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.