This week I’m excited to have posts from two guest bloggers, both of whom are not only great cooks but also share my love of learning about new culinary cultures. First up is Chris, who usually blogs about cinema but has a secret life as a brilliant vegetarian cook. I more or less beg him to make me his Southern biscuits with mushroom gravy every time I see him. Since I know I have some (long-suffering) vegetarian readers, I’ve persuaded him to share his south Indian-inspired vadai curry. Over to Chris…
Like many vegetarians, I have long privileged Indian food in my diet. In fact, certain Indian dishes are comfort food for me, and I’m not of South Asian descent. However, the dishes I crave most are not necessarily the Moghul standards that Indian restaurants specialize in here in the US but rather the homier dishes that I have learned from friends, cookbooks, and the occasional restaurant serving more regional food. Vadai (or vadi, plural of vada, sometimes transliterated wada or bada) are just the sort of thing I don’t often see on restaurant menus. Basically they’re lentil fritters, typically served as a snack with coconut chutney, and you could do the same or even treat them as an appetizer. But I find them a bit more trouble than I want for anything other than a main dish. So I make a curry with them, inspired by the vadai curry I first had at the excellent Madras Cafe, tucked into a stretch of strip-mall hell in Atlanta.
Vadai can be made from pretty much any split dal – dried lentils or chickpeas that have been peeled and split. Here’s where a good Indian or South Asian grocer will come in handy, but if you don’t have one nearby, you could equally use red lentils or (if you’re OK with more assertive flavor) split yellow peas. I would recommend urad dal, a South Indian staple, since its cream color and mild flavor serve as a good canvas for whatever flavor you want. The fritters are made much like falafel. That is, instead of cooking the legumes first, you soak them overnight then grind them in a food processor with spices then fry in small balls. My favorite recipes are from Yamuna Devi’s Lord Krishna’s Vegetarian Cooking (an uneven cookbook, in my opinion, but with some star recipes). I like the fluffiness of the fritters and the simplicity of her flavors, including one vada flavored with black pepper, cayenne, and asafetida and another with ginger and green chili. In fact, I like to combine the two:
- 3/4 cup split urad dal
- 1 1/2 tsp coarse freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 tsp asafetida powder – you can substitute 3 tbsp minced onion
- 1/4 tsp cayenne, or to taste
- 1/2 green chili, minced, or to taste (I use jalapeño)
- 1 tbsp grated or minced fresh ginger
- 2 tsp kosher salt
- 1/2 tsp baking soda
The first step is to rinse and soak the lentils ahead of time. Really rinse them thoroughly, under several changes of cold water, since they will have plenty of dust and starch. Soak 4-6 hours, or overnight. Drain, rinsing once more. In a blender or food processor, grind half of the dal with 5 tbsp water until thoroughly smooth and fluffy. It should resemble Cream of Wheat. Remove to a mixing bowl.
Grind remaining dal with 3 tbsp water only briefly, until it’s a course, textured paste.
Combine dals and add the remaining ingredients to season. Let set aside while you start the curry.
I go for a simplified tomato-and-coconut curry, riffing off this recipe. Puree in a blender or food processor:
- 1 medium yellow onion
- 3 cloves garlic
- 2/3 cup canned tomato
- 2 tbsp minced fresh ginger
- 1/2 tsp tumeric
- 1/2 tsp cayenne
- 1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
In a well-seasoned skillet, wok, or karahi, heat about 1/4 cup of a neutral oil over high heat until nearing the smoking point. Add:
- 1/2 tsp fennel seeds
- 1/2 tsp cumin seeds
Then, after a second:
- 1 stick cinnamon
- a few cloves
- a couple of dried chillies, to taste
The spices will darken quickly, so immediately add the onion paste. Turn down heat a little and stir occasionally. The paste will thicken and reduce. Cook for about 10 minutes, adding water if the mixture starts to stick. The mixture should by now have lost any of the raw onion smell. Turn off heat and stir in:
- 1/2 c. coconut milk
and enough water to thin to tomato-soup consistency.
In the meantime, heat up oil for frying. I’m never very exact with frying, but you should aim for a medium frying temperature (the recipe gives 340˚F). The vada mixture may be too wet to form patties, so just roll quenelle-sized dollops with two spoons and drop carefully into the hot oil. Fry in batches until golden brown and remove to drain on a paper towel.
When all the fritters are done, add them to the curry. Heat and stir to coat thoroughly, then remove to serving bowl. Garnish with cilantro. Idlis or dosas might be the traditional accompaniment, but to save time I serve this curry with rice or store-bought chapati.