Sweet and Savory Indian Cuisine, from the state of Gujarat
- Put a pinch of sugar on the palm of your hand.
- Then mix in a pinch of salt.
- Add a light touch of an Indian chili powder or cayenne.
- Pop that into your mouth.
Congratulations! You’ve just gotten a taste of Gujarati Indian food!
In desserts these days, that juxtaposition of salt mixed into sugar bodes well for pleasure to the palate. Think about those salt-sprinkled oatmeal cookies, waxy bars of 70% cacao chocolate with fleur de sel speckled through, or any recipe from this cute blog Not Without Salt. Or worse, think about making a dessert without adding even a diminutive amount of salt. I’ve done it and will NEVER bake a dessert without a touch of salt. A chocolate chip cookie made with and without salt can be likened to the difference between the languages of North and South India. Even if the recipe doesn’t call for it, I still add a generous pinch. Detectable on first bite. Salt rounds out the indulgence of sugar.
In savory dishes, however, one usually doesn’t expect even a tinge of sweet. I mean, imagine moules frites and jam? I don’t think so. A chocolate-chip burger? Even that hasn’t become a trend. Peanut butter and jelly? Well, that seemed to work for the masses, but then again, peanut butter is often sweetened to begin with, so we’re not talking about an entirely savory spread here.
Circle your thoughts around the flavor spectrum of Indian food. Are you thinking spicy only? Savory of course? Sour or bitter at times? Have you had Indian curries with a touch of sweetness?
I’m referring to the Indian cuisine of some regions of Gujarat, a state in Western India where my family is originally from, in which curries, lentil soups, side dishes, and even some breads are slightly sweetened. The combination of the above flavors in these dishes are cohesive in an unimaginable way: they really work–just like brown sugar works with bacon and fried chicken pairs well with waffles and real maple syrup.
Though ALL Gujaratis don’t cook this way, some traditional meals have a fair amount of sugar in them, within the main course. With the spawn of alarming rates of diseases like diabetes and heart disease, modern Gujarati cooks are decreasing the amount of sweeteners in their dishes and eliminating them entirely in some dishes.
Todd Coleman of Saveur magazine, called Gujarati cuisine the most beautiful food in the world (see his article and recipes on Gujarati food here). The day I read that issue, in December 2009, I called my family, emailed my friends, and proudly showed off the issue to everyone I saw the next few weeks.
Recently, I was lucky enough to enjoy a typical “Kathiyaavaadi” style Gujarati meal at a wedding-related function. Here’s what the guests enjoyed and almost every dish was sweetened to some degree with either plain sugar, jaggery, or sweet fruits or vegetables like yams or raisins:
- Undhiyoo (oh, I can’t wait to start the recipe development process on this dish that has been requested by readers)
- Aloo shaak (simple and tasty potato curry)
- Toor Dal (watery thin lightly sweetened lentil soupy “curry”)
- Kachori (spiced peas and ground coconut with lentils stuffed into dough and fried to a crisp) served with tamarind-date chutney
- Khaandvi (in that Saveur mag issue, a beautiful step by step illustration and how-to)
- Basmati Rice
- Puri (a sopapilla-like bread, though more savory, served at parties and functions, specifically for scooping up the curries)
- Lapsi, a dessert dish made from cracked or broken wheat
Here’s a recipe for classic Gujarati style aloo shaak (potato curry). It’s simple comfort food, best with hot fried puris, but steaming rice and/or store-bought Indian breads like roti will do. The sugar is optional, and I actually prefer not to use it, but doing so makes you a Guju!
Serving size: 4
- 3 tablespoons canola oil or any high smoke-point oil
- ½ teaspoon black mustard seeds
- ¼ teaspoon cumin seeds
- pinch of asafetida
- 2 dried red chilies
- 1 stem fresh curry leaves (about 10-15 leaves) (optional, but delicious!)
- 3 medium russet potatoes, peeled then cut into ½ inch cubes
- 3 roma tomatoes, chopped coarsely
- ¼ teaspoon turmeric
- ½ teaspoon Indian red chili powder
- 2 teaspoons ground coriander
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon jaggery or brown sugar (optional)
- 2-3 tablespoons chopped cilantro
- Heat oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat.
- When the oil is hot enough, a mustard seed dropped into the pot will pop. When the oil is hot and ready, keep a lid nearby and add the mustard seed, cumin seed, asafetida, dry chilies, and curry leaves quickly, and altogether. After about 30 seconds and before cumin seeds burn, add all potatoes (again keep a lid nearby for splatter).
- Stir well to prevent sticking on the bottom of your pan. Cook for a couple of minutes.
- Add tomatoes.
- Add turmeric, chili powder, coriander powder, and salt. Stir well.
- Add 1 cup water and sugar if using. Stir well and cook covered 10 minutes to cook potatoes.
- Uncover and cook 5-10 minutes to let sauce thicken. Check that potatoes are cooked through and season for salt. Sprinkle with cilantro and serve.