Maybe my mother and grandmother should have been the ones to teach me their repertory of satisfying vegetarian dishes from Gujarat, in western India. But they never measure or write anything down.
So instead, I learned to make my everyday comfort foods — dals seasoned with fried garlic and spices, lively single-subject vegetable dishes — from the British author Meera Sodha.
Sodha, 35, has written two cookbooks with cult followings, and recently started writing a column for The Guardian about vegan cooking. Though her recipes take inspiration from all over, they express what Sodha describes in her latest book, “Fresh India” (Fig Tree, 2016) as her own Gujarati sensibility: “creative, fresh and always vegetable first.” The book is to be released by the publisher Flatiron next year in the United States.
On a trip to London, looking for a cooking lesson, I traveled east to the northern end of the Victoria line and met Sodha at her home in Walthamstow, where we rolled chapatis side by side. My chapatis were slow to come together, imperfectly shaped, but Sodha was a patient, precise instructor.
While researching vegetarian dishes for the book in India she had run into cooks who wouldn’t share what they knew, who had said she couldn’t possibly replicate their food at home. But one of Sodha’s gifts is that she can not only recreate and improve on the familiar — she can also streamline techniques and edit flavors, then clearly instruct others to do the same.
Sodha showed me how to make bharela ringan, baby eggplant cooked on the stovetop until thoroughly tender, with a mixture of blitzed coconut, peanuts and chilies inside. It wasn’t as time-consuming or as complex as my grandmother had led me to believe.
By the time I got back to Brooklyn, I wanted to make Sodha’s vegetarian recipes part of my routine. I started with her basic moong dal, and graduated to her quick-cooking dal made from red lentils and finished with coconut milk, served with a pile of tender kale on top.
To make her summery recipe for a Gujarati corn-on-the-cob curry, a simple sauce of yogurt thickened with chickpea flour, I hunted down the sugary corn that made its way to Brooklyn markets in mid-September.
Stranded with two small heads of broccoli and no inspiration, I turned to her recipe for malai broccoli. Her adaptation of the cream sauce was a lean, bright and intensely delicious update: a mix of ground almonds with cream cheese and Greek yogurt, spiked with nutmeg and squished into every last crevice of the broccoli florets. Roasted on high heat for about 20 minutes, the mixture became golden brown in places, and the broccoli charred, expanding its flavor.
Sodha got the idea after trying a similar dish in Goa. “You know when you realize what you’re eating is just so magnificent, and there’s a sort of rip in the atmosphere?” she said. “My brain started racing and I thought, how do I make this?”
Back in her London kitchen, she tinkered until she figured it out. “To develop a recipe, I have to trust my tongue,” she said.
In “Fresh India,” Sodha traces a line from the variety and sophistication of seasonal Gujarati cooking back to the third century B.C., when the emperor Ashoka banned the slaughter of animals. The region’s vegetarian cuisine has flourished over many centuries, and as families have left the region with their foods, they have adapted their dishes in new homes all over the world.
Sodha’s grandfather and great-grandfather left India for Uganda. When her parents were exiled from that country in 1972, along with many thousands of Ugandan-Asians, they settled in England.
Sodha was born and raised there, in a farming village in Lincolnshire, down the road from fields of potatoes and rainbow chard. She watched as her mother took to these new local ingredients and rearranged them like a musician. Sodha came to understand how spontaneity, resourcefulness and the ability to adapt define good home cooking.
Andaz is a Hindi word meaning “style,” and to say a cook has andaz is a great compliment, Sodha said. Some people may use the term to mean a gift for making a dish one’s own, or the ability to make food with a special harmony.
Sodha describes andaz as a kind of knowledge, particular to a cuisine that is rooted in oral tradition, that can only be learned through observation and apprenticeship, mistakes and repetition.
“It’s a sense of judgment that’s built up through doing,” she said.
I thought that following Sodha’s recipes could help speed the process a little. But still, there is only way to get there: Cook.
ROASTED BROCCOLI WITH ALMONDS AND CARDAMOM (MALAI BROCCOLI)
- 1-2/3 pounds broccoli florets (2 to 3 heads of broccoli)
- 8 ounces cream cheese, softened
- 4 tablespoons Greek yogurt
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
- 1/4 teaspoon ground or freshly grated whole nutmeg
- 3/4 cup ground almonds
- 3 tablespoons lemon juice
Heat oven to 400 degrees and line 2 large baking trays with parchment. Break broccoli into bite-size pieces.
Combine all other ingredients in a large bowl and mix well. Add broccoli and mix, making sure mixture gets into all the nooks and crannies of the florets.
Divide broccoli between the baking sheets and roast 10 minutes.
Turn pieces over and return to oven for another 10 minutes, or until broccoli is tender, crunchy and charred in places. Serves 6.
Nutritional information unavailable.