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A booster for Indian vegetarian meals

With the exception of an appliance for stone-grinding and kneading whole grains, no fancy gadgets grace the shelves of Sukumaran Muralidharan's North Baltimore kitchen. Two cast-iron woks stacked on the stove, a blender, coffee grinder (for spices) and a motley selection of pots and pans give no hint that within 10 minutes, Muralidharan will produce a vegetarian Indian meal that rivals anything found in local restaurants.

He tosses a handful of green chiles, peeled ginger and cilantro into the blender with a soupy mix of fermented cream of wheat and cumin seeds. Then, Muralidharan spreads the batter on a hot crepe pan and quickly produces a crispy, spring-green dosa, the flatbread that is a staple in South Indian homes.

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For the 46-year-old researcher at the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute and self-published cookbook author, a Spartan kitchen is the ideal laboratory for proving a subversive hypothesis: that anyone can prepare delicious and simple vegetarian meals with a few basic materials and ingredients.

Filled with a savory blend of potato, coconut and curry leaves, and consumed with a dab of fiery, homemade lime pickle, the dosa concoction confirms Muralidharan's theory with a triumphant burst of intense flavor.

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In A Short Course in Culinary Experiments: Vegetarian Indian Cuisine for Innovative Non-Experts (Kumar, 2007, $24.95), Muralidharan provides a primer in Indian spices and ingredients and has organized recipes in mix-and-match steps that are easy to follow and encourage experimentation. "Handle with enthusiasm," he writes. "Contents may cause a spark in creativity."

Muralidharan wants home cooks to improve on his recipes. He rejects slavish adherence to cookbook directions and no longer follows measurements as he cooks. Once readers have gained a basic fluency in basic techniques and flavor combinations, "I ask people to abandon the book," he says.

Growing up in the southern Indian state of Kerala, Muralidharan spent more time on the cricket pitch than in the kitchen. Later, on travels through Europe and as a graduate student in Canada, he realized that the vegetarianism he had taken for granted in India was not widely accepted elsewhere.

Muralidharan, who is a specialist in organic photochemistry, began to cook, attempting to re-create meals remembered from childhood. "Most of my historical taste memories originate from my mother," Muralidharan writes in his book's engaging introduction.

But on his trips home, his parents never would allow him to demonstrate his newfound cooking abilities. "They didn't believe me," Muralidharan says. When his parents later visited Baltimore, though, he was in command of the kitchen. "Mother approved," he says of his culinary skills.

With its blend of humorous asides, basic instructions and wonky nutritional information, A Short Course has gained a modest following in places where Muralidharan has received media coverage across the country.

In Baltimore, Atomic Books has sold 10 copies of the book in the store and online, says co-owner Rachel Whang. "For a self-published book for that price [to sell so well], that's actually pretty remarkable," she says. "It's very difficult to sell your own stuff when you have no promotion or marketing."

At Sepia, Sand and Sable Books in Reisterstown Road Plaza, A Short Course hasn't sold as well, says shop owner Clara Anthony. She has moved a few copies by promoting the book to customers interested in health and wellness. "It has enough variety in terms of the vegetables [featured] that it could satisfy almost any taste, no matter what one's ethnic background was," Anthony says.

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Today, Muralidharan and his wife divide responsibilities in their small kitchen, which is well stocked with fenugreek, turmeric, mung beans, mustard seeds, a variety of lentils, rice and other staples. Often, he'll cook a week's worth of food on the weekend to ease the workweek dinner routine.

The couple's two sons love vegetables and don't clamor for fast food. Muralidharan, dismayed by the general decline in vegetable consumption, wants to help other parents with stealthy strategies, such as blending vegetables into dosa batter, for getting carrots and spinach into children. "No need to worry - these biological experiments are unlikely to do any harm to them," Muralidharan quips in the book.

Standing in his kitchen, he makes a more serious appeal for vegetarianism by citing the recent beef recall. Besides, Muralidharan can't think of any reason why anyone would not want to follow his simple directions for a healthful family meal plan: "If it takes 20 minutes to cook healthy food, why not?"

stephanie.shapiro@baltsun.com

Pumpkin With Lentils

Serves 3 to 4

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1 small to medium pumpkin (see note)

1/2 cup pink or red lentils

1 teaspoon chili powder

about 10 fresh curry leaves (optional)

1 tablespoon vegetable or canola oil

1 teaspoon black mustard seeds

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4 to 5 cloves crushed garlic

1 tablespoon unsweetened dried or fresh shredded coconut

1 tablespoon lemon or lime juice (optional)

Peel pumpkin and cut into 1/2 -inch pieces. Wash lentils until water becomes clear. Add 1 cup water to the lentils and bring to a boil. Lower the heat. After 14 minutes, the lentils will be partially cooked.

Add pumpkin, chili powder and curry leaves, if desired. Cook for 10 minutes.

Heat oil in a wok. When oil is hot, add mustard seeds. Cover the wok to prevent seeds and oil from splattering. When the seeds start to burst, turn off the heat. Add crushed garlic and reheat over a low flame. Then add coconut to the oil. Watch coconut closely so that it doesn't char. Then add pumpkin-and-lentil mixture and heat for a few minutes, stirring well.

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For a tangy finish, add a tablespoon of lime or lemon juice, if desired.

Note: Butternut squash, spaghetti squash or acorn squash may be substituted for the pumpkin. Natural sweetness in the butternut squash and spaghetti squash will render the curry mildly sweet, similar to a pumpkin curry.

From "A Short Course in Culinary Experiments: Vegetarian Indian Cuisine for Innovative Non-Experts," by S. Muralidharan

Per serving (based on 4 servings): 152 calories, 8 grams protein, 5 grams fat, 1 gram saturated fat, 21 grams carbohydrate, 6 grams fiber, 0 milligrams cholesterol, 18 milligrams sodium


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