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A classic recipe from the land of the coconut……!

about ajoy

i’ve been a chef for over three decades now! i trained in chennai and started off with the taj hotel group. i’ve owned nilgiri’s indian restaurant in sydney for over 15 years. i’m on a mission to dispel the myth that indian food is no more than a ‘curry in a hurry’! come with me as i try and educate. indian food is my passion (alongside cricket!) and i’m enjoying exploring the new social media to fulfil this passion! i’ve also published cookery books, been on tv, the radio, won awards! now i’m also moving into making cookery videos. these are simple and easy to follow and don’t go on for hours like some Bollywood movies!

vegetable ishtew

Folks, this week we are making a dish that my ‘mallu’ friends call ‘ishtew’. Generally made with beef or chicken, here is my version with vegies and yes it is a ‘VEGAN‘ dish !!

ingredients clockwise starting in the 2 o’clock position: coconut oil, chopped red onions, sliced green chillies, broccoli and cauliflower florettes, diced tomatoes, kari leaves, ginger juliennes. outer ring: diced beans, cassia bark, green cardamom, cloves, mace blade, black peppercorn, star anise, caramelised onions, coriander leaves, coconut cream (or whole coconut if you are really keen; otherwise use coconut cream), diced potatoes, diced carrots

If you want instructions on how to caramelise onions (or even slice them), check out my techniques page.

Blanching the vegetables

Step 1

prepare mixing bowl of iced water

Step 2

add salt to boiling water in a large pot

Step 3

add diced potato to boiling water

Step 4

cook the potatoes until they are al dente

Step 5

to check of the potatoes are al dente, remove one from the pot and cut it with a knife – it should slide through like ‘cutting’ butter

Step 6

when the potatoes are al dente, scoop from the pot and place in iced water to stop the potato cooking any more

Step 7

Repeat this process for beans, carrots, broccoli and cauliflower – cook each vegetable separately when blanching.

Cooking the spices, onion, fresh chilli, kari leaves and tomato

Step 1

In a large frying pan, heat pan and add coconut oil. When the oil smokes, add spices separately, folding between each addition. Start with the cassia (cinnamon sticks), then green cardamoms, cloves,black peppercorns and mace blades.

Step 2

Look for signs that the spices have cooked. Initially the cassia will be furled. When it has cooked, it will be open.

cassia (cinnamon stick) not ready since it hasn’t unfurled

unfurled, now it is perfectly cooked

cooked cardamon pods will swell, like this

cooked mace will only slightly unfurl, like this

Step 3

now the spices are cooked, add chopped onions and keep folding whilst the onions caramelise. n.b. the coconut oil will froth

Step 4

add salt and fold

Step 5

when your onions have caramelised like this, it’s time to add the thinly sliced (julienned) ginger

Step 6

add the ginger and fold

Step 7

add fresh green chillies and fold

Step 8

add half the kari leaves and fold. repeat this process with the remaining half

Step 9

when your mixture looks like this, it’s time to add caramelised onions

add caramelised onions and fold

Step 10

when your onions look like this, it’s time to remove a cup of them to be used as a garnish

Step 10

setting aside some of the garnish

Step 11

add chopped tomatoes to the frying pan and fold until their skins have almost separated from the flesh (as above!)

Step 12

when the tomato skins have almost split, add coconut cream and fold

Step 13

turn down the heat so the coconut does’t boil as it will split if it boils. Small sporadic bubbles are fine!

Step 14

drain blanched vegetables and keep discarded water

Step 15

add vegetables to pot and fold

Step 16

keep folding until all the vegetables are covered by the creamy sauce

Step 17

cover pot for ten minutes, remove lid: your vegetables will (should!) look like this

Step 18

check that your sauce isn’t too runny – dip a spoon into the sauce and remove; the sauce shouldn’t run off the spoon but drip off. If the sauce runs off, keep reducing the sauce

if the sauce doesn’t drip off your spoon, add a little water (use the water from the blanched vegetables)

only add a little water (kept aside from the strained vegetables) at a time (if you need to)

Step 19

sample your dish – add salt to taste, if needed

Step 20 – Plate the dish

serve the meal – maybe on a banana leaf and red rice noodles a.k.a. Idiappam!

red rice noodles can be purchased from an Indian grocery store all ready to heat and serve!!

