“Vibrant India” is the perfect cure for the late winter kitchen blues

Let me be blunt for a moment. All those delicious Pi Day pies and snow day stews aside, this is the worst time of year for cooking. Late winter and early spring are a challenge in in the kitchen. The chicken pot pies, roasted vegetables and bean soups I was so excited to make in October feel heavy and boring now, and it’s going to be more than a few weeks before the first spring edibles show up at the farmer’s market.

We’re in luck though, fellow cooks. A new book came out today that will help get us all over the hump and into nettle, asparagus and pea season.

Vibrant India, Fresh Vegetarian Recipes from Bangalore to Brooklyn is the first cookbook from Chitra Agrawal, cook, writer and owner of Brooklyn Delhi. She wrote a great guide to eating all over the subcontinent by taking a day trip to Edison and Iselin, N.J. for us a few years back, and if you’ve always wanted to try your hand at cooking South Asian food, but have never quite been able to make sense of all the spice roasting and grinding, this is the book for you.

Agrawal’s recipes are not the heavy butter chicken and saag paneer type fare–which is generally Northern Indian in origin–that often represents Indian cuisine in the U.S. In the foreword she explains that her cooking is very much informed by the vegetarian cuisine of South India, Bangalore specifically, which is based around rice, beans, pulses, fresh vegetables and spices like mustard seed, hing and tumeric.

What does South India have to do with late winter cooking?

Many of the recipes in Vibrant India are variations on rice and dal, which are not just hearty, durable, winter fare, they’re also fragrantly spiced and lush with coconut, ghee and curry leaves. This combination of new flavors and cooking techniques is sure to hold your attention until the farmer’s market is full of ingredients for her spiced spring vegetable and coconut polenta recipe.

I’ve tried to wrap my head around how to build up a pantry of spices and the techniques for cooking Indian dishes at home several times, never with much luck. There are several South Asian cookbooks on my shelf and I’ve never prepared a single dish from any of them. I get overwhelmed by planning what to make, gathering the ingredients and understanding the techniques. This book feels so much more accessible and easy to understand than my past forays into subcontinental cooking.

Mixing dough for sweet potato scallion buns. Photo: Annaliese Griffin

Mixing dough for sweet potato scallion buns. Photo: Annaliese Griffin

In her step-by-step, patient instructions and calm explanations of how to deal with spices and substitutions you can make for less common ingredients, it becomes obvious that Agrawal doesn’t just cook for herself, she’s a teacher who wants other cooks to enjoy her recipes, too. “I have laid out the book very similar to how I teach my Indian cooking classes,” she told me in an email. “I introduce the concept of tempering spices in oil early on and that same technique is applied throughout the book in most every savory recipe. I’d love readers to get familiarized and comfortable with that process and the recipes in the book and eventually feel comfortable enough to apply what they have learned to their everyday cooking or to other ingredients. For instance, I taught my Midwestern husband how to fry black mustard seeds, asafetida, curry leaves and red chili peppers in oil for the lemon peanut rice recipe in the book. He soon got comfortable with that and then fried those same spices in butter to flavor his homemade popcorn.” Yes, there’s a recipe for that popcorn in Vibrant India.

Even though it’s right there in the title, it took reading the introduction, (unlike many cookbooks this intro very much worth reading–it delves into how her parents met at university and are from two different parts of India and two different castes, all of which informs Agrawal’s cooking today), to realize that this is a vegetarian book. There are so many delicious and interesting recipes (coconut rice with cashews or chickpea salad with summer vegetables, anyone?) that I half forgot that meat even exists while planning what to make. I turned out some pretty decent dosas on the first try, and the masala potato filling is destined to become part of the regular rotation in my house, though the dosas themselves (crispy rice and dal crepes) take a few days to ferment prior to cooking and will likely be more of a special treat. Agrawal suggested that first timers new to Indian cooking start with lemon peanut rice (Nimbekai Chitranna); red lentil, potato and carrot stew (Tharakaari Huli ‘Sambar’) and radish yogurt raita as their first menu.

Masala dosas at home are pretty heavenly. Photo: Annaliese Griffin

Masala dosas at home are pretty heavenly. Photo: Annaliese Griffin

Vibrant India marked a big career transition for Agrawal. Though she was sharing her passion for Bangalorean fare at markets and in cooking classes around Brooklyn, for a long time she balanced that with a full-time career in marketing, which left her with very little time to sleep. So she quit her job and dove in to the food world. “At first, it was exciting and liberating and then quite scary at times, but the good always outweighed the bad for me,” she said. “As a woman of color it’s also the perfect way to bypass the glass ceiling, which I felt was ever-present while working in the corporate world. The interesting part is that I’ve actually been able to apply quite a lot of the skills I picked up in business school and in marketing to running Brooklyn Delhi and to working on my cookbook.”

So stock up on basmati rice and dal of all kinds (there’s an excellent guide to the different lentils and beans that can be called “dal” in the guide to using the book), and ride winter out with delicious flatbreads and spicy stews. By the time the full bounty of summer is upon us you’ll be a pro at roasting spices and bruising curry leaves.

Where to stock your pantry:
Patel Grocery in Sunset Park, Brooklyn
Patel Brothers in Jackson Heights, Queens
Kalustyan’s in Murray Hill, Manhattan
Little India Shop in Murray Hill, Manhattan
Dual Specialty Store in East Village, Manhattan

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