Vantage point

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Home Cooking Tips for Indian Grad Students Abroad: Chapter 1 Using the oven for Indian style vegetables

I decided to start with this topic because it's one learning I am very proud of. And have gotten good responses about on Twitter and even in a podcast.

For a time-strapped young desi abroad, the quick and easy home meal is dal-rice or khichdi or some version of it. Pressure cook in bulk, temper, and done for a few meals. Vegetables are good for you, but making a sabji/bhaaji, standing there, sheesh, so time consuming. You have deadlines to meet.

I am here to share with you a simple and time-saving technique that approximates well the taste of home-cooked desi style dry sabji. Roasting it in the oven. The oven, which is standard in any kitchen in the US, goes mostly un-utilized by desis, unless it's for occasional baking. My own oven gets used regularly for making sabji.

In my personal opinion, oven-roasted dry sabji tastes even better, but more on that later.

You might say, what's so revolutionary or novel about roasting vegetables? We have all had roasted vegetables. Big whoop.

I am saying that go beyond the typical Westernized Food Network-ish roasted vegetable dishes. Go beyond the asparagus, the green beans, the baby potatoes, brussels sprouts, etc. Try it on your other favorite or even daily vegetables. And use your favorite Indian spices. Put mustard seeds and/or cumin seeds in it. And it works perfectly.

But but but what about tempering/tadka/fodni you ask? We will come to that soon.

The broad recipe is very straightforward and adaptable

- Preheat the oven to at least 425F (higher if you like more char).
- Chop your vegetable the way you would to cook it on stovetop (my favorites are cauliflower, okra, eggplant, easily available in non-desi stores).
- Spread as flat and evenly as you can in a roasting pan or baking sheet.
- Add chopped onions and chilies if you cook it that way.
- Add salt, and whatever desi spices you would use on a stovetop. Sprinkle mustard/cumin seeds if you like.
- Drizzle with oil. Not butter or olive oil Western style. Any other oil will do - peanut, coconut, mustard, sunflower, canola, grapeseed, even bacon fat if you prefer.
- Mix well, ideally with your hands so the oil and spices coat all the surfaces of the vegetable.
- Put it in the oven.
- Now relax for about 10 minutes or so. Then take out the mix and stir it.
- Return to the oven
- Most vegetables will be done in 20-30 minutes. Depends on the vegetable and the size of the pieces
- (Optional) End with a 5 minute high broil. I do this because I like the crispy char. But you can skip it if you like.

What you get will be almost exactly like the stove-top stir-fried dry/sukka sabji, if not better. Cuts actual time spent in half. And is particularly brilliant for cooking okra. More on that later..

The Tadka Concern

Whenever I have mentioned this alternative method to desi friends, the most common objection I get is what about tadka? Without tempering, how will we get the same flavor? Tadka is awesome, they say, tadka is irreplaceable, they insist. To which I very politely say, pish posh. If you use the oven, you will get the same, if not better flavor, without the tadka.

To do that, we need to go through a small chemistry lesson. And I am explaining this as an amateur food science enthusiasts, so any experts or scientists reading this, please correct me.

What is tadka exactly? You heat oil until it's very hot, then add some solid stuff (mustard, cumin, chilies, whatever), then add some spices (hingi, haldi, mirchi,....), stir for a minute or two, and then add your vegetable.

Tadka brings out flavor, they say. Correct. But why does it bring out flavor? Because a lot of these spices, whole or powdered, release or transform flavor-imparting chemicals only at very high temperatures. The kinds of temperatures that only oil can reach, not water. And the vegetables we eat are mostly water, so the highest temperature they can reach is roughly the boiling point of water, if that.

So the tadka, at high temperatures (about 400F or higher), extracts the flavors. Then you add the vegetable and mix. And the average temperature of the whole thing in your pot goes down. And then when you keep heating, it goes up slowly as the vegetable cooks. Until it reaches somewhere around 200-212F (the water limit). And that's how you get cooked vegetable with the tadka-extracted flavors.

If you follow the oven roasting method with a temperature of at least 425F, and an oil with a high enough smoking point (which is why I said no butter, no olive oil), you get the same basic effect. The spices, mixed with oil on the surface of the vegetable and around reach the same temperature as in a tadka. And roughly the same flavors come out. The end result is more or less the same as cooking the whole thing on stove-top, unless you have a really particular palate.

I personally think this method results in "better" sabji, at least for me. I like my vegetables crispy and with some char. Getting that char in a pot on a stove isn't as easy. It takes time and a lot of stirring. In the oven, spread out over a larger area, bigger proportions of the veggie's surfaces are exposed to the hot oven temperature. And that process happens easily and faster. Especially if you follow that optional broiling step in the end.

If your tastes lean less towards crispy or char and more towards softer and cleaner skin, adjust temperature or time accordingly.

The Okra Bonus

Bhindi is the most annoying sabji to cook on the stove. Because of the gooey sticky thing is releases, so you have to keep stirring forever until it dries. There are some tricks you can find online about how to reduce the mucilage, but none of those completely eliminate it.

The advantage about roasting okra in an oven is that you skip the mucilage phase completely. Even when you stir in 10 minutes, there will be no mucilage. And to understand why, here's another chemistry lesson.

