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Cookbook Review: Vibrant India

Vibrant India Tray of Spices

Masoor dal, toor dal, chana dal, moog dal, and urad dal; before I read Vibrant India I would have had to make a call to tell the differences between these dal. Fortunately, I would have been able to call Chitra.

Since 2009, Chitra Agrawal has been blogging original recipes based on her family’s South Indian culinary traditions at her food blog, the ABCD’s of Cooking — “ABCD” in this case stands for “American-Born Confused Desi,” a term for second generation South Asians. Eventually, she began teaching cooking classes and selling some of these dishes at local farmer’s markets, introducing a Brooklyn audience to the same flavors and cooking techniques featured on the blog. In 2013, she and her husband Ben, an artist and designer, launched Brooklyn Delhi, a condiment company featuring achaars, spicy pickles made with locally-grown produce. Now, she has written her first book.

Vibrant India Book CoverVibrant India is a colorful canvas wherein Chitra shares her versions of her family’s South Indian recipes. While fans of Indian food in North America might relish creamy curries with naan in Indian restaurants, most of these dishes reflect the fact that in the early 1900’s it was largely immigrants from Northern India bringing their food traditions to the U.S. For many readers, the forms and flavors from dishes of Southern India may represent an entirely new eating experience.

The recipes reflected in Vibrant India specifically honor the culinary traditions of Chitra’s mother, who is from Bangalore in the southern state of Karnataka, and they reflect the strict vegetarianism of Hindu Brahmins. While Madhur Jaffrey’s books first introduced North American cooks to an expansive world of Indian cuisine, Chitra gets specific with regards to region and a particular set of traditions, ingredients, and preparations.

Accordingly, you won’t find a recipe for tandoor chicken or lamb biriyani in the book, but instead dishes rich in protein from a rainbow of pulses. Instead of bread, rice. Instead of cream or paneer, coconut. And instead of garlic and onion as an aromatic foundation for dish after dish, the fragrant combination of black mustard seeds, asafetida — which has a garlicky pungency — chili, and fresh curry leaves, all bloomed in oil to release their fragrance.

In a parade of cookbooks where dishes often take on familiar forms, Vibrant India is definitely in its own territory. I’m delighted to learn about steamed semolina breakfast cakes studded with cashews called rava idli (project cooking, for sure). And also simpler — to me — preparations like nimbehannu chitranna: lemon rice, golden from turmeric, topped with a shower of peanuts, fried curry leaves, and fresh cilantro.

The artwork, chapter heading illustrations (by Chitra’s Aunt Karen) and colorful overhead photos of both ingredients and finished dishes inspires me to flag dish after dish, as things I’d like to cook. At my local Indian grocer I happily load up several bags with pulses, spices, fresh curry leaves, and frozen coconut to ready my own kitchen to cook with Chitra as my teacher.

One of the things that differentiates Vibrant India from more canonical Indian cookbooks is that instead of just representing “authentic” dishes, these recipes specifically speak to Chitra’s own abilities as a cook, one who takes as much culinary inspiration from local ingredients as traditional preparations. Over and over she mentions the vegetables that arrive in her farm share and at Brooklyn’s farmer’s markets as the inspiration for fresh, colorful dishes such as bhajji, shishito pepper fritters in a chickpea flour batter; or jolada play, stir-fried summer corn with basil and leeks. This book would be a welcome addition to the shelf of anyone readying themselves for another summer CSA season, already in need of fresh recipes to cook through the glut of zucchini, eggplant, or beets.

Though the form of Chitra’s recipes for wide, crepe-like dosas and vegetable curries are deeply traditional, they also represent new opportunities for home cooks in the current context of North America, especially when feeding a group wherein someone is undoubtedly eschewing meat, dairy, or gluten. The vegetable-focused dishes of Vibrant India will, for some, offer an avenue to discover new flavors and techniques in Indian cooking that feel healthful and adaptable to serve a wide audience.

Vibrant India_Spiced Spring Vegetable and Coconut Polenta

Perhaps understanding that many of her readers will be unfamiliar with some of these cooking methods, Chitra begins the book with a section that teaches techniques — including the aforementioned and oft repeated step of blooming spices in hot oil and then either adding other ingredients or stirring the seasoned oil into another dish. This she follows with a pantry glossary to explain and describe each of the pulses, spices, flours, herbs, and seasonings that readers will discover in the pages to follow. Though a glossary might seem like an unglamorous part of the book, these are the pages I return to most often. As I read through the rest of the recipes, the glossary is there to help provide a better understanding the utility of each element. One type of dal, for example, can be fried to add crispiness and nutty crunch to dishes; another can be ground and used like flour, a thickening agent in curries and chutneys; and the rest can either be sprouted, cooked whole, or fermented and then blended into a batter for dosa.

