ALMOST ANYONE who has eaten Indian food has been served at least one. It's commonplace in far too many Indian restaurants an overcooked mush of greasy vegetables. Such dishes are a mockery of Indian vegetable cookery. You often find them in muted shades of red, brown, or yellow from a predominance of tomatoes, tamarind, or turmeric. I have long called them greasy-spoon vegetable shlups. They're a far cry from the real thing succulent, moist-textured vegetable dishes, known as foogath, tarkari, and charchari.
So how do you make the real thing? You use the techniques I described in the introduction to vegetable cooking (Lesson Eight), and you become aware of just how heat and timing affect the finished quality of a dish. Vegetable shlups result either from bad technique or from unconscious cooking or both.
Getting the right texture when cooking several vegetables at once takes experience. You can practice by making single-vegetable dishes. Steam or bake a vegetable just short of the finished texture you desire. Then briefly saute it in spice-infused ghee or fold it into a smooth fresh chutney. The first two recipes of the Moist Vegetable section in the class textbook, Lord Krishna's Cuisine, illustrate these approaches.
Vegetables high in moisture will cook softer than drier vegetables. For example, if you steam yellow squash until just tender and saute it, it will have a final texture softer than Brussels sprouts made the same way.
As you cook through a few of the dishes in this section, take special care to control the finished texture of the dish. You'll quickly note how heat control and timing are important when several vegetables with different amounts of moisture are cooked together, as in Succulent Mixed Vegetables with Crunchy Fried Badis, or Garden Vegetable Stew with Crunchy Fried Badis. But, oh, when you get them right, what one-pot meals these are! With centuries of tradition behind them, these are examples of moist-vegetable cookery at its best.
Although foogath, tarkari, and charchari dishes are all moist and succulent, charcharis have a unique flavor char flavor. Before you assume this means burned, I want to assure you that the char tastes more like the smoke-flavored crust on a pan of long-cooked campfire hash-browns. OK, maybe it's even better than that, but you get the idea. To achieve the distinct char flavor, you boil, steam, and pan-fry the vegetables in one pot classically without stirring them. So you can understand why you might need a few tries to get the knack of it. To make a perfect charchari, the thickness of the pan, how it conducts heat, the texture of the vegetables, how they are cut, heat regulation, and timing must come together harmoniously.
Though Srila Prabhupada made a flawless charchari in any pan, most of us would do well to use a heavy-bottomed nonstick saucepan. You're less apt to burn the dish in those pans, and even when overcooked the crust that forms usually stays deep chocolate brown instead of coal black. A skillet is the wrong shape, but a well-seasoned cast-iron saucepan will work well. Very heavy French enamel-covered steel also makes a good pan but requires more judgment in timing and heat regulation.
One reason charchari dishes taste so scrumptious is they contain lots of ghee or butter. Richness is part of their character. So save charchari for special festive occasions, and serve it as a side dish. I re-tested two recipes from the textbook's charchari section and cut the ghee by half, with negligible loss of flavor or character.
Srila Prabhupada and Charchari
In the early days of ISKCON Srila Prabhupada didn't teach us the Hindi or Bengali names for moist vegetables; I learned them sometime later. The earliest note I've found expressing his fondness for charchari is an entry in his diary on board the ship Jaladuta. On September 13, 1965, he wrote, "Today is the 32nd day of our journey from Calcutta. In the morning I couldn't take my breakfast, then I cooked bati-carchari. It appeared to be delicious, so I was able to take some food."
Two years later in San Francisco Srila Prabhupada taught me to make bati-charchari, in two variations Potatoes and Green Beans, and Potatoes and Eggplant. Of course, as the years went on, my repertoire expanded, and many years later in India he requested bati-charchari quite frequently. Certainly if you are following these classes you'll want to work on perfecting these dishes.
A Personal Note
This is my last column before I leave for an extended visit to India to begin research for my next cookbook. So my next columns will come from India. Cooking is an adventure and a constant learning experience. I am eager to share with you new information as I learn it. One of the many principles I learned from Srila Prabhupada is that cooking in Krsna consciousness is a process of purification, ever increasing and ever pleasing. I hope you allow yourselves to taste this in your culinary journey.
Yamuna Devi is the author of the award-winning cookbooks Lord Krishna's Cuisine; The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking and Yamuna's Table. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post andVegetarian Times. You can write to her in care of Back to Godhead.
A rich moist vegetable served as a side dish.
1 pound waxy red or white potatoes, cubed
1 pound green beans, cut into 1-½-inch pieces
2 tablespoons yellow mung badi* (optional)
¼ teaspoon crushed red chilies
½ teaspoon turmeric
¼ cup unsalted butter or ghee
2-¾ cups water
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
freshly ground pepper
¼ cup chopped cilantro
Place all the ingredients in a heavy-bottomed nonstick saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium, cover partially, and boil gently until the liquid is absorbed and the vegetables are fork tender, about 25 minutes. Remove the lid, raise the heat slightly, and cook until the vegetables fry in the seasoned butter. (Do not burn the vegetables; only allow a deep-brown crust to form in the pan.) Cover and set aside for 10 minutes; then stir in the crust and offer to Krsna.
Also called bati and warian. Available at Indian grocery stores.