Vegetarianism is the catchword of our day. Campaigns against cruelty to animals, emergence of all-vegetarian restaurants and tasty alternatives such as mock meats are adding to the tribe of herbivores world over. While the western world’s love affair with the greens is still in its first flush, India’s relationship with it goes back to the beginning of its civilization and is deeply embedded in the country’s culture.
Of late a spate of vegetarian cookbooks authored by famous chefs have sought to dispel misplaced notions about vegetarian food being boring and bland. Some, while using presentation and flavour fusion to doll up the veggies, have also rightly bemoaned the second-class status of plant-eaters in the snooty meat-lovers’ scheme of things.
Prema Srinivasan’s Pure Vegetarian, however, is not an attempt to give vegetarian food a glamorous makeover. And it isn’t just a compilation of south Indian food recipes either. Her book is an extensive and meticulous documentation of the history and evolution of vegetarian cuisines of south India.
Srinivasan starts by placing vegetarianism as a disposition and philosophy deep-rooted in the Indian ethos. Tracing its Vedic and Ayurvedic origins, she begins with prasadam recipes and the idea of food as a sacred offering to the deity. The recipes in every section are preceded by an introduction that describes the origin, growth and variations of that particular food, including recipes that were adapted from or influenced by north Indian cuisines. And she garnishes her gastronomic offering with anecdotes, musings and handy cooking tips. There are chapters on cuisines from different communities of the south, on vegetables, sweets, chutneys and tugaiyals, and even the tiffin-box tradition and art, pans, pickles and of course, filter coffee. Simple, non-air brushed full-page photographs of the dishes accompany most recipes. The only problem with the book is its unwieldy size.
Every aspect of south Indian cooking is detailed in the book. There is an entire chapter devoted to the history and science behind the vessels used in a traditional set up and its modern day variants.
The recipes shared were collected over a lifetime, starting with memories of an “orthodox middle-class Tamil household”. However, the book in no way glorifies traditionalism over modernity. The point, Srinivasan says, is to “fuse tradition with innovation”.
In an era of comfort food, flavour fusions and cosmopolitan cuisines, experimentation is the way forward, but it is essential to take pride in our rich and diverse culinary heritage to build on it. “We need to preserve our old recipes and gentler ways of cooking in times now past,” says Srinivasan.
At a recent event, noted chef Manjit Gill was asked why Japanese cuisine had been such a global success while the image of Indian food abroad is still stuck on butter chicken. He replied that is so because the Japanese take a lot of pride in their food heritage and even the tools they use to cook. Srinivasan makes the same point when she says that “India needs to rediscover its culinary pride”.
More such research, clearly, is the need of the hour.
■ 1 cup almonds
■ 1.1/4 cups water
■ 20 strands saffron
■ 1 cup sugar
■ 1 cup (plus extra for smearing) ghee
■ 1 plate with a 1’’rim
■ Boil 1 cup of water and pour over almonds. Cover and soak for 30 minutes. Drain and peel.
■ Grind almonds to a fine, smooth consistency with 1 1/4 cup of water.
■ Mix sugar and ground almonds.
■ Place sugar and almond mixture in an uruli/heavy-bottomed bronze pan over low heat and
stir continuously and
gently till the paste starts
puffing up. Add a few strands of saffron.
■ Add ghee a little at a time, stirring between each addition till the ghee is totally absorbed.
■ Smear a plate with
■ When the mixture
develops a floury texture,
mix in a few more strands of saffron.
■ Remove from heat and pour evenly on to the plate.
■ Level the surface with a knife and sprinkle a few strands of saffron on top. When cool, cut into 1”x1” squares or any other desired shape and serve.
■ Kaju burfi can be prepared in the same way. Soak cashewnuts for about an hour before grinding them.