Vegetarian variety: Indian cuisine is quick, easy and full of flavor

Clare Howard

S. "Murali" Muralidharan didn't set out to revolutionize American cooking. In fact, he earned his Ph.D. in organic photo chemistry and stumbled onto the amazing response of people to his native dishes.

While in graduate school in Canada, during a bus tour with shared cooking responsibilities, Murali was taken aback by reactions to his cooking.

With his analytical research-oriented training, he set about streamlining and simplifying vegetarian Indian cooking. He published a small book, "A Short Course in Culinary Experiments: Vegetarian Indian Cuisine for Innovative Non-Experts."

Next, he established a Web site (www.simpleistasty.com) for people to share their experiences with his recipes, to make recommendations for tweaking recipes and to blog about Indian vegetarian cuisine.

Murali, who is now a researcher at a university in Maryland, recently started experimenting with cranberries.

"There is such joy in cooking. Some people consider cooking a chore. For me, that is never the case," he said. "There is such an array of spices. Always something different. Like my most recent discovery: Cranberries and Indian cooking!"

The goal of Murali's book is not to advocate for vegetarianism but to give people simple, delicious and interesting vegetarian recipes.

"Most Indian cookbooks focus on cuisine at the high end. My goal is everyday Indian cooking simplified," he said. "This is how you would eat in an ordinary home in India, not a five-star restaurant."

Krupal Sanghbi of Peoria recently finished reading Murali's book. Sanghbi completed the dietetic internship program at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center, has taught Indian cooking for years and recently worked at Caterpillar Inc.

"I like his book. I like a number of his recipes," Sanghbi said. "His vegetable cutlets are a little different than the way we make them, but they are very good."

Sanghbi and Murali stress that Americans need to increase consumption of vegetables and decrease consumption of deep-fried foods. These vegetable cutlets are lightly sauteed.

Sanghbi sautes with canola oil, which has a higher heat point than extra-virgin olive oil and is considered a healthier oil.

Every household in her neighborhood as a child growing up in Bombay, now called Mumbai, had a stainless steel spice box. She uses a similar box in her Peoria kitchen. The covered metal box keeps spices fresh and easily accessible. She pointed out the red chili powder, turmeric, fennel seeds and cumin in her box - all used in vegetable cutlets.

Sanghbi followed Murali's recipe and prepared vegetable cutlets with potatoes, peas, carrots, garlic, onion and frozen mixed vegetables. In addition to the spices, the patties are flavored with fresh chopped ginger.

After shaping the small patties with her hands, she dipped them lightly in a batter of flour, water and salt, then rolled them in bread crumbs. She put a little canola oil on a pre-heated Tava or Indian cooking griddle, then placed the cutlets on the griddle.

"As a dietician, I know people need to eat low-fat diets. Deep-frying creates high-fat foods. This kind of shallow frying is low in calories," she said, noting that vegetable cutlets are a rich source of vitamins and minerals.

"These cutlets are pretty easy. All the ingredients are easily available, and this is a good recipe for Americans to add vegetables to their diets," she said.

Sanghbi, 30, said when she was growing up, frozen food was not common in India.

"Only frozen peas were available when I was growing up. Every day was like a farmers' market. People go out everyday to buy fresh vegetables," she said. "Over here, there are a lot of frozen foods. Frozen entrees have a lot of salt."

Sanghbi served the cutlets on whole wheat rolls with cilantro chutney and ketchup. Served this way, the vegetable cutlet is similar to an American veggie burger but more flavorful and softer.

"Here, McDonald's does not serve veggie burgers, but all the McDonald's in India serve them," she said, noting that about 80 percent of India is vegetarian.

"We are lacto vegetarians. In India, the main sources of protein are milk, yogurt and lentils," she said. "I am vegetarian since birth."

She and her husband, Nishith Sanghbi, came to Peoria in 1999 when he started working at Caterpillar Inc.

Following the vegetable cutlets and cilantro chutney, Sanghbi served cold carrot halwa for dessert.

