Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Vibrant India by Chitra Agrawal

I feel fortunate to have grown up with parents who were always excited to try new cuisines. Any and every new opportunity to try something different was embraced with relish.

There weren't many opportunities for exposure to Indian food in our town, no Indian restaurants to speak of at the time, but our next door neighbors were Indian. Dad still raves to this day about a carrot fudge they shared when he helped them with a building project. I'm ashamed to say that I know no specifics about what part of India they were from and so can't say whether the food they shared was North Indian or South Indian. I don't even know if they were vegetarians or not. But I do know that that exposure and my parents' openness to foods beyond those they grew up with, left me with a lifelong love of all kinds of cuisine, Indian in particular.

I discovered Chitra Agrawal via Twitter and her blog, The ABCD's of Cooking. She started the blog back in 2009 (I came to it a bit later down the line), sharing vegetarian recipes "...rooted in traditional Indian cooking and reflective of Indian diaspora." And the recipes are based on those she grew up eating as well as those she's adapted and created herself using local ingredients in New York.  In reading her new cookbook, this becomes even more apparent with the many nods to her farm share as inspiration for new twists on recipes!

Agrawal's focus, and the focus of her new book Vibrant India: Fresh Vegetarian Recipes from Bangalore to Brooklyn, is mainly on South Indian food, as opposed to the North Indian cuisine many of us are likely more familiar with. And the key, for me, is that the recipes are laid out in a manner that's easy to follow and that they're generally healthy. In other words, recipes I can feel confident in recreating and good about eating!

I've mentioned before that my process for reviewing a cookbook first involves flagging a multitude of recipes to try. And I began that way here as well, but there was an extra step before hitting the store to start cooking. I headed over to a fabulous Indian market amazingly located quite near my house. It's a store I've frequented before for ingredients that are harder to find elsewhere - Indian chiles, fresh curry leaves, asafetida, black mustard seeds, and a handy garlic ginger paste that I always keep on hand - so I had some familiarity with the ingredients called for in most of the recipes already. (And I should add that curry leaves are phenomenal!)

Those ingredients in hand, I hit the grocery store for a few items and headed home to make my first few dishes: "Cucumber, Tomato and Onion Yogurt Raita" to go alongside "Fragrant Eggplant and Green Pepper Rice." Readers, there was almost no raita left by the time the main dish was ready, it was that good! And the rice, with its base of turmeric spiked basmati was equally tasty. The following morning, I made Chitra's "Hotel" Scrambled Eggs and they were beyond divine!

My house now fragrant of black mustard seeds and curry leaves, I decided I had to try both the "Beet Yogurt Raita" and the "Radish Yogurt Raita" as well. And then the "Butter Lettuce 'Dosa' Wrap With Curried Potato and Chutney" caught my eye too.

Meyer lemons in the latest produce delivery means my next recipe will be the "Meyer Lemon Pickle" and, the one I'm really dying to get to next, "Ben's Curry Leaf Popcorn" is going to be my afternoon snack.

As is always the case, I've still got most of the book to go. But I love that the techniques, once learned, are pretty universal for most of the recipes. Tempering the black mustard seeds and spices, for example, is a method that appears frequently throughout the book (the method that's left my house smelling so yummy, in fact), and it's super easy to get the hang of. Honestly, the hardest part for most people will be sourcing some of the more specific ingredients. Not to worry, though, Agrawal does include a list of places to buy Indian mainstays.

The recipes are incredibly versatile. Agrawal includes an intro to each dish listing, in many cases, variations as well as pairings for the dishes. And while many of them are spicy, which satisfies me of course, they can be made less so for milder palates. And there's always those addicting raitas and rice to help cool them too!

This is a book I'm excited to continue using. One that will help especially as our garden picks up this year and we find ourselves buried under tomatoes, zucchini, and (hopefully) eggplant.

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