Written by Vaishali Honawar / Photographed by Heather Soskin

 

People often think of Indian food as complicated and spicy, but that isn’t always the case. I want to share with you a recipe for varan, a simple dal from Maharashtra, a vividly beautiful state in western India. My mom, a Maharashtrian, would make this dal when she was too busy or tired to cook, but wanted to make sure my brother and I ate a meal that was nutritious and tasty. To me, this dal is the ultimate comfort food—a dish that reminds me that the simplest things in life are often the most precious. Especially when they have the power to transport you back home (for at least a few minutes).

 

Varan

Varan is best served on a bed of boiled white rice with the potato subzi, a simple side dish, and spicy Indian pickles, which you can find at any Indian grocery store.

Ingredients

1 cup tuvar dal (split pigeon peas)

1/2 tsp turmeric

1 tbsp vegetable oil

1 tsp cumin seeds

A generous pinch of asafetida

Salt, to taste

 

Directions

Mix the lentils and turmeric in a large pot, cover with at least two inches of water, and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to a simmer, cover with a lid, and let the lentils cook for 45–60 minutes, until they are really soft and can easily be mashed with the back of a ladle.

 

Heat the oil in a saucepan. Add the cumin seeds and when they sputter, add the asafetida and the cooked lentils. If the mixture is too dry, add water. Bring to a boil, lower the heat to a simmer, and let the dal cook for 5 minutes. Add salt to taste.

Serve hot.

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Potato Subzi

Ingredients

6 yellow or red potatoes

1 tbsp vegetable oil

1 tsp mustard seeds

A generous pinch of asafetida

1 tsp grated ginger

2 green chillies like jalapeno, minced (If you don’t want the subzi to be spicy, remove the white seeds first)

1 sprig of curry leaves

1/4 tsp turmeric

1 tbsp lemon juice

Salt, to taste

1/4 cup chopped coriander leaves

 

Directions

Place the potatoes in a large pot with enough water to cover and bring them to a boil. Lower the heat to a simmer, cover the pot, and let them cook for 15 minutes, until they are tender when pierced with a fork. When the potatoes are cool enough to handle, cut them into 1/2-inch cubes. You can peel the potatoes first if you like, but I like to leave the jackets on.

Heat the oil and add the mustard seeds and asafetida. When the mustard sputters, add the ginger, chillies, and curry leaves. Stir well for a minute, then add the turmeric and potatoes.

Stir everything well to mix, mashing the potatoes slightly with the back of the ladle. When the potatoes start to get a slight crust on them, add the lemon juice and salt to taste.

Garnish with some chopped coriander leaves and serve hot.

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Chana Masala

There is something utterly comforting about creamy chickpeas in a spicy sauce. Different versions of chana masala are cooked across India, but the most classic one is fiery red with tomatoes and sparkles with the complex notes of various spices. You can use garam masala, found in the spice aisle of any supermarket, for this recipe, but if you want to get more authentic, you could use a chana masala spice mix from an Indian grocery store. The chana masala mix contains mango and pomegranate powders, which add a special flavor all their own.

Ingredients

1 tbsp vegetable oil

1 large red onion, finely diced

1 tbsp grated ginger

4 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 tsp turmeric

1 tsp cayenne pepper (add less for less heat)

1 tbsp garam masala or chana masala spice blend

1 15-oz can of diced tomatoes or three medium

tomatoes, finely diced

3 cups canned chickpeas or garbanzo beans

2 tbsp lemon juice

1/4 cup chopped coriander leaves

Salt, to taste

 

Directions

Heat the oil in a saucepan. Add the onions and cook, stirring regularly until browned.

Add the ginger and garlic and sauté for 1 minute. Add the turmeric, cayenne, and garam masala powders and stir for until the spices are well coated with the oil. Add the tomatoes and cook until they break down and express the oil. Add the chickpeas and enough water to make a thick gravy and bring to a boil.

 

Lower the heat and simmer for about 10 minutes.

 

Mix in the lemon juice and garnish with coriander leaves. Serve hot.

Gajar Halwa

I often tell people that there is nothing like Indian cuisine because cuisine in India differs vastly from region to region. Carrot halwa is one of the exceptions—this dish is said to have originated in north India, but it is enjoyed in homes all over the country. Perhaps the fact that it is utterly delicious and even healthy has something to do with it. The carrots naturally sweeten this recipe and the cardamom gives it that extra oomph.

Ingredients

1 pound carrots, finely grated

8 cardamom pods (make sure you use green cardamom pods, not white or brown ones)

3 cups almond milk

3–5 tbsp sugar

1 tbsp vegetable oil

A handful of cashews and raisins

Directions

Put the carrots, cardamom pods, and almond milk into a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Bring to a boil and cook on medium heat, stirring occasionally, for 40–45 minutes, until all the liquid has evaporated.

 

In another saucepan, heat the vegetable oil. Add the carrots and fry, stirring, for 15–20 minutes,

until the carrots turn a rich red.

 

Add the sugar and stir until it’s well mixed. Add the cashews and raisins and cook, stirring, for 2–3 minutes.

 

Remove from heat. The halwa can be eaten warm or at room

temperature or even cold.

 

Few desserts are as simple, delicious, and comforting as gajar ka halwa, or carrot halwa.

 

Follow Vaishali on Twitter and Facebook @holycowvegan, love her pins on pinterest @vaishy and visit her on the Web at holycowvegan.net