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The Spice is Right

With an 8,000-year history, India has perfected vegetarian cuisine.

With more and more foodservice customers looking to eat vegetarian, for various reasons and to varying degrees, operators are more interested than ever in building their repertoire of meatless recipes. While there are many ways to create an interesting plant-based menu, we recommend a long look to the East—particularly India—for inspiration.

Twenty percent of the world’s population lives in India and 40% of them, or about 220 million people, are vegetarians. For ethical and/or religious reasons, most will use dairy products but not eggs. Why? An egg is “alive,” but milk is not. While dairy certainly adds protein to the diet, Indian cuisine also ingeniously combines foods to create complete proteins and it does so with a world of deep, fascinating flavors and huge variety.

Two-way street: For hundreds of years, traders gathered spices from the southwestern region of India and delivered them by camel or ship to spice-crazy Europe and Great Britain, and the trading routes ran both ways. The Portuguese landed on the coast of Goa in the 18th century and introduced the locals to cashews, pimentos, papaya, saffron and eggplant. Hot chiles, tomatoes, squashes, avocados, yams, peanuts, potatoes and corn all made their way from the New World via Europe and are new to India, arriving only about 250 years ago. But Indian cooks took to the new flavors, and today’s Indian food wouldn’t be the same without those ingredients.

In the most general terms, southern India is known for super-hot food with coconut and tamarind playing central roles; in the north, cottage cheese, yogurt and wheat, rather than rice, are favorites; several colors and heat levels of mustard seeds are often used in the east; and, in the west, the food today is diverse with Western influence, but traditional sweet-and-sour curries and coconut-based dishes remain mainstays.

On the run: An overview of Indian snacks, or chaat, is a good place to start looking for vegetarian menu ideas. Chaat is sold from carts, prepared to order and designed to be eaten fast. The flavors, aromas and textures are vivid and varied—and many can be converted to cafeteria and catering menus.

—Potato chaat: Our closest comparable dish might be cottage fries, but naturally the Indian version has much more going on. Deep-fried potato cubes are tossed with salt, red pepper flakes and cumin, then drizzled with tamarind chutney. Garnish with cilantro or mint leaves, chopped onion and pomegranate seeds for extra color and flavor.

—Paneer tandoori: It pays to learn how to make paneer if you’re interested in Indian vegetarian food. Basically, this extremely versatile solid-style cottage cheese is made by adding lemon juice to simmering milk, then stirring to separate the curds and whey. Press the curds in cheesecloth and hang to drain. Once you have a nice solid block of paneer, making paneer tandoori is a piece of cake. The paneer is cut into fingers and grilled, then tossed with fresh chopped onions, green mango, hot chiles, cilantro, lemon juice and chaat masala. (Chaat masala, a blend of spices, can be purchased from Indian grocers.)

—Chickpea chaat: This satisfying salad with fabulous flavor is made by mincing fresh tomato and cilantro with chaat masala, ground red pepper, cumin and salt. Toss in cubes of boiled potato and chickpeas, sprinkle with fresh lime juice and garnish with more cilantro.

—Peanut chaat: Serve as a tasty snack or sprinkle it over vegetable dishes. Toss roasted peanuts with crispy fried onion slivers and season with turmeric, chaat masala, salt, ground cumin and ground red pepper; sprinkle with lemon juice and garnish with chopped cilantro or parsley. (India is one of the largest commercial growers of peanuts.)

Currying flavor: When we think “Indian food” most of us think “curry” and probably have a specific style in mind. But each state of the country has its own version, from very dry curries to thick, tomato-based gravies with different spice combos that give their curries unique flavor.

Whatever style you choose, a curry can make vegetables ultra appealing and, with a few protein-enriching tricks, become a balanced meal.

First, reflect on the fact that Indian vegetarians devised these protein tricks at least eight millennia ago. How they did it is a mystery, especially considering it was just during the past century that science learned that proteins are made of amino acids and that some foods have all the amino acids to make a complete protein. Foods that lack certain amino acids can be eaten in combination with other foods that include the missing parts to create complete protein that the body needs.

