Indian cooking—the northwestern branch of it specifically, as “Indian” is as sweeping a description as American, Italian, or Spanish—is the first exotic cuisine I can remember getting a proper introduction to as a kid. My parents hosted some Pakistani missionaries at our home; and while, of course, Pakistan is not India, the cuisine across the subcontinent has some shared characteristics: rice, spices, vegetables, amazing and mysterious smells, singing sweet music to my suburban California child’s soul.
When I met my daughter’s father Joel, he gave me what has become a cherished lexicon of food from across the vast country: Lord Krishna’s Cuisine, a massive and lovingly assembled compendium from Yamuna Devi, whom Joel had known when he lived in India.
The sheer luxuriance of color that occurs when I muster up the ingredients for an Indian dish gives me a little shiver. For this one, I knew I wanted to use up some apricot-hued lentils, as well as (of course) a cauliflower and an eggplant that had been waiting patiently. A mix of whole and ground spices provided the depth and complexity that makes good Indian food so special; no curry powder circa 1970, please, which has unfairly convinced more people they don’t like Indian food than any other single factor. Plenty of mint and parsley on hand, because I had them and didn’t have cilantro, which also would have worked.
I’ll be the first to admit that the dish, when you first glance at the recipe, is going to seem overly complicated. It DOES have quite a few components. Feel free to skip any of them, and to assemble the dish any which way that suits you. For instance, leave out either the carrots or the roasted veggies, or both, simply serving the lentils with the various toppings and the rice if you like. Or leave out the lentils, which take the longest. Even better, make the lentils and the carrots the day before; the flavor gets better as they sit.
Another way to simplify is to simply pick up a bottle of garam masala already mixed, and replace the spices with that. One of the great joys of Indian cooking is its improvisation, which rivals Coltrane, Bird, and Monk in their finest hours.
The point, of course and as ever, is to make it yours. And most importantly, as Joel told me, to make it and offer it with love. Namaste.