One of the joys of cooking and eating vegetarian is exploring world cuisines. Many of the world's cultures eat either don't eat meat, or eat it sparingly - as more of a condiment than a focus. If you are a little adventurous, you can find incredible and satisfying vegetarian food in cultures other than our own.
I'm not sure where I first had it, but I have always loved Indian food. Unfortunately, living in Seattle, I had never had really good restaurant Indian food. In my opinion, what you find here tends to be very oily, rich, and - for lack of a better term - gloppy. Early in my cooking life, I instead turned to recipes that involved curry and devoured them. Periodically, I would try an Indian restaurant and would eat a ton of naan and then get a stomachache from the rest - just too much oil for me.
And then Randy and I went to Spain for our honeymoon. In typical Randy fashion, he was able to finagle a side trip to Paris and London so he could do some meetings and I could make it back to Paris for the first time in 12 years, and see London for the first time. (Randy is the master of making the most out of a travel schedule.) It is now hard for me to believe that in the first 32 years of my life, I had never been to London. Randy had been there many times without me for business and somewhere along the line, someone took him to Rasa and he knew at first bite that he had to take me there.
I have stated this in more round-about ways in previous posts, but Randy is not a foodie. Until he met me, he was of the food-is-fuel mentality. He didn't really care what he was eating, just as long as it was nutritious and tasted decent and kept him from bonking. (Full disclosure: his "bachelor meal" is rice, tuna, salsa, and cheese. He still eats this if I am out.) So the fact that he loved this restaurant and knew I would love it, well, that's the kind of thing that made me marry him.
Although Seattle is no culinary capital, I have always been a good and curious eater. My parents are both from New York and I grew up going there at least once a year and in typical fashion for my family, food was the focus. Early on, I learned to love the many different types of Asian food that are represented so well here in the Northwest. But I had never had South Indian cooking and what I tasted at Rasa blew my mind. This is a gross generalization, but the cooking in the South tends to be lighter, spicier, cleaner, and has far less meat. Much of it is vegetarian or uses fish as a protein. The Rasa that we ate in (there are several) was, at that time, vegetarian. So imagine me, so used to getting the short end of the stick in restaurants, sitting in front of a menu with the most incredibly interesting and incredible sounding food - all of which I could eat. I almost cried.
We ended up getting a tasting menu and I can honestly say, I have never been so full in my life. I literally could not stop eating everything they put in front of me. Everything was spiced perfectly, seasoned perfectly, balanced perfectly, and looked beautiful. Randy bought me the cookbook and I couldn't wait to get home and start cooking.
Not quite a year later, we had the opportunity to move to London for Randy's job. We went on a househunting trip and guess where we ate. Guess where we ate for my birthday dinner. Guess where we ate on a pretty regular basis. I couldn't get enough of it. We brought our friends Michelle and Dale there thinking that if we stuck to the less spicy dishes they would like it. They didn't - too spicy. But it remained my favorite place in London.
Whenever I want to make Indian food now, I pull out my two Rasa cookbooks. Many of the recipes use fresh curry leaves which are difficult to find. The one place I did find them in Seattle was at Uwajimaya - an incredible Asian superstore in the International district of Seattle. It is far from our house, but totally worth the trek because the flavor of the curry leaves is unparalleled (they have nothing to do with curry powder). They look like small fresh bay leaves and have a pungent taste - almost rubbery. This may sound unpleasant, but truly they impart the most round flavor to every dish they inhabit. The last time I went to Uwajimaya, I was told that they could no longer carry them because there was a U.S. ban importing them. I'm not sure if this is true because peeking around the internet just now, I saw plenty of them, but suffice it to say, that while I made Indian food last night for my clients, I didn't use my beloved Rasa cookbooks.
Instead I used three trusted recipes from food magazines that I cut out long ago. One of them is Creamy Eggplant with Green Peas. In the Vegetarian Rule Book, one of the top requirements is that you like eggplant. I have never been a big fan, but it falls under the "Don't Like it Much, But Will Eat It" category instead of the "Don't Like It and Won't Eat It". (I think the only thing on that list is okra.) This eggplant dish I not only eat but I enjoy it. The eggplants are first roasted at high heat and then mixed together with lots of spices, tomatoes, onions, peas, and yogurt so it becomes creamy and takes on the complex flavors that are in the dish. It is relatively easy, nutritious and very tasty.
A friend mentioned that she has seen curry leaves at R & M Grocery in the University District, so next time, it's back to my Rasa Cookbooks!
Creamy Eggplant with Green Peas
Adapted from Food and Wine Magazine
3 lbs eggplant
1 tsp. cumin seeds
1 small yellow onion
1 jalapeno pepper, minced with some seeds
1 large garlic clove, minced
1 1/2 tbsp. peeled, minced fresh ginger
1 dried red chile, broken
3 medium tomatoes, seeded and finely chopped
1 tsp. paprika
1/2 tsp. tumeric
1 1/4 cup frozen peas, thawed
1 cup chopped cilantro
1/2 plain yogurt
1. Preheat the oven to 500 degrees. Put the eggplant on a rimmed baking sheet and pierce them all over with a knife. Bake for about an hour, or until the skin is blackened and the flesh is very soft. Let cool slightly. Peel off the skin and scrape the flesh into a large bowl. Mash the eggplant coarsely.
2. Meanwhile, heat the a couple of tablespoons of oil in a large, deep skillet. Add the cumin seeds and cook over high heat until they sizzle, about 10 seconds. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened and starting to brown, about 10 minutes. Add the jalapenos, garlic, ginger and red chiles and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 3 minutes. Add the tomatoes and boil until all the liquid has evaporated, about 8 minutes. Add the paprika and tumeric and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 3 minutes. Stir in the eggplant and cook over low heat for 10 minutes to blend the flavors. Add the peas and cook 5 minutes longer. Stir in the chopped cilantro and the yogurt and season with salt.