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Celebrity Health – Nisha Katona

TV chef and creator of the Mowgli restaurant chain Nisha Katona offers some tips on meat-free Indian cooking

Image of Nisha Katona © Gareth Morgans 2023

require a lighter touch than the traditional methods of cooking with meat. These ingredients are more delicate and often require little more than frying whole dried spices in hot oil to release the flavours and adding the veg for the required length of time. Then, simply add a little finishing flavour and you are good to go. For saucy curries, or salads, or even dips, pickles or desserts, some plant-based ingredients require more inventive treatment. Here are a few basic notes to bear in mind.

Roots and alliums
Potatoes, beets, turnips, carrots: these robust, dense and heavy vegetables can take whatever you want to throw at them. Naturally thickening the dishes in which they are added, they will hold their flavour well and also absorb flavours. Start them off with a zingy headnote spice, such as cumin seeds. Turmeric and chilli can be added partway through cooking. For finishing flavours you could use tomato, ginger, ground coriander and mustard paste. Alliums – onions, shallots and leeks – while often used chopped up and fried as a headnote ingredient, can also be stars in their own right. Try them cooked in larger pieces, or even whole, softened through slow cooking, their flavours tempered and sweetened, and you will find them quite delicious.

Pumpkins, squashes and courgette/zucchini release a lot of water during the cooking process, and so have a tendency to lose flavours if you are not careful. I advocate using robust spicing to ensure they don’t become watery disappointments. Strong-flavoured spices, such as mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds and asafoetida/hing, especially when fried together, ensure that punch of flavour is not lost. In salads, the freshness of cucumber will similarly benefit from the addition of a bold, fiery flavour, such as ginger.

Every one of the nightshade family is an essential ingredient in the Indian kitchen. Aubergines/eggplant, capsicums/bell peppers, tomatoes and chillies have a sweet nature and suit the dusty depth of fried nigella seeds as a starting spice. Aubergines work well with white poppy seeds and mustard. India’s beloved okra should be fried well before incorporating them into a sauce to eliminate that famous sliminess, or fried until very crisp and used to top soup or rice. Embrace the variety in this enigmatic family of vegetables and stock up on them with abandon, for they have endless uses.

Beans, peas and lentils
I sometimes say that pulses sit in the halfway house between meat and vegetable. Robust and heavy, they bring essential protein and can be treated as you might cook meat. I include chickpeas, kidney beans, green mung lentils, black urad lentils and butter/lima beans in this “heavy” group of pulses. However, split yellow or red lentils that have been stripped of their outer casings are what I consider to be a “light” ingredient. Heavier pulses can be cooked with an onion, garlic and ginger base, powdered spices and a rich and tangy tomato sauce. They can also be finished with yogurt for a velvety finish to the sauce. Light yellow or red lentils are quicker to cook and easier to digest. Cook them with asafoetida/hing, or green chilli to start and fresh coriander to finish. And invest in a pressure cooker if you are going to cook a lot of dal – it will make your life SO much easier.

Brassicas and leafy greens
Start with a headnote spice of mustard seed with a hint of garlic fried in oil, then add your green leafy veg or brassicas and play fast and loose with your finishing flavours. These types of veg can take a lot in terms of flavouring, but treat them gently in the cooking. There is nothing worse than overcooked broccoli or cabbage. Garlic will also work well as a headnote flavour for brassicas. Leafy kale, spinach or chard leaves don’t need to be overpowered by onion, but mustard paste and a squeeze of lemon at the end work very well to enhance their natural flavour.

There are so many fantastic options for cooking with fruit in Indian cuisine. The fruits that work best in Indian savoury dishes are those with a bit of sourness to them: lemons, obviously, but also green mangoes and gooseberries. Jackfruit is a fabulous workhorse when it comes to offering a meat-free option for a substantial main, and the sweet-sour nature of apricots is a great foil for earthy ingredients such as kidney beans.

Eggs and dairy
Eggs, cheese, yogurt and milk are highly prized ingredients. In a hot climate, where such ingredients could quickly go off without refrigeration, dishes with dairy are often considered treats or cooked for celebrations. Egg curries are rich and unctuous and treated almost like meat in their preparation, with an onion and garlic base. Paneer is a wonderfully useful ingredient for vegetarians as butter-based paneer curries easily rival their meat-based counterparts. Yogurt is used extensively for its cooling properties, as well as a binding ingredient in marinades.

Mushrooms and plant-based proteins
Mushrooms are a wonderfully versatile ingredient for making plant-based curries. Firmer varieties, such as oyster, chestnut/cremini or shiitake, mimic the properties of meat incredibly well, and make for a substantial and satisfying addition to a saucy dish. They can take the spicing that would normally be used for meaty dishes, so onion, garlic and ginger bases work well with an additional touch of garam masala. Tofu and soya proteins also pair well with traditional meat spicings.

Extracted from Meat Free Mowgli by Nisha Katona Copyright © Watkins Media Limited 2023Text copyright © Nisha Katona 2023 Photography copyright © Gareth Morgans 2023

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