A chef from the cuisine capital of India shares his hometown's sometimes subtle, often spicy, and sumptuous meatless fare.
Credit: Becky Luigart-Stayner

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. [pagebreak]

The Indian Pantry

Whole or ground spices, spice blends, fresh herbs, chiles, and lentils are integral to Indian cooking. The bulk of Indian seasonings are common to many American pantries, but you may need to visit an Indian grocery store or large Asian supermarket for some of the dried seasonings and leaves.

Dried spices (seeds or pods): Spices are used whole, toasted in oil, or ground as a spice blend. Staple spices are black peppercorns, green cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, and black mustard seeds. Garam masala, a subtle spice blend, and mace and nutmeg are used in dishes from Northern India and the Indian plains. Fenugreek seeds, used in different regions of India, add a slightly bitter, earthy tone to foods. Omit fenugreek seeds if unavailable, as there are no good substitutes.

Dried leaves: Dried fenugreek leaves provide a less pungent bitter note than their seed counterpart. Bay leaves are used throughout India, too, to add fragrance and flavor to soups and rice dishes.

Powders: Amchur powder is a sour dried mango powder used in Northern and Central India. Asafetida provides a garlic essence and is popular throughout the country. Rasam powder and sambhar powder (both used in Southern Indian cooking) are spice blends typically containing fenugreek, asafetida, legumes, and chiles (or ground red pepper). Ground turmeric is often used to add golden color to dishes and for its slightly musty undertones.

Fresh herbs and aromatics: Curry leaves are available at many Asian grocery stores fresh or frozen. (You can freeze leftover fresh curry leaves in a zip-top plastic bag for several months.) The leaves are worth seeking since they deliver a unique citrus fragrance. Cilantro, mint, gingerroot, and garlic are common additions to Indian dishes.

Chiles: Fresh chiles like jalapeños, serranos, and Thai chiles provide sharp green flavor and heat that dissipates quickly. Toasting whole dried chiles in oil adds subtle smoky spice to recipes. Crushed red pepper flakes add more spicy heat than whole chiles but when toasted in oil contribute a similar smokiness. (Substitute one-quarter teaspoon toasted crushed red pepper for three whole dried chiles). For overall warmth, we reach for ground red pepper.

Beans and lentils: Served with rice to make a complete meat-free protein, beans and lentils are mainstays on the Indian table. They can also be used as thickening agents. Besides an array of lentils, which each have their own flavors and textures, yellow split peas (channa dal), kidney beans (rajmah), black-eyed peas (lobia), and chickpeas (garbanzo beans) are all common in the Indian pantry.