My first experience with South Indian fare was in Toronto, in a buzzing, cafeteria-style restaurant that looked like a food court in any American mall, but instead of fast food, the offering consisted of the most mind-blowing, bold-flavored South Indian dishes that weren’t like anything I’d ever tasted before. That ended up being one of the most memorable meals of my life. Since then, I’ve continued to seek out restaurants that specialized in South Indian cuisine, but rarely considered trying my hand at any of the dishes at home. Chitra Agrawal’s debut cookbook Vibrant India changed all of that for me. Chitra has spent years documenting her family’s traditionally vegetarian South Indian recipes on her blog, as well as adapting them to use the local, seasonal produce that she comes across in Brooklyn, where she lives. Her cookbook is a stunning collection of modern recipes, which honor her mother’s South Indian heritage, rooted in the ayurvedic tradition. The cookbook truly opens up a whole new world of cooking to those of us used to a more Western approach to food (and we are giving away a copy, see below :D ).
In a her intro, Chitra explains the difference between North and South Indian cooking, and chances are, the Indian food you’ve tried likely originated in the North – think naan, samosas and curries. Cuisine from the South is generally characterized by the use of lentils, rice and specific spice mixtures in dishes like dosa and sambar – delicious stuff that doesn’t get nearly as much attention in the West.
The book is filled with Chitra’s super comprehensive explanations of Indian cooking techniques like tempering spices, etc., which takes the intimidation factor out of the recipes. Turns out, making flavorful and authentically rooted South Indian dishes at home is totally doable. I’ve already made the Dosa, Lemony Lentil Soup, Banana, Coconut and Cardamom Ice Cream, as well as a few of the rices, and each one came out explosive in flavor, as well nourishing to the core. One of my favorite chapters turned out to be the Rice and Bread chapter, which offers a ton of ideas on preparing rice to be enjoyed as a main dish. Who would have thought that basmati rice could be so flavorful and substantial?! There are recipes for Lemon Peanut Rice, Fragrant Eggplant and Green Pepper Rice, Coconut Rice with Cashews, and Yogurt Rice with Pomegranate and Mint, but my favorite one of all turned out to be the Lime and Dill Rice with Pistachios, which I’m sharing here. Chitra talks about often getting a hefty bunch of dill from her farm share and not knowing what to do with the volume, which sparked the idea for this recipe that uses up plenty of dill. The result is rice so fragrant that it’s nothing short of heavenly. Chitra explains that she aims to achieve a balance of sweet, sour, bitter, spicy, and savory flavors in her recipes, which is what I mean when I describe her dishes as explosive, and that very much applies to this rice recipe as well.
Other chapters within the book include Breakfast and Light Meals, Salads and Yogurts, Stir-Fries and Curries, Soups, Stews and Lentils, Festive Bites and Snacks, Sweets and Drinks, Chutneys and Pickles – basically a ton of deliciousness packed into a beautiful cookbook.
Well done, Chitra!
In case you are wondering, the book does call for specialty Indian ingredients that you might not be able to find at your mainstream supermarket. However, if you enjoy cooking and learning about new ingredients, it’s SO worth seeking out a local Indian market in your area. I rely on our nearby Indian market for stocking up on ghee, fresh spices, rice and a variety of lentils, all at an affordable price. All the ingredients are also available online.
Giveaway: To enter to win a copy of Vibrant India, leave a comment here letting us know if you would be interested in seeing weekly plant-based meal plans, complete with recipes and shopping lists as a new series on this site. We are thinking of starting up a conversation about meal prep, and would love to gauge your interest! The winner will be selected at random on Wednesday, May 24th.
- 1 cup basmati rice (makes about 4 cups cooked)
- ⅛ teaspoon turmeric powder
- 4 cups cooked turmeric rice
- 2 tablespoons mild-flavored oil such as canola (I used coconut)
- ½ teaspoon black mustard seeds
- pinch of asafetida (hing) powder
- 1 teaspoon chana dal
- 1 teaspoon urad dal
- 5 fresh curry leaves
- 1 dried red chile, broken in half
- 1 large shallot or ½ medium yellow onion - finely chopped
- small bunch of dill - tough stalks removed, chopped
- ½ to ¾ teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon sambar powder (optional)
- ¼ cup shelled pistachios - lightly toasted and coarsely chopped
- juice of half a lime (about 1½ tablespoons), plus more as needed
- raita or plain yogurt
- hot pickle or Brooklyn Delhi (Chitra's company!) achaar
- Wash the rice in several changes of water until the water runs clear. Soak the rice in water, generously covered, for at least 30 minutes. Drain thoroughly, using a fine-mesh sieve.
- Place rice and 1¾ cups water in a medium saucepan. Mix in the turmeric powder. Place the saucepan over high heat and bring to a boil. Once the water is boiling, cover the saucepan and turn the heat to the lowest setting on your stove.
- Cook until the rice in tender and there is no water left in the pan, about 15 minutes. Turn off the heat. Remove the saucepan from the stove and leave it covered for 10 minutes, to allow the grains to separate. Fluff with a fork.
- Coat the bottom of a wok (I used a large sauté pan w/ a lid) with the oil and place over medium heat. When the oil is hot and shimmering, add one black mustard seed. When the seed sizzles and pops, add the rest of the mustard seeds and asafetida. Keep a lid handy to cover the pan while the mustard seeds are popping. When the popping starts to subside (a few seconds), immediately add the chana dal and urad dal. Stir to coat with oil, and turn the heat to medium-low. Continue to stir the dals so they evenly roast, until they turn a reddish golden brown and smell nutty, less than a minute. Rub the curry leaves between you fingers a little to release their natural oils, and drop them and the dried red chile into the oil. Cover immediately, as moisture from the curry leaves will cause the oil to spatter. Then stir to evenly coat everything with oil, a few seconds.
- Add the shallot to the wok and fry over medium heat until softened, less than a minute. Add the dill, ¼ teaspoon of the salt, and a couple tablespoons of water. Turn the heat to medium-low, cover, and cook for 10 to 15 minutes. Stir from time to time. When cooked, the dill should be darker in color and not have as strong a flavor as raw dill. Add the sambar powder. Fry for another minute.
- Stir in the cooked rice and season with ¼ to ½ teaspoon salt. Stir-fry for 1 to 2 minutes. Mix in the pistachios, reserving a few for garnish. Turn off the heat. Stir in the lime juice and garnish with the reserved pistachios. Taste for salt and adjust as needed. Serve hot with yogurt and hot pickle.