As millions of people worldwide – notably the Hindus and Jains of the Indian sub-continent, among others, it is possible not only to eat healthily without any animal foods, it’s possible to create a colourful and richly flavoured cuisine at the same time.
Since this blog is about healthy eating, let’s tackle the health aspects first. No less a conservative authority than the American Dietetic Association has given a vegetarian diet a tick of approval.
The ADA says "a properly planned vegetarian diet can be nutritionally adequate in pregnancy" – surely the greatest challenge - with both mother and baby remaining healthy. It is also suitable for growing children, adolescents and adults and even athletes.
The trick is balancing your food combinations so as to build amino acids from grains and legumes to get the full complement needed to make human muscle protein. Vegetarians, and vegans even more so, also need to ensure sufficient variety to meet all their calcium, iron, zinc, B vitamins and other mineral and micronutrients that would otherwise come from meat, eggs, fish and dairy.
The advantage that vegetarians gain over omnivores – even the omnivore following the Mediterranean diet is enhanced protection from many of the degenerative diseases that attack Western people, particularly as we age. It confers protection from or improved health with heart disease, hypertension (high blood pressure), Type 2 diabetes, many cancers, lowers LDL cholesterol levels and helps maintain a healthy body weight.
Be Veg Go Green Save Our Planet
This is the motto of a religious and humanitarian organisation under the leadership of Supreme Master Ching Hai. It emphasises the contribution of livestock production on climate change and the “planet saving” effects of taking up the vegetarian lifestyle, and its followers hand out free dvds of vegan and vegetarian recipes at climate change and sustainability rallies.
Whatever I might think about Supreme Master Ching Hai’s recipes – very few of the ones on the free dvd I received appealed to me – she is right about the environmental impact of trying to create meat from grasses and grains, instead of eating them ourselves.
Vegetarian Food Need Not be Difficult or Dull
Despite the need to be more aware of food sources and food combinations, vegetarian cuisine need never be dull. There is a huge range of ethnic cuisines from many of the poorer, agrarian cultures of the world, which, while low or absent in animal products, still provide balanced nutrition. Indian, Mexican, South American, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, are just some of the cuisines that are predominantly vegetarian. There are probably hundreds of others.
A creative cook can also convert meat-based western cuisines such as French, Italian, Hungarian, Austrian, and Australian – once described by a visiting British food critic as “large slabs of protein” – into tasty and appetising vegetarian alternatives.
What’s Today’s Recipe?
Despite not having fully converted to vegetarian eating, as I confessed in In Praise of Meat as a Treat, I do still enjoy lots of meatless meals. I dive into my battered Indian cookbook, the 20-year-old paperback copy of Sameen Rushdie’s Indian Cookery.
So here’s the first dhal recipe I learnt to make, and still eat about once a month. It’s simple and tasty, the kitchen smells fantastic as the spices are frying, and combined with rice you get your complete protein.
Khari Kali Masoor ki Daal
This is made with whole green lentils, which the Indian grocery near me sells as Masoor lentils.
- 225 grams/1 cup whole Masoor lentils
- 1 small onion peeled and blended to a smooth paste (or just chopped fine)
- ½ teasp red chili powder (or to taste)
- ½ teasp turmeric (or to taste)
- 1 teasp ground coriander
- dollop of butter or 1 tablesp oil
- salt to taste
- 2-3 tablesp thick tamarind juice or lemon juice
- 1 dessertsp finely grated fresh ginger
- 2 green chilies (or to taste) finely chopped
- 1 tablesp fresh mint leaves, finely chopped.
For the Bhagar
- Cooking oil
- 1 small onion peeled and finely chopped into rings or half rings
- 2 small garlic cloves finely sliced into rounds
Wash the lentils in several changes of water. Into a heavy bottomed saucepan put a dollop of butter or some oil and fry the spices for a few minutes. Then add the lentils and stir to mix in the spices. Add the onion paste and 3 cups of water and salt to taste. Bring to the boil.
When it boils, turn down the heat as low as possible, and cover. Cook for about 45 minutes, checking every so often to see it doesn’t boil dry. When the dhal has softened, stir vigorously with a wooden spoon. Only add extra water if it has all evaporated and the lentils seem dry, when you can stir in about half a cup.
Now add the tamarind or lemon juice, grated ginger, green chillies and about half the mint, and continue cooking over a low heat, covered for another 10 minutes.
Meanwhile make the bhagar. Fry the onion slices in hot oil until golden and sizzling. Add the sliced garlic and as soon as they turn golden, pour the whole sizzling mixture over the dhal.
Garnish with the remaining mint.
Serve with plain boiled rice and steamed green vegetables such as bok choy.