"Halwa is the most common Indian dessert. All Indian restaurants in the U.S. serve carrot halwa. It can be made with squash or pumpkin. It's just carrot, milk, raisins, sugar and cardamom powder. No color or preservatives are added," she said.

Both Sanghbi and Murali said the notion of vegetarian Indian cuisine taking off in America is conceivable as part of the trend toward healthier food and simplified cooking.

Clare Howard can be reached at choward@pjstar.com.

Vegetable cutlets

4 medium potatoes (about 1 pound)

1/2 cup mixed vegetables (fresh or frozen, frozen is more convenient)

1 ounce ginger (finely chopped)

3 to 4 cloves garlic (finely chopped)

1 medium onion (finely chopped)

1/2 teaspoon red chili powder

1/4 teaspoon turmeric powder

1/4 teaspoon fennel seeds

1/4 teaspoon cumin

Cooking oil

For the batter:

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1 cup water

Salt to taste

1 cup bread crumbs

Boil the potatoes in water, with their skin intact. When they are fully cooked, drain the water and allow the potatoes to cool. Peel and mash. Set aside.

Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in pan. When the oil warms up, add the cumin, ginger, garlic and onion. Stir well, cook for 3 to 4 minutes. Then add the chili powder, turmeric powder, fennel seeds and the mixed vegetables. Add salt to taste. Lower the heat and allow to cook for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. It is important not to add any water in step 2. Therefore, the heat should be adjusted so that the water released from the vegetables is sufficient to cook them.

When the vegetables are cooked, add the mashed potato and mix well, allow to cool. When the contents are at room temperature, make small patties out of the masala and set it aside. The size of these patties may be varied, but one the size of your palm, is easy to handle.

Make a batter using all-purpose flower, water and salt. The consistency should be similar to pancake batter. Dip the vegetable patty in the batter and roll it in bread crumbs. Some bread crumbs will stick to the batter and coat the patty.

Heat 2 to 3 tablespoons of cooking oil in a flat pan. When the oil is warm, transfer the bread crumb-encrusted patty to the pan. With an average size pan, you should be able to cook three to four patties at one time. When one side of the patty is fully cooked, turn it over using a fork and cook the other side. If necessary, add some more cooking oil. It is better to serve the vegetable cutlets slightly warm, maybe with tomato or chili sauce on the side.

Cilantro Chutney

1 bunch cilantro (about 1/2 pound)

Black mustard seeds

Cooking oil (corn, vegetable or canola)

To taste:

Garlic

Red chili powder

Salt

Coconut (desiccated or fresh)

Cumin seeds

Curry leaves

Ginger

Green chilies

Add the cilantro to a blender. Add 1 teaspoon of chili powder, ½ teaspoon of tamarind extract and salt to taste.

Blend to a fine paste. If required, sprinkle some water while blending (not more than a few tablespoons).

Carrot halva

1 pound carrots

1 quart whole milk

1/2 cup sugar

10 pods cardamom (powdered)

2 tablespoons raisins

1 tablespoons Ghee (see note)

Wash, peel and grate the carrots finely. In a thick-bottomed vessel, add the milk and bring it to a boil. Reduce the heat to a minimum and add the grated carrots. Cook, stirring occasionally, for about 30 minutes. The stirring should be more frequent toward the end of the cooking as the cooked carrot might stick to the vessel.

Heat the ghee in a pan and when it gets warm, add the raisins. In about 30 seconds, the raisins will swell. Turn off the heat.

After about 30 minutes of cooking, add the sugar, cardamom and raisins/ghee to the carrots and stir well. Cook for about 10 to 15 more minutes. By this time, most of the milk should have evaporated or been absorbed by the carrot. You can stop the heating when the consistency of the carrot halva is to your liking. If you drive out most of the moisture, you might be able to cut the carrot halva after cooling or you may use it as a semi-solid, handling the dispensing process with a spoon. It is better to serve this after it has cooled in the refrigerator for a few hours.

Note: Ghee is butter that is simmered and separated, retaining the clear golden liquid.