Plants tend to be short of at least one of the essential amino acids, so when several plants are eaten together, you’re likely to get them all. For example, grains and legumes complete each other’s protein picture. Indian vegetarian meals put that combination into practice. Many meals include daal, a well-seasoned, thin lentil or legume stew scooped up with flatbread or poured over rice. The combinations of grains and legumes are such a basic part of Indian meals, it’s hard to plan a vegetable curry menu without using one or  the other.

Add a snap of authenticity to curry meals with sides of fresh relishes and garnishes of sliced onion, radish and herbs, especially cilantro, mint and parsley.

The way of the vegetable: Not all Indian vegetable dishes are curries. Others are simpler, which makes them perfect to serve with dishes that have more complicated flavors and are likely to be just as popular with omnivore customers as they are with vegetarians.

Many vegetable dishes in Indian cuisine begin with a paste of garlic and ginger—and sometimes chili peppers—sautéed in oil or clarified butter. Start there and add cauliflower florets and potato cubes; add some turmeric and toasted cumin seeds, then cover and steam until the vegetables are done. Or, add chopped onion to the garlic/ginger mixture and cook them together in oil; add chopped green beans, a bit of turmeric and some unsweetened coconut; cover and steam for a few minutes.

A favorite in India and at Indian restaurants is palak paneer, or sautéed spinach with paneer cheese. The spinach can be spicy or not. If you want it spiced, start with a garlic/ginger paste plus some minced jalapeño; after it’s sautéed, add fresh or frozen spinach, cover and cook. Stir in cubes of paneer and a little cream.

Another restaurant favorite is aloo matar, or potatoes with peas. This one starts with a ginger-jalapeño paste (garlic is optional) sautéed until the ginger is lightly cooked. Add some water, then potato cubes; cover and cook. Stir in green peas and cook just until the peas are bright green. Stir in chopped cilantro.

Rice is an absolute staple of Indian cuisine and is served in many ways, often cooked with whole spices and vegetables. A good basic Indian-style rice is made by sautéing white rice in oil or clarified butter with chopped onion and garlic. Add whole cumin, a few whole cloves and a dash of red pepper, then water; cover and cook until tender. Add some grated carrot and dried red pepper for a change and finish with chopped roasted peanuts just before serving. You can easily add an exotic flavor to most rice dishes by substituting part of the water with coconut milk, buttermilk or plain yogurt.

Rounding it out: Sweets are popular all over India. Creamy rice puddings flavored with cinnamon and cardamom; sweetened condensed milk stirred with dried fruit and pistachios, and dense, sweet eggless cakes made with powdered coconut, flavored with cardamom then soaked in rose water syrup, are a few examples of ingeniously nutritious desserts in India’s repertoire.

Indian sweets often contain dairy, which will help complete any missing protein in a meal. There are heavy tracks of British and Portuguese influence in the desserts with steamed puddings, fried sweet dough and gingerbread remaining popular.

Carrot halva is a nutritious Indian dessert that’s usually piled in a pyramid on a serving platter. To make it, fresh carrots are shredded and cooked with milk and honey or sugar until the mixture is relatively dry. There are many variations but most include raisins, almonds and pistachios stirred in at the end and can include any number of spices.

Semolina pudding, or seera, is the food of the gods. It’s made with fine or coarse semolina stirred with milk and sugar to form a thick pudding. Then raisins, cashews and a dash of saffron are added. While it can be enjoyed any time, it’s always made during religious festivals and breaks the fast after temple prayers.  Some recipes call for farina—the hot cereal—instead of semolina.

Rasgulla is unlike anything in the West. Ricotta-type cheese and semolina are kneaded together, rolled into golf ball-sized rounds that are boiled, then drained and deep fried. Dip in simple syrup—flavored or not—for a thorough soaking, and they’re ready to enjoy.

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