Indian vegetarian food must be one of the tastiest cuisines in the whole world. I am not vegetarian, (there’s nothing I love more than a good chicken curry), but I do cook and eat vegetarian food most of the time.
Vegetarianism has been practiced in India for nearly 3,000 years. With early precedent in Ancient Egypt, Greece and Italy, the Buddhists and Jains in India introduced vegetarianism and promoted the concept more widely from around 600 BC, making India one of the first consciously vegetarian societies. While estimates vary, India still has one of the largest vegetarian populations in the world, and one of the lowest rates of meat consumption.
And its no surprise why, when you add this simple fact to the myriad of cultural, religious and philosophical beliefs that make people vegetarian: Indian vegetarian cooking is just simply, truly delicious. Full of incredibly diverse ingredients, spices, vegetables, protein, the choice of good food is nearly infinite. You certainly don’t have to be vegetarian to enjoy good vegetarian cooking.
We recently hosted a vegetarian curry night at The Bombay Cook Club, and I also teach Indian vegetarian cooking at Sophie Budd’s Tastebudds Cooking Studio. We have made fresh paneer, dals, chickpeas, samosas, flatbread, vegetable curries, pilaus, chutneys, salads and stir-fries. Our guests leave happy, full and delighted to have enjoyed such a healthy meal.
And if only more people ate food like this. While my well-curated instagram feed is full of the loveliest fresh, healthy garden produce and beautifully cooked meals, we are very much a small community of the converted… the reality is very different.
The most recent ABS Health Survey on the consumption of food groups from the Australian Dietary Guidelines, based on 2011-12 data, showed that less than four per cent of Australians are eating enough vegetables and legumes each day, with the statistics worse for those under 18, where fewer than half a per cent were eating the minimum recommended fruit and vegetable intake per day.
The numbers tell us that a great majority of people are getting their food fix through energy-dense, nutrient poor discretionary foods: soft drinks, fast food, sweet food. In this time-poor society, convenience trumps real food, and many have disconnected from the process of growing, buying and cooking food from fresh, whole ingredients.
I love teaching people how to cook some of our traditional Indian vegetarian recipes, because I can show them this does not have to be the case: that it is easy, economical and incredibly rewarding to cook good food for your family.
Take one of our most loved vegetarian dishes…. Palak paneer. All you need is a two litre bottle of milk, a little vinegar and about half an hour to make fresh paneer for your family. Full of flavour, high in protein and calcium, low in carbs. Fry up a tin of tomatoes, some chilli and a bag of spinach, toss in your paneer and you have one of the most delicious dinners around.
One trip to any Indian grocery store, and you can stock up on some of the best rice you will ever eat, so many different dals and spices. They are economical to buy, store well and cook easily. You can cook up batches of lentils, chickpeas, beans… and freeze them in snaplock bags to use during the week.
And take the simplest of vegetables, cook them with chilli, ginger, turmeric, garlic, spices, add tomatoes, yoghurt, coconut milk: and you have the simplest, tastiest curry around. My children aren’t fans of plain vegetables at all, but you can put most veggies in a curry and they will get eaten.
I am convinced that being able to cook tasty meals at home is the key to eating a healthier and more diverse range of food. I have lots of fabulous, simple vegetarian recipes on this website, and you only have to google Indian vegetarian food to find many thousands more… I promise it will be worth your while to give some a go.