This post is going to be serious. So don’t say I didn’t warn you. You see, I have been thinking about serious stuff, like what is the job of a parent and what is the job of a teacher. And I remember reading somewhere, that a good parent teaches her/his children to be independent, to teach them survival skills so that they can navigate the world without their help. Then I read somewhere that a good teacher teaches her/his students to be able to learn – by themselves.
Since I declared at the beginning that my mission is to teach you how to cook Indian food that is easy yet tasty, my mission would be only considered successful the day you can cook something Indian without having to refer to a recipe, online or offline. Right?
Therefore, I am going to show you how to whip up a nice dish in minutes, while at the same time giving you a whirlwind tour of the culinary diversity that is India. And I am going to do it with carrots, just because that is the only thing I have in my crisper right now in plenty. Are they even Indian? You might ask. According to Wikipedia, they were introduced into India in the 10th century. I grew up eating those in the winter while we were still in
Calcutta Kolkata, and all the year around in Madras Chennai.
But here is something important that I might repeat on more occasions. Just because something is not Indian, does not mean that you cannot make something Indian out of it. Because, what is Indian about a dish is not so much the ingredient in my opinion, although sometimes it is, but also the flavours and cooking techniques that go into it. India is a big country full of diversity that you cannot imagine if you haven’t been there. The range of ingredients, fresh or otherwise, is also huge. I remember when my parents moved from Kolkata to Chennai, my mother had to suddenly contend with the fact that a lot of fresh produce that she was used to getting in Kolkata were no longer available in Chennai. But she was no stranger to the situation, because before we were in Kolkata, we were in Patna. So being the resourceful cook that she was (and still is), she simply started experimenting with the things that were available, even trying out the local cooking techniques. We all enjoyed the expansion in our dietary range.
Which is precisely the reason I hardly ever go to an Indian store here. I do, but maybe two times a year. Just to buy lentils and spices, because they come in more variety, bigger bags and are more economical than our friendly neighbourhood supermarkets. Once I am there, I might buy okra or ladyfinger because as my husband likes to say, the neighbourhood stores sell it like homeopathic medicine. In packages of 6-10! Oh and bitter melon or karela, because we all love it!
So let me rephrase what I said earlier. The day you can cook something Indian with whatever you happen to have at hand without having to refer to a recipe, online or offline, would be the day I would consider my job done!
So back to my carrots. In this post I am not going to talk about Indian recipes that also use carrots. You don’t have to buy ten other things just to be able to make the dishes. Although, there are plenty of those kinds of recipes. But those will be discussed in other posts. In this post I shall showcase three dishes that use exclusively carrots as the main or only ingredient, if you don’t count the spices. And the spices are minimal, because well because that’s what this is all about. I have eaten all of them, at my home while growing up or at other people’s homes.
Recipe 1: Carrots with black caraway
This recipe is from my mother. In Bengali cuisine, how the vegetable is cut, will determine what the vegetable dish is called. If the vegetable is grated or chopped fine, then the dish is a ghonto. If the vegatable is chunky, either diced or cut into batons, then the dish is a torkari. Since this torkari has carrots, it is a gajorer torkari. Gajor (the “j” pronounced like in Jack) is carrot. Torkari is the generic name for a vegetable dish and also vegetables themselves. OK, enough backstory!
Carrots – As much as you want
Black caraway/nigella seeds – quarter teaspoon for every two cups of vegetable
A teaspoon of oil for every two cups
An optional fresh green chilli – slit lenghwise or cut in half
Salt to taste (or quarter to half teaspoon for every two cups)
Process – Cut the carrots in whatever shape you like. I would suggest cubes, simply because this is the easiest. Heat the oil and once it is piping hot, add your black caraway/nigella and the green chilli. Warning: Turn on the exhaust fan if you haven’t already or make sure the kitchen is well ventilated, the fumes from the chilli will make you sneeze). Let things sizzle for a bit and then once the chilli has brown blistery spots on it, add the carrots. If you don’t like your food spicy then take out the chilli at this point. You can always put it on top for garnish at the end. Stir fry on high heat for a few minutes until the carrots starts to look slightly blotched at the edges. Lower heat immediately to medium, sprinkle a couple of tablespoons of water, salt, stir well and cover the pan with something. Does not have to be a tight lid. Cook for a couple of minutes. Take off lid and check for doneness. How much you want to cook the carrots is entirely up to you. My mother makes it quite tender, because my father does not like crunch in his carrots. I, on the other hand, like my carrots to have some bite in them. So depending on how you like your carrots, you can either cook for less, or replace lid after making sure that the pan is not so dry that the vegetable is going to burn. Repeat your checking process (every 2-3 minutes) till you are satisfied. Adjust seasoning and remove from heat immediately. Notice that I did not ask you to add turmeric. We Bengalis occasionally like to see the colour of the vegetable that we are eating. But go ahead and add some turmeric if you like. If you do, then add it with the carrots and be modest.