Step 21 Add garnishes and enjoy!

add chopped coriander

add caramelised onion/spice mixture you had set aside earlier

So folks, as promised, we are on a journey!! Not only am I ‘touring’ the vast land of India and showing you the great variety of its food, I’m also focusing on vegan dishes! Don’t, my dear meat-eating friends, be ‘put off’ by this. Make some of these as a side dish, if you want, with some kebabs (remember?) or lamb cutlets that take minutes to cook. And as for my vegan friends, well yes, I know, this is more than enough as a good meal in itself.

Until then, happy VEG(AN)TARIAN cooking and remember Indian food is NO DAMN CURRY IN…..!!! When I show this dish to people they say, “Is it Thai, Italian, Macrobiotic . . . etc. etc. etc.” and never bl–dy Indian. And on that merry note.

Anah Daata Sukhi Bhaava!!!

I’ve bought the dried beans and lentils….now what?

Most classes at my restaurant get booked out, but not the class on beans and lentils (lentils are generally known as dal in India)!!

Beans or lentils? Read this blog to clear up the confusion!

It was not until 2003 we realised that a dedicated class on beans and lentils was not attractive for the participants because of the myth, ‘eat beans will fart’!!

Most participants in the class are men, who according to their partners are already a ‘gas bomb’, so why send them for a lesson on becoming a ‘master’ in this fine art of which they are already an expert? Jokes apart, B&L are badly misunderstood, like most men. They are not all gas and they do have some substance!!

So what are beans and lentils?

The short answer is that they both belong to the pea family (i.e. legumes, or plants whose seeds are in a pod). The shape of the pea seed determines if they are called beans (kidney shaped) or lentils (lens shaped). Chefs never refer to peas as ‘peas’ unless they are fresh.

Furthermore, beans have the two pods wrapped around a membrane whilst lentils don’t have this membrane, hence the two pods are separate. And that’s why they’re called split peas!!

And what are some of the examples of these beans and lentils?

Well, some popular examples of beans include: red kidney or rajmah, black-eye beans or lobia, chick peas or kabuli chana, green beans or moong (mung) beans, black beans or urad sabot.

And some examples of lentils include: yellow or mung lentils, white lentils or urad, chick pea lentils or chana dal, red lentils or masoor.

Okay, so we’ve listed some of them so to get the ball rolling, let’s talk about beans. Should we soak them or not?

Yes! We all know that we should ‘soak the beans’.

But for how long?

We soak our beans in water (at room temperature) in a pot large enough to hold about three times the amount of water to the amount of beans at the bottom of the pot.

This allows the beans to soak in enough moisture so that they can swell or balloon without breaking the skin. If you’ve ever soaked your beans in a pot or bowl that’s not big enough you’ll have noticed that the beans swell and the skin splits as the beans have nowhere else to go but expand!

Bad beans! Split and shrivelled skins mean you stinted on water when soaking them.

The pot is then kept near a warm place, preferably overnight, without disturbing it.

(I generally do the soaking after the sun has gone down and keep it soaking till the sun comes up!!) Or, as many recipes state, “soak overnight”.

The next morning, depending how much the beans have absorbed the water, more water is added to keep the beans submerged in the water (the water is now called ‘pot liquor’) and then it’s placed on a medium heat until it comes to the boil. No stirring is allowed as this makes the beans stick to the bottom of the pot and they’ll eventually burn!

To this day I have no bl..dy idea why this happens but to me these are the little nuances that make Indian food so mysterious, challenging and alluring!

Red kidney beans (not Mexican jumping beans)

The froth that rises to the top of the cooking beans must be stirred back into the pot and not discarded as some books say. I was taught to stir the froth back into the cooking beans. The heat is then reduced so that the beans simmer for a few hours.

