If you are a vegetarian, familiarizing yourself with Indian cuisine is almost a must. Indian food is really a complex array of various regional cuisines from the Indian subcontinent, with some U.S. menus including items that are a fusion including Portuguese- or British-Indian combinations. Wikipedia’s Indian cuisine page contains a lengthy list of different regions and foods, if you’re interested in all this.
Throughout India’s diverse population of 1 billion+, many people are vegetarian for religious or cultural reasons. Even for those who are not, semi-vegetarianism is common. The slaughter of cows is illegal in some areas, following Hindu belief, and pork is taboo for Muslims. Buddhists, of course, are generally vegetarian, and even many individuals who don’t follow these dietary restrictions often go long periods of time without eating meat. What’s the necessity, when there are so many other options?
If you are new to Indian cuisine, going to a restaurant is a good bet. Many have vegetarian-friendly Indian buffets, and given the complexity of some Indian recipes, trying it at home may be daunting at first. If you are cooking and want a shortcut, Trader Joe’s has a variety of prepared Indian Fare you can try, and cooking sauces from brands like Sharwood’s are widely available in U.S. supermarkets. Here are some common dishes for you to try.
- Korma is a sauce that, in Western restaurants, is generally mild in preparation. This sauce is usually flavored with cashews and coconut, yogurt, and/or cream. If you’re wary of spicy foods, or if you like Thai dishes with peanuts, this may be a good choice for you.
- Tikka masala is my personal favorite. This tomato and yogurt-based sauce is sometimes dyed to create the vibrant red-orange color. The flavor is tangy, and you can order it hot or mild to your taste in most places. This dish may originate in Punjab, but some have also claimed it was a UK-Indian fusion. It is most commonly seen as chicken tikka masala, but you can usually find a version with veggies, fish, or paneer–a soft cheese that is kind of like a cross between cheese and tofu.
- Vindaloo is popular in the Goa region and is often a very spicy dish. You could order it milder… but why not be daring? Given Goa’s history of interaction with the Portuguese, some cross-cultural influence is present in the dish, which blends vinegar, ginger, chilis, and other spices. You can often find it with potatoes, which may reflect the European influence.
- Samosas are a tasty appetizer, usually containing potato, onion, and peas in a fried package. The history of samosas is interesting, as this dish is served widely with variations throughout Central Asia, the Middle East, and the Horn of Africa.
- Naan is a type of flatbread popular in the Punjab region. It is usually cooked in a clay tandoor oven and brushed with butter or ghee.
- Basmati rice is often served with Indian dishes. It is fragrant with long, delicate grains.
I made the vegetable masala pictured above with Trader Joe’s Masala Simmer sauce, a potato, half an onion, and half a bell pepper. The potato should be peeled, chopped, and boiled in water until soft. In a skillet, sauté the chopped onion and bell pepper about 10 minutes. Then add the boiled potato, masala sauce, and heat through. After a minute or so, lower the heat and let everything simmer for 5-7 more minutes. Total cooking time is about 35 minutes, and if you get bored with this combo you can also try adding chickpeas, boiled cauliflower, or cherry tomatoes.
Once you master the basics, you’ll find there’s a lot to enjoy in Indian cuisine. Don’t be afraid to experiment! I’ve pretty much never met an Indian recipe I didn’t like.