South Asian Favourites: Part III, Vegetables Front & Centre

Grainews

March 2022.

I moved to Vancouver from rural Saskatchewan when I turned 18, landing in an Edwardian house with two roommates on the East Side. I’d grown up on my Germanic mother’s honest meat and spuds, but the West Coast was a popular destination for immigrants, and I lucked into a South Asian enclave – shops and restaurants selling gorgeous clothing, fabric, ingredients, and foods. I was a student, money was tight, and I took to the cuisine like I’d been born to it. Part of the attraction was the warm spices – cumin, cloves, coriander, cardamom, cinnamon. Part was the emphasis on vegetable-forward food. I learned to fill my pot with lentils, basmati, and chickpeas, my glass with lhassi, my cup with chai.

The attraction hasn’t faded. I have been fortunate in learning from chefs and cooks who know more than I about the food of this vast subcontinent.

Jyubeen and Mittal Kacha took the long road from Mumbai to Canada, and after a brief foray in Swift Current, now run a small restaurant in Saskatoon called Urban Spice. Equal parts cumin, coriander, and courage brought the couple to Saskatchewan. What Jyubeen wanted was small town life for his wife and kids. “It’s safe. People know each other,” he observes. “We didn’t want a big city hustle.”

Jyubeen, who cooked professionally in India and attended cooking school in New Zealand, served stints as a flight services caterer in Mumbai, a Disney Cruiselines waiter, and a hotel supervisor at England’s Heathrow Airport, before arriving in Toronto to polish his food and nutrition skills at George Brown College. He creates elegant and flavourful food; Mittal works front of house.

His lamb korma is a succulent blend of onions, cashews, cream and the trinity of coriander, cumin and mustard seed, its complexity enriched with a double handful of spices (look for it in my previous column!). Palak paneer is rich and nuanced, pureed spinach, onions, and spices mellowed by house-made fresh cheese. Aloo gobi sparkles up cauliflower and potatoes with fresh ginger and cumin; dal tadka is lentils brightened with mustard seeds and curry leaves. Like the Moghul Emperor Akbar’s favourite dish, navratan, made with a mix of nine vegetables and fruits in honour of “nine jewels in the court” (nine wise advisors), this cuisine is polished. First we eat, then we move on to Southeast Asia.

Palak Paneer

Jyubeen’s version can be made with palak (spinach), mustard greens, amaranth, chard, or other greens. The creamy paneer is spooned into the spinach mixture at the last minute, where it melts into the sauce. Serve with basmati rice. Serves 4.

paneer:

3 cups milk

1 cup whipping cream

6 lemons, juice only

onion sauce:

2 Tbsp. butter, vegetable oil, or ghee

1 tsp. cumin seed

1 tsp. mustard seed

2 bay leaves

2 onions, minced

4 cups (2 – 3 large bunches) fresh spinach leaves or chard, stalks cut out and chopped, leaves reserved

6 cloves garlic, minced

1 Tbsp. minced ginger root

salt to taste

½ tsp (2 mL) turmeric

1 tsp. ground coriander

1 tsp. mild paprika or chili powder

2 tomatoes, chopped

2 tsp. garam masala

the juice of 1 lemon

spearmint and cilantro leaves for garnish

To make the paneer, bring milk and cream to a full boil. Add lemon juice and let stand for ten minutes. Place a sieve above a large bowl and line the sieve with a clean kitchen cloth or several layers of cheesecloth. Pour the mixture through the sieve, discard the whey and transfer the full sieve sitting on the emptied bowl to the fridge for at least 30 minutes.

To make the sauce, heat the butter, oil, or ghee in a sauté pan and add the cumin, mustard and bay when the pan is hot. Cook for a minute over medium-high heat, then add the onion.  If using chard, cut out the stalks, chop up, reserving the leaves. Add stalks to the pan. Sauté for five to ten minutes. When they soften and begin to colour, season sparingly with salt.

Add the garlic and ginger, turmeric, coriander, paprika or chili powder and tomatoes. Reduce the heat, mix well, stir in a little water to prevent sticking, and add the garam masala. Cook on medium-high heat until tomatoes soften and sauce thickens, about 30 minutes. Add a little water to thin to sauce consistency and puree using an immersion wand or food processor. Keep warm.

Wash the greens leaves, drain but do not spin dry, then puree in a food processor with just the water that clings to the leaves.  Add the puree to the onion sauce, bring to a boil and adjust the seasoning with salt and lemon juice. Take the paneer from the fridge and use two teaspoons to scoop it into the sauce. Heat through, stirring very gently. Serve garnished with spearmint

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction [CNF], Culinary

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