I think, one thing I love (or as Woody Allen would say, luuuurve) about Indian vegetarian cooking is that Vegetables have Character.
I restarted cooking – a hobby that gave me innumerable hours of pleasure while I lived in the US – just a couple of days back, after a haitus of nearly 5 years. And as soon as I began, the old passion came upon me to make Burnt Stuffed Aubergine, known in Tamil as Ennai Kathirikkai. You make a paste of coconut and chili and lentils, stuff it into quartered aubergines, and fry very slowly. To elevate this dish to the sublime, you must first roast the aubergine by holding it by its stalk over a naked fire till the skin roasts away.
As I was painstakingly performing this procedure, it struck me how few vegetables cook well this way. The only other one that I could think of was capsicum – nothing else.
Vegetables in Indian cooking have individual characters. To master Indian cooking, you must learn the secrets of each one separately, befriend them as individuals and not take them for granted as members of one big Vegetable family.
Beans, for example, may be cut into quarter-inch pieces and fried with lentils as an ‘usili’, but the closely-related peas would never taste good in a similar concoction. Cabbage must be shredded leafwise and cooked very lightly in oil so that it retains crispness, because its inherent character is that of a salad vegetable, like carrots and cucumbers. Cucumbers you never cook in Indian food – you make a curd salad with it or eat it raw. And when you cook beans, carrots and cabbages together – the so-called English Vegetables – you put the beans in first, then carrots, and cabbages last, because that’s the order of time taken to cook well.
Lady’s finger, or okra, has a soggy tendency, and you would always salt it after cooking to prevent the ooze. Drumstick is too strong a taste for eating alone, and you must put it in a gravy. Potato must be boiled before you can do anything with it, but nothing brings out its character as well as roasting with asafoetida.
The banana-veggies have their own mystique. Banana stem, one of the super exotics of the Indian menu, must be cooked with coconut. Banana flower, a rare treat that is treated with as much care as the puffin fish by purveyors of Indian food, must be washed in buttermilk to take the sap away.
To each vegetable a mystique is attached, and every dish is a conversation with a known entity, a renewal of familiarity, and ultimately, a knowledge of vegetables is what makes you a better vegetarian.