The stickiness comes from a mix of sugar residues and glycoproteins present in the okra. As heat is applied to the okra, the viscosity of these chemicals, mixed with water released from the okra, starts increasing at about 120F. It keeps growing. Remember that pot-heating is not uniform. As you stir, the temperature of the whole thing slowly increased. As does the viscosity of the mucilage.

Until the temperature crosses a certain point, about 180-190F or so. At this point, the mucilage starts hardening. So the chemicals are still there. They just harden and add to the crispy texture. Which is why as you keep cooking and stirring okra, eventually that sliminess will go away.

Enter the oven. Or rather, let the okra enter the oven. Which is already at 425F. Pretty high! Those mucilage inducing chemicals released cross the viscous phase and hit the solidifying phase of 190F within seconds. The slimy phase still happens. Just happens too fast for you to realize.

And what you get is crispy and well-done okra.


So that's my first real "cooking tip" here. Use the oven to cook dry vegetables Indian style. Whoever I have suggested the technique to, among friends, family, and on Twitter, have given universally positive feedback. On the ease of cooking as well as the end taste.

Home Cooking Tips for Indian Grad Students Abroad: An Introduction

A cousin of mine recently came from India for grad school. She was talking to me about the thinking and effort involved in cooking "wholesome" Indian food regularly at home when living in the US. I said, I hear ya sister. I was in, and fresh off the, same boat over a decade ago when I started my PhD. And I started sharing some tips and tricks about cooking I have learned over that period.

And I realized, damn, I have a lot of wisdom to share. Not just cooking, but even shopping for desi ingredients, and suchlike. Instead of leaving it all confined to a whatsapp chat with her, I thought of starting a series of posts summarizing my main learnings.

Most people who come from India to the US, either for grad school or to work, have never cooked at home regularly. Many have never cooked at all, and learn the basics before coming. This is because you either live with your parents and eat from their kitchen. Or you can very easily hire a cook to come home everyday. Or you can subscribe to a tiffin/dabba service.

Then you come to the US and it's a completely different world. And there are many issues. Obviously, you cannot afford a cook here on your income. Except for a couple of rare exceptions like New Jersey, Bay Area, and maybe Dallas, Indian tiffin services are either unavailable, or expensive. And of course, grad students and most professionals have a time crunch. So the time left for cooking is very limited.

Then there is the problem of sourcing or shopping. You may not have easy access to an Indian grocery store at all. Even if you do, its selections might be limited. Even if there are big well-stocked desi stores nearby, maybe you don't have a car. So on and so forth.

Even if you do manage to do the basics at home like dal, rice, veggies, chicken curries etc, sometimes you have hankering for specific dishes that you grew up with. But which you won't get the in the typical Tikka-Masala-Garlic-Naan or Idli-Dosai-Bisibelebath restaurant nearby. For me, coming from Maharashtra, it ranged from vadapav to Marathi fish like surmai/pomfret to matki usal to dadpe pohey to manchow soup.

This series of posts is going to be me describing my learnings and my experiences, as a Maharashtra-raised guy who has spent 13 years in the US and is the primary cook in our household. Some of it will be more general. Some of it might be specific to the Pune-Bombay palate and cravings. It will be very open-ended.

Just so you know where I am coming from, cooking-wise, here is my initial story of dealing with these issues when I moved to the US. It includes details of my background and tastes. It will provide a better context for my posts.

Firstly, I have been cooking since I was something like 11 or 12 years old. My father taught it to me and I had a couple of childhood guy friends who also loved it. From then till age 26, I cooked on and off. Either alone or with friends. But it was mostly like a hobby. It was recreational. And it was usually something "special" or "unusual", the kind of stuff you would think of as a feast - biryani, kheema, paneer makhni, stuffed parathas, pizzas, burgers, get the idea.

I had never really cooked daily "wholesome" food (which in my community means mostly vegetarian and non-heavy meals). I lived at home till I was 22, so it was mostly mom who cooked. 22-24 I was in MBA school so it was the campus mess. 24-26, as a newly earning professional in Bangalore and Bombay, it was a LOT of eating out. And at home, either a cook or a tiffin.

Secondly, I love all kinds of foods and all kinds of meats and other animal proteins. No food restrictions whatsoever plus an adventurous spirit to boot.

So for the first 6-8 months in the US, I was happy to eat out at "budget" type places. It was all new and exotic for me. For a few weeks, my daily lunch was a BLT sandwich in the school cafeteria, because this was my first exposure to quality bacon. Even when I cooked at the home I shared with other grad students, I got all kinds of exotic (for me) meats and seafood from the nearby store and cooked them. So much beef many much tandoori turkey leg....and again so so very much bacon, you won't believe it.

It was only after I had gotten all that exploring and experimenting and bingeing out of my system that I started craving the simple pleasures of what for me was simple daily "wholesome" food. I put that word in quotes because what is wholesome for you might not be wholesome for me. But it will have a lot of commonalities across the pan-Indian palate. 

So, this is my series sharing the lessons I learned as a cash-strapped and time-strapped grad student. Many of these lessons took years to learn. I hope it is useful to people.