A chef from the cuisine capital of India shares his hometown's sometimes subtle, often spicy, and sumptuous meatless fare.
Of all the cities in India, New Delhi, where I grew up as a Hindu as well as a vegetarian, offers the most exciting and varied vegetarian options. (Hinduism entreats believers to eat delicious, easily digestible foods. For many Hindus, vegetarian foods are the easiest and most fitting options.) New Delhi is not only the primary political hub of the nation but also where the foods and flavors of the country’s 28 states converge.
New Delhi is a crossroads. Historically, the city has been under Mongol, Afghan, and English rule. Over the years, political representatives from all over India have brought the top culinary talents from their regions so they can enjoy home cooking while working in Delhi. In turn, these chefs have brought foods like turmeric-laden tandoori dishes of Punjab, the saffron-spiced pilafs of Kashmir, cumin-scented vegetable stir-fries of Uttar Pradesh, and the nut-accented dishes of Maharashtra and Southern India to this city of now nearly 14 million residents.
Indian food is best known for heady spices, bold seasonings, and hot dishes, yet ingredients work together to offer contrasts. At meals, spicy balances cool, creamy pairs with crunchy, and warm offsets cold. For example, yogurt raitas cool the palate after a chile-laden stir-fry. Or crunchy peanuts counter velvety chutneys at a South Indian table.
And this balance of textures and flavors has been a part of Indian culture for centuries. We aim to balance protein (like lentils or beans) with starch (from naan flatbreads to potatoes), and to enrich dishes with vegetables. For example, instead of using flour to thicken soup, we use lentils and potatoes. Yogurt, rich in calcium, is part of nearly every meal, in a raita or lassi (a yogurt-based drink). Spices, aromatics, herbs, pickles, and fruit-based chutneys add excitement to even the most humble potato dish.
Eating as a vegetarian in India is not about substitutions and replacements; it is about cooking and eating with passion, with a nod to nutrition, and with a great appetite. Vegetables are the life and soul of Indian cuisine.