Learn about how you can introduce the healthy, delicious flavors of Indian cooking into your own kitchen directly from a plant-based Indian cuisine expert in this video with Vandana Sheth and Sharon Palmer.
The fragrant aromas of Indian spices are enough to make anyone’s mouth start watering. But did you know that Indian food culture has a deep-rooted history in vegetarianism and veganism? Hinduism, a major religion in India, has a central belief in nonviolence, which includes animals. Many traditional Indian dishes are centered around legumes, grains, and vegetables, which are rich in fiber and micronutrients. According to the National Cancer Institute, rates of cancer are lower in India than in Western Countries, and the high dietary consumption of fruit, vegetables, spices, and tea may be a protective factor. No wonder this delicious healthful cuisine is gaining more traction here. Yet, many people are intimidated to try recreating those gorgeous flavors in their own kitchens.
With that in mind, it was my absolute pleasure to chat with Vandana Sheth, RDN, CDE, FAND on the basics of healthy plant-based Indian cooking. Check out our interview below.
Join plant-based Indian food and nutrition expert Vandana Sheth, RDN, CDE, FAND and Sharon Palmer, The Plant-Powered Dietitian as they talk about how you can try authentic, healthy, delicious plant-based Indian foods in your own kitchen. To see the entire blog and resources for this video, please check out: https://sharonpalmer.com/plant-based-indian-cooking-with-vandana-sheth/
Vandana is a registered dietitian nutritionist, certified diabetes educator, and owner of a successful private practice in the Los Angeles area. Within her practice, Vandana has specialties in intuitive eating, diabetes, food allergies, and vegetarian nutrition. She graduated summa cum laude from California State University, Los Angeles, and holds certificates in gerontology and food allergy management. She is a national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and has been featured in outlets such as the Huffington Post, Self Magazine, Today’s Dietitian, and Everyday Health. As a lifelong vegetarian herself, she is passionate about helping people transition to a more plant-based diet, while teaching them ways to make delicious meals that are packed with both nutrition and flavor. She shared some of her favorite plant-based Indian recipes in her recently published cookbook- My Indian Table: Quick & Tasty Vegetarian Recipes. In fact, it was an honor for me to write the forward for Vandana’s book!
Check out the transcript of my interview with Vandana below.
Plant-Based Indian Cooking with VandanaSheth
Things you will learn in this episode:
Vandana’s eating experiences while living in India.
Key ingredients for Indian cooking.
Classic Indian dishes.
How to start cooking Indian food at home.
Cooking tips for beginners.
Follow Along with Vandana and her Plant-Based Indian Cooking Resources
Check out the transcript from my live video interview with Vandana Sheth.
Sharon: Vandana is a dietitian, media expert, and plant-based nutrition expert. I’m really excited she’s joining us today because we are talking about one of my favorite things, how to eat healthy, delicious Indian food within a plant-based diet. She’s going to be giving us all of her personal tips and recipes. Vandana, can you tell us a little bit about your personal journey as a dietitian, a little about your book, and your own personal nutrition philosophy?
Vandana: I was born and raised in India, and growing up in Madras, which is now called Chennai, it’s on the southeast part of India, I was raised completely vegetarian. My family is originally from the Northwestern state of Gudra, and what people often don’t realize is that India is a country with huge diversity in terms of food, there’s nothing called an Indian way of eating, there’s not just one diet, kind of like the Mediterranean, there’s so many little nuances within each state, but I was raised on a vegetarian diet with lots of beans, and lentils and whole grains, fresh fruits, and vegetables, and of course spices. So that’s really how I grew up eating and when I moved to America, I continued to enjoy using those foods but modified them to include some Asian inspired food, Thai food, Italian food, but it’s all vegetarian.
Sharon: Sounds so delicious the way you’re describing it! And that really leads me to my next question. What are some of those really key ingredients that are parts of that food culture you are talking about? Are there certain spices or other things you always have in your pantry?
Vandana: Yes, so as I said it kind of differs, different states have different ingredients that they highlight, but in general, most Indian kitchens would have a variety of beans and lentils. In my pantry I have at least 5 to 10 beans, at least 10-15 varieties of split lentils