Indian Cuisine is the Brahmin of Vegetarian Cooking

I have been a vegetarian off and on for years and I have often struggled to find ways to prepare food that is healthy, vegetarian, and delicious.  It is not easy to find cooking methods that accomplish all of the above.  Most European cooking uses meat to some degree, even if it is just little bits for flavor, or if it forms the basis of a stock or broth.  I have tried to duplicate a lot of European dishes without using the meat, with varying results.  Pasta can be made quite tasty without meat, although I don’t want to eat too much pasta because I don’t think it’s that healthy.  I know people who have developed type II diabetes, and pasta is one of the foods that they need to avoid, since it is so rich in carbohydrates.  I try to add lots of vegetables to the sauce, so that I’m not eating so much pasta.  Then again, I can only eat so much pasta before I get tired of it!

Soup and stew are good options to incorporate other grains and beans.  Traditionally these things are made with meat, or with stock made from bones, which add richness and flavor.  Cooking vegetables for a long time, and adding fresh herbs at the end of cooking can increase the flavor of vegetarian dishes.  I usually don’t think that these preparations stand up to traditional meat stews and soups.  Besides, in the middle of summer I don’t want to spend that much time cooking a soup, and I don’t even really want to eat soup when the weather is hot.

I have experimented with many different types of cooking, from Chinese to Mexican, and a lot of the non-European cuisines have something to offer in terms of flavor.  However, none comes close to the variety and depth of flavor that Indian cooking achieves.  Indians have been blessed with a long history of agriculture and trade, and by the fact that the Indian sub-continent seems to have produced an astounding array of edible plants, including a barrage of spices and flavorings.  What’s more, Indians have a long tradition of vegetarianism, and so have developed a number of techniques for developing flavor without meat.

The sheer variety of spices alone accounts for a wide range of possible flavors using only vegetables, grains, and beans.  Among the techniques used by Indian cooks regarding spices are frying, roasting, using whole spices, and adding raw spices at the end of cooking.  If spices, such as cumin and black mustard seeds, are fried before other ingredients are added to the oil, their flavor increases dramatically.  They also develop nutty, caramelized flavors, similar to flavors that come from searing meat in European cooking.  Spices can also be dry roasted by swirling or stirring them in a small pot or pan over medium to medium-low heat until they have darkened and release their aromas.  This is the technique used to make spice mixes like garam masala.  It is for this reason that I have found that the garam masala I make at home has a much better flavor than store-bought, packaged garam masala.  Usually, commercially produced spice mixes are not roasted.  Once roasted, spices can be added to foods at the end of cooking, and their flavor will still be intense.  Another method that Indian cooking uses to create strong flavors from spices is by mixing ground spices with water, adding this paste to hot oil, and cooking the spices.  This way, the spices do not get as hot, so the flavors are not as intense.  On the other hand, it is easier to keep the spices from burning.

There are many other ingredients used in Indian cooking that make it unique and delicious.  Without the base of spices Indian cooking would not be nearly what it is.  One thing that is helpful with regard to Indian cooking is that, since the flavors are strong and there are so many ingredients, it is possible to incorporate many different types of vegetables and grains into Indian recipes.  Indian cuisine is very acquisitive.  After all, some of the most common ingredients of Indian cooking, such as tomatoes, potatoes, and chili peppers, are not native to Asia at all, but only arrived through exploration of the Americas.  It is apparent that Indian cuisine and recipes are open to new additions and to experimentation, making it ideal for people who like to cook vegetarian, but don’t want to simply subtract the meat from traditional meat recipes.

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