Vibrant India DosaMy only criticism of Vibrant India is that I find myself longing for more of this kind of explicit instruction. I wish that there was more description and either individual photos or illustrations of each ingredient, especially at the moment I was faced with the dizzying array at my Indian grocer. This desire for more extends into the recipes, as well, especially when it comes to artwork. Cooking kumbalakayi huli, butternut squash and lentil stew, for the first time, I first envision a chunky stew, but am left instead with a velvety purée that makes me wish that all the recipes had photos.

I know that practice makes perfect, and the more I use these new-to-me ingredients and methods the more I’ll be able to put my own spin on the path that Chitra has already laid out. Vibrant India is definitely a book I’ll reach for, especially during the height of farmer’s market season when I find myself in need of a fresh set of ideas for how to approach kohlrabi or summer squash.

This book will lend itself especially well to a cook-the-book potluck-style party, too. For each dish, Chitra suggests a list of accompaniments. Make saagu, a Karnataka coconut curry with peas, carrots, and broccoli, for example, and have one friend make chapatis and another friend make chutney to join you for a meal. Considering the fact that Vibrant India came about based on Chitra sharing her own traditions, it seems fitting that we share these traditions with one another.

Shredded Carrot & Lentil Salad
(Hesaru Bele Carrot Kosambri)

Serves 4 to 6
Recipe by Chitra Agrawal

  • 2 tablespoons moong dal or 1⁄3 cup mung bean sprouts or other green sprouts
  • 3⁄4 cup unsweetened grated coconut (fresh, frozen, or dried)
  •  medium carrots, peeled and shredded (about 2 cups)
  • 1⁄2 cucumber, peeled, seeded, and finely chopped
  • 1 plum tomato, finely chopped
  • 2 teaspoons mild-flavored oil such as canola
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon black mustard seeds
  • Pinch of asafetida (hing) powder
  • 4 or 5 fresh curry leaves
  • 1 or 2 Indian green chiles or serrano chiles, finely chopped
  • Juice of half a lemon (about 1 1⁄2 tablespoons), plus more as needed
  • 1⁄4 cup chopped cilantro leaves, plus more for garnish
  • 1⁄2 to 3⁄4 teaspoon salt

Wash the moong dal until the water is clear, and soak it in water for 2 to 3 hours. It should have doubled in size.

Thaw frozen coconut or place dried coconut in a little hot water to plump it up.

Drain the dal well, discarding the soaking liquid, and place in a large bowl with the carrots, cucumber, tomato, and coconut.

Put the oil in a tempering pot or a little pan over medium heat. When the oil is hot and shimmering, add one black mustard seed. When the seed sizzles and pops, add the rest of the mustard seeds and the asafetida. Keep a lid handy to cover the pan while the mustard seeds are popping. When the popping starts to subside (a few seconds), turn the heat to medium-low. Rub the curry leaves between your fingers a little to release their natural oils, and drop them and the green chile into the oil. Cover immediately, as moisture from the curry leaves will cause the oil to spatter. Then stir to evenly coat everything with oil and continue to fry until the chile is less raw, 10 to 15 seconds. Turn off the heat.

Immediately pour the oil mixture over the vegetables. To get all of the oil out of the pan, put a spoonful or two of the salad into the pan, stir, and spoon it back into the bowl.

Add the lemon juice, cilantro, and 1⁄2 teaspoon of the salt, and mix well. Taste for lemon and salt and adjust if needed. Garnish with more cilantro and serve.

Reprinted with permission from Vibrant India: Fresh Vegetarian Recipes from Bangalore to Brooklyn by Chitra Agrawal, copyright © 2017. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Photography credit: Erin Scott © 2017

 


Emily Teel is the Editor-in-Chief of Spoonful Magazine, as well as a freelance food writer, recipe editor, tester, and developer in Philadelphia. She completed a Master of Arts in Food Culture and Communications at the University of Gastronomic Sciences. An alumna of Bryn Mawr College and a Legacy Award Winner with the women's culinary organization Les Dames d'Escoffier International, she's passionate about food and committed to the idea that everyone deserves access to meals that are both nourishing and satisfying. 

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