Recipe 2: Carrots with grated coconut
This recipe is from Chennai. My mother added it to her culinary repertoire while we were living there. What gives it its regional identity is the addition of black mustard seeds and grated coconut. We, Bengalis also add grated coconut to some dishes, but usually not in combination with black mustard. Also note the addition of curry or kari leaves. These have a very distinct flavour and can be procured fresh or dried from Indian stores (or even South-east Asian or Chinese stores). Fresh is always the best of course, but in a pinch, the dried will do just fine. If you don’t have or don’t want to get curry leaves, that’s OK too. Your dish will still be tasty. You can get packages of frozen grated coconut in Indian stores if you don’t want to grate your own. I usually keep a bag of grated coconut in my freezer (another item I get from the Indian store). Do not use dessicated or dried coconut flakes instead. It is not the same thing!
Carrots – julienned or diced small, as much as you need
Black mustard seeds – quarter tsp for every two cups
Curry leaves – 6-7
1 or half dried red chilli (optional)
Grated coconut – fresh or frozen about half a cup for every two cups
Salt to taste
Oil 1 tsp for every two cups
Process: Heat oil. Add your mustard seeds, curry leaves and red chilli (ventilation alert!). Wait till you hear the mustard seeds splutter. They might even begin to jump out of the pan and land in various parts of your kitchen. Quickly add your carrots and salt. Stir fry for a minute and then add two tablespoons of water. Cover and cook until the carrots are done to your taste. Add the coconut in the last couple of minutes and stir well. Check that the carrots are done and the coconut no longer tastes raw. Adjust seasoning and remove from heat.
My mother would sometimes make this dish out of julienned carrots and mix it with freshly cooked rice to make “carrot rice” for my school lunch-box. Yum!
Note: If you were making it the Tamilian way, you would first steam your carrots and then add the seasonings fried in some hot oil. But I make it my minimalist way, in one step. I think it infuses more flavour into the carrots and reduces the number of pots and utensils used.
*Some more backstory: Years later, I found out that this recipe was apparently a Tamil Brahmin one. Because Tamil non-Brahmins, according to my self-declared non-Brahmin Tamil friend, tend to add more spices. More on caste and such sticky topics in another post because this one is already long.
Recipe 3: Carrots with Cumin and Lemon
This dish could be found in the vast expanse that is between the Peninsular part of India in the South, the Eastern part of India where Kolkata is and the Western part of India where the desert begins. But most likely, you will eat it in Northern India in winter, in regions where the climate is conducive to the farming of wonderful sweet carrots. The red ones will be eaten raw, but the yellow/orange ones might be made into a simple dish like this, give or take some spices, and called a (Gajar ka) bhaji in Hindi (if Hindi is spoken in that area). Gajar you might have guessed already is carrot. Bhaji is a dry dish of vegetables.
Carrots – cut into batons
Cumin seeds – half teaspoon for every two cups of vegetable
Turmeric – quarter tsp for every two cups
Hing or asafoetida – a pinch (optional, also see note below before panicking)
Chilli powder – to taste (optional, I didn’t bother)
Lemon or lime cut into halves
Oil- 2 teaspoons
Salt to taste
Process– heat oil, add cumin and asafoetida if using. Once cumin turns brown, add carrot, chili powder, turmeric and salt. Stir well, lower heat, add your tablespoon of water and cover. Cook until carrot is almost done to your taste. Remove cover and proceed to stir-fry over high heat until carrot begins to look glazed and browned at the edges. Add a touch of oil if things start to stick to the bottom of the pan instead. Remove from heat when done and squeeze your lemon or lime juice. Add a spoon of the juice at a time, stir well and check if it is to your taste before adding more. The end result should be tangy.
Note: If you have never heard of Hing or asafoetida, then you are not alone. It is one of those things that are unique to some Indian cuisines and are practically unknown in others. You will definitely find it in Indian stores, but if you are hesitant to try it (because the smell of raw hing can be a bit strange), then just give it a miss. Life will continue as usual and this dish will still be tasty.
So now that you know how to make three different kinds of Indian dishes out of one vegetable, how do you know which one to make? That is why I called this post “Trilemma”. And yes, I know there was no such word. Now there is. You could make all three like I did today and marvel at how different each dish tastes. The Bengali version is mellow and brings out the sweetness of the carrot. The Tamil version is smoky, sweet and spicy. The North-Indian one is tangy and has this delicious flavour from caramelized carrots. Each one a winner in its own right.
What do you eat these dishes with once you have made them? The answer is, anything. You can pair them with some simple grilled,broiled or roasted meat/poultry/fish/tofu with or without grains/potatoes, or pair them with soup and bread, or khichuri, or spinach and pumpkin stew with rice, or use it as a sandwich or flatbread filling. At some later date, you can make your own dal and roti at home like I will tell you how and then you can have a traditional Indian meal. But until then, you can seize the opportunity and pick up some frozen Indian roti/chapati/paratha while you are in that Indian store. You might need to try a few brands before finding a good one. In my experience, the ones that come from Canada are usually good. Those that come from Malaysia are invariably bad. Those that come from UK are good if you are lucky. Why? I don’t know.
So which one did you like the best? Leave your comments.