
5 big pieces of garlic
1-inch piece of ginger
1 tsp red chilli powder
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp coriander powder
Salt to taste
First, steam the vegetables till almost done. Set aside.
Second, grind the masala ingredients in a food processor with half a cup of water. Add more water when grinding so it becomes a paste. Set aside.
Third, in a cook-and-serve vessel, heat olive oil. Splutter the curry leaves. Add the sliced onion and lightly sauté till transparent. Add half the masala (or a little more—I make extra and keep the rest to make a similar fish curry!) and sauté for 5-7 minutes. Add the steamed vegetables and toss well with masala. Add a mug of water (or more) so a curry forms. Add the kokum. Mix well and cook on low heat till the curry boils.
Serve hot with rice or couscous.
This is a column on easy, inventive cooking from a male perspective. Samar Halarnkar writes a blog, Our Daily Bread, at Htblogs.com. He is editor-at-large, Mint and Hindustan Times.
Write to Samar at email@example.com