I was browsing through some restaurant reviews on Yelp recently and was especially struck by one from an incensed dinner guest at a relatively new place in Eugene, Oregon – the primary issue of this reviewer was that the chef owner of this restaurant apparently had not included any dishes that would satisfy vegetarians. A discussion ensued between the dinner guest and his server that essentially went like this – (Guest), “I’d like you to let the chef know that there is an obvious omission in his menu that he may not be aware of.” (Server), “Oh he knows very well about the omission – in fact, he intentionally made it that way!” This enraged the diner guest so much that he apparently was motivated to immediately go and write a vitriolic tirade for the whole world to see on Yelp.
OK, I know the type well – any place that does not cater significantly to their personal wants and desires must somehow suffer a cruel fate. But here’s my only question, “Why then aren’t Vegetarian Restaurants taken to task regularly for doing the same thing in reverse?”
Yeah, I know this issue goes much deeper than this, but I found the guy’s tirade humorous, and I thought it’d make a good segue into my post today – you see, I think I can say the things I did above because I’ve got a foot in both camps – what I mean by that is that although I’m not a vegetarian – strictly speaking – I sure as hell love vegetables! In truth, I’d have no trouble having to spend a week or two in a row as a vegetarian – and frankly, we already have a quite limited meat/fish intake at our house – perhaps four to five ounces a day on average.
But the reason why I’m not totally impressed with the vegetarian argument is simply that I’m more impressed with the “everything in moderation” argument. And this of course allows me to make any choices based on logic, personal standards and principles, or health that I wish to make, and still not eliminate a taste I may have once loved. It makes eminent sense to me.
However, I do have a lot of respect for vegetarians, especially those which allow themselves eggs and dairy – in my mind, there is a lot of logic in eating a product that nature gives us, without harm to its producer, as is true with eggs and milk for instance – but using that argument, when we kill a plant to steal its fruits, thereby robbing it of life and reproduction, haven’t we harmed that plant? Yeah, yeah, I hear you – the egg could have been used to make another chicken, and the milk to nurture a new calf – but now you’re pointing the finger of guilt at god, right? See, that’s why I don’t give god much credit in all this – at least not the god of the bible – ’cause god could have solved this whole dilemma by simply continuing to supply mankind with that manna – right? So why did he give us this problem?
OK, sorry for all that. Where I was actually headed in all this was to talk about one the world’s largest vegetarian cultures, India, and its neighbors – although I think India’s adoption of vegetarianism probably has had more to do with the scarcity of meat/fish protein, than a purely conscious choice – even if true, that doesn’t lessen the fact that India and neighbors have created some of the world’s most delicious ways to make vegetables even more delicious than they are in a raw state.
If one has a garden, there is a strong likelihood that those eating from the garden are always on the lookout for new ways to use the garden’s overflow – I personally seek variety, and no matter how luscious fresh summer squash may be, after the better part of a month eating it cooked quickly and bathed in butter, one seeks ways to vary the taste. It is at times like that I turn to the Indian influence for a fresh approach to serving up vegetables.
I recently came across a recipe for Aviyal – also called Avial, which is a stew of vegetables flavored with coconut, spices, and yogurt. What was especially interesting to me was the technique for cooking this dish – a long slow cooking using almost no water, so that the vegetables themselves release and create the dish’s liquid cooking content. I remembered hearing a chef recently suggest that if a cook wants the maximum flavor from a vegetable dish, a minimal amount of cooking liquid should be used – Aviyal is a good example.
Aviyal is a dish from the Indian state of Kerala, the beachy, touristy southwest region of the country – and as I did a quick Google search, I realized that one of it’s beauties was that there seemed no consensus on anything about the content or the process of the way this dish is put together. This fact is especially good for those of us who may not have access to “snake gourd”, or “drumstick” (a long bean which grows on a tree) – substitutions of zucchini and string beans are perfectly OK.
A little trickier substitution may be “curry leaves”, which have nothing to do with curry anything, but are actually the leaves of a tropical weedy member of the citrus family – problem is that the leaves lose their flavor quickly when dried, so buying them dried in an Asian market is not a solution. But unless you have experienced the unique taste that fresh curry leaves impart to this dish, it won’t really matter much if you leave them out, will it? OTOH, if you live in a big city, and can find an Indian market, you may find fresh curry leaves there.
As I suggest above, it’s perfectly OK to use whatever veggies you’ve got to make this dish – there are really only a few absolutes which may disqualify you from using its official name, so let me speak to those – Aviyal must always contain a souring agent, in this case, yogurt. I’m using the base recipe above of Sig, a Seattle blogger from Kerala, and she suggests that other souring agents include green mango and tamarind, but I found no instructions on their use, so we’ll use yogurt.
The other absolute is coconut – not coconut milk, since I think that’d make the dish too soupy. I’ve discovered over the years that dried coconut is almost always sweetened, and not as flavorful as fresh – but if you can find frozen coconut, it will make a world of difference in your dishes. If you can’t find it in your local grocery, frozen coconut will always be available in the nearest Asian grocery.
So here is my version of Aviyal -with thanks to Sig- using those ingredients at hand, especially those which are overflowing my garden at the moment – if, like us, you are tiring of the same old, same old, this dish should give you a taste break, as well as help to use up the garden’s excess.
Aviyal / Avial – Kerala Mixed Vegetables with Coconut and Yogurt
- 2 medium summer squash, preferably zucchini
- 2 carrots, peeled
- 2 medium new potatoes, peeled, or unpeeled as you wish.
- 1 green plantain, peeled (or green banana, but only add this in last five minutes of cooking)
- 1 sweet potato, peeled, or unpeeled as you wish
- 1 cup green beans, trimmed
- 1 medium eggplant
- 3 fresh small green chilies, split
- 1 tsp red chili powder or cayenne
- 1/2 tsp turmeric powder
- salt to taste
- 3/4th cup fresh/frozen grated coconut
- 1/2 tsp cumin seeds
- 1/4 cup sliced shallots or onions
- a few curry leaves (optional)
- 2 tbsp oil, separated
- 1/2 cup yogurt
Cut the carrots, potatoes, eggplant, plantain, and green beans into 1” long pieces. Split the green chilies in half. Cut the summer squash into 1” pieces and set aside.
Arrange all the vegetables in a large heavy pan, such as a dutch oven. Add the chili powder, turmeric powder, salt and the green chilies. Add 1 tbsp water and 1 tbsp oil. Cover and cook on very low heat for 15-20 minutes, stirring frequently, then add the summer squash and continue cooking until the vegetables are crisp tender. If using banana instead of plantain, add the banana during the last five minutes or so of cooking. The vegetables should give out some liquid, but check the pan occasionally to make sure there is enough liquid to cook the veggies – you don’t want them to burn.
While the vegetables are cooking, place the grated coconut, shallots/onions and cumin seeds in a food processor and process it for a few seconds to make a coarse mixture.
Once the vegetables are cooked, add the coconut mixture, curry leaves, if using, and the remaining tbsp of oil to the pan, mix gently and cover and cook on low heat for about 4 more minutes to meld flavors.
Stir in the yogurt and let it gently heat through for a minute or so – but be careful with yogurt, if it gets too hot, it will curdle. Remove from the heat and serve warm.
While this dish would be a wonderful addition to a menu of other Indian offerings, I see no reason why it can’t grace an American table as a singular vegetable side dish – especially if your garden overflowith! As such, it will add a fresh touch to your meals, and maybe even add a new idea to your menu inventory. Try it and see where it takes you.