Maybe my mother and grandmother should have been the ones to teach me their repertory of satisfying vegetarian dishes from Gujarat, in western India. But they never measure or write anything down.
So I learned to make my everyday comfort foods – dals seasoned with fried garlic and spices, lively single-subject vegetable dishes – from the British author Meera Sodha.
Sodha, 35, has written two cookbooks with cult followings, and recently started writing a column for The Guardian about vegan cooking. Though her recipes take inspiration from all over, they express what Sodha describes in her latest book, “Fresh India” (Fig Tree, 2016; Flatiron, 2018, in the United States) as her own Gujarati sensibility: “creative, fresh and always vegetable first.”
On a trip to London, looking for a cooking lesson, I met Sodha at her home in Walthamstow, where we rolled chapatis side by side. My chapatis were slow to come together, imperfectly shaped, but Sodha was a patient, precise instructor.
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By the time I got back to Brooklyn, I wanted to make Sodha’s vegetarian recipes part of my weekly routine. I started with her basic moong dal, and graduated to her quick-cooking dal made from red lentils and finished with coconut milk, served with a pile of tender kale on top.
Stranded with two small heads of broccoli and no inspiration, I turned to her recipe for malai broccoli. Her adaptation of the cream sauce was a lean, bright and intensely delicious update: a mix of ground almonds with cream cheese and Greek yogurt, spiked with nutmeg and squished into every last crevice of the broccoli florets. Roasted on high heat for about 20 minutes, the mixture became golden brown in places, and the broccoli charred, expanding its flavor.
Sodha got the idea after trying a similar dish in Goa.
“You know when you realize what you’re eating is just so magnificent, and there’s a sort of rip in the atmosphere?” she said. “My brain started racing and I thought, how do I make this?”
In “Fresh India,” Sodha traces seasonal Gujarati cooking back to the third century B.C., when the emperor Ashoka banned the slaughter of animals. The region’s vegetarian cuisine has flourished over centuries.
Andaz is a Hindi word meaning “style,” and to say a cook has andaz is a great compliment, Sodha said. Some people may use the term to mean a gift for making a dish one’s own, or the ability to make food with a special harmony.
Sodha describes andaz as a kind of knowledge, particular to a cuisine that is rooted in oral tradition, that can only be learned through observation and apprenticeship, mistakes and repetition.
“It’s a sense of judgment that’s built up through doing,” she said.
I thought that following Sodha’s recipes could help speed the process a little. But still, there is only way to get there: Cook.
Sri Lankan Dal with Coconut and Lime Kale
1 pound red lentils
3 green cardamom pods
3 tablespoons coconut oil
1 cinnamon stick
3 whole cloves
2 small white onions, thinly sliced
4 cloves garlic, crushed
3/4 inch piece of ginger, peeled and grated (about 1 tablespoon)
2 green finger chiles or Serrano chiles, stemmed and finely sliced
Scant 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 large bunch kale (about 9 ounces)
1/2 teaspoon mustard seeds
2 tablespoons unsweetened shredded coconut
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 lime, juiced
7 ounces (3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons) canned coconut milk
Yogurt, for serving
Rice, for serving
Wash the lentils in a strainer in cold water until the water runs clear, then place in a medium bowl, cover with water and set aside. Bash the cardamom pods with the side of a knife so they crack open.
Put 2 tablespoons of the coconut oil into a large pot over medium heat. When hot, add the cardamom pods, cinnamon stick and cloves. Fry for a minute, then add the onions. Cook for 10 minutes, stirring frequently, until the onions are browning and soft. Add the garlic, ginger and green chilies and stir-fry for 1 to 2 minutes, then remove a third of the mixture from the pot and set aside. (Leave the cinnamon stick behind.)
Drain the lentils and add to the pot, along with the turmeric and 4 1/4 cups of hot water. Turn the heat to high and bring to a boil. Once they are boiling, reduce the heat to low and simmer for 20 to 25 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the lentils are soft and creamy.
While the lentils are simmering, chop the kale into thin strips and discard the thicker stems. Put the remaining tablespoon of coconut oil into a lidded frying pan (keep the lid off for now) over medium heat and, when hot, add the mustard seeds. When the seeds begin to pop, add the reserved onion mixture and fry for 1 to 2 minutes. Add the kale, shredded coconut and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Stir-fry for 1 minute, add 1/4 cup of hot water and put the lid on to steam the kale for 2 minutes, or until soft and tender. Add the lime juice and stir.
When the lentils are soft and creamy, add the coconut milk and remaining salt and simmer for 5 more minutes. Remove from the heat, and pick out and discard the cardamom pods and cinnamon stick. To serve, ladle into bowls and divide kale over the top. Serve with a side of yogurt and rice.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings.
Roasted Broccoli With Almonds and Cardamom (Malai Broccoli)
1 2/3 pounds broccoli florets (from 2 to 3 heads of broccoli)
8 ounces cream cheese, softened
4 tablespoons Greek yogurt
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon ground or freshly grated whole nutmeg
3/4 cup ground almonds
3 tablespoons lemon juice
Heat the oven to 400 degrees and line 2 large baking trays with parchment paper. Break the broccoli into bite-size pieces. Place all the other ingredients into a large bowl and mix well, using a spatula, spoon or electric mixer to combine. Add the broccoli and mix using clean hands, making sure the mixture gets into all the nooks and crannies of the florets.
Divide the broccoli between the 2 baking sheets and roast for 10 minutes. Turn the pieces over and return to the oven for another 10 minutes, or until the broccoli is tender, crunchy and charred in places. Pile into a bowl and serve.
Yield: 6 servings.