How long we simmer for depends on the beans. Rajmah (red kidney beans) take a few hours while black-eyed beans take just under an hour.

Once cooked, the beans must be soft so that they mash easily between the thumb and the forefinger when pressed together.

They must also have their skin intact! This is very important because if the skin tears as the beans are cooking, the beans then become hard to digest and cause bloating which leads to indigestion and that so-called crime attributed to all beans: ‘farting’. For insurance,  you can add  dried fenugreek leaves (qasoori methi) before the tempering is done when cooking our beans.

Mung beans

So, well-cooked beans are a great source of protein and a great substitute for meat. In states like Gujarat and Maharashtra, and other parts of India where meat is not very popular, beans are the energy tanks!

So there we have the rudiments of soaking and simmering and getting our beans ready for the base of our dish.

Now, let’s move onto dal which have a bad press, like beans, with the added insult that since the 1970s they were seen as the only thing that vegetarians ate!

chick pea lentils

Firstly, lentils don’t need to soak over night. But how do we cook them?

Lentils should be cooked in room temperature tap water. This allows the dal to cook from the inside out. If you add the lentils to hot water then the outside starts to cook first whilst the inside remains raw, just like when you boil your eggs you start off with cold water!!

Once the water has come to the boil the lentils are then cooked over a low heat.

Once cooked the lentils should mash easily.

Having reached this stage lentils are now ready to have the flavours of the region it’s going to be cooked in added, such as vagharne from (Gujarat), talchikottu (Tamil Nadu), oogharne (Karnataka), and so on and so forth!

And now to the million-dollar question about lentils.

white dal (urad)

How do I prevent any flatulence from happening after eating dal?

Okay. Let’s get this straight. During the tempering process it is important to add asafoetida. Asafoetida is a strong smelling sap of the large ‘fennel like’ tree that comes from Afghanistan. It is sold as a block or as a dried powder. We generally add it to the hot oil, along with the other spices, before it is added to the cooked lentils.

And can we cook lentils and beans together?


The dal makhni is a classic example of this and is soaked overnight because it has both beans and lentils in it (it uses rajmah, whole black urad and split chick peas).

Okay. So how do you cook sprouted beans?

Most Indians make a kind of usad or usal which is a simple preparation where the sprouts are tossed in a tempering that is popular to a particular region and then it is simmered without being overcooked. This delicious and simple dish is served as an afternoon snack!

Sprouted beans are extremely healthy and are very popular in India.

And can we make a dry dal?

Of course. If you do it is then called a dal-be-aab and it’s one of my favourite dishes.

The dal (lentils) are cooked and allowed to simmer till all the water has evaporated leaving behind a solid mass of cooked lentils.

Mom used to cook this and keep the tempering separate for us to add as much as we liked with chopped onions and coriander leaves and lemon juice. Slurrrrrrr…..p!! Served with a wholemeal roti, this is a winner in my house.

split yellow lentils

Can we cook lentils and meat together?

Most certainly. A very popular dish from Hyderabad is called dalcha gosht where chickpea lentils and meat – usually it’d be goat or lamb – are slow cooked together and then tempered. Served with a kulcha (a delicious flat bread) this is a “beauty”.

Okay, so how about rice and dal, can we cook them together?

You bet. The most popular version is called khichadi or pongal or khichada or bisi bhele bhath!! The English call it kedgeree. Of course they added their own unique ingredients to the dish that we all know so well: “curry powder” and Brussel sprouts and smoked haddock (there are lots of different versions of this dish and some people add hard-boiled eggs whilst others would never add Brussel sprouts and etc.)!!

So my friends, beans and lentils are more than just ‘hot air’. If they were just ‘fart inducers’ Indians would have been the cause of global warming and the land itself  would  have been a ‘gas chamber’ and there wouldn’t have been 1.2 billion people………!!

Anah Daata Sukhi Bhava!!

Please try either a black-eyed beans recipe or a red lentil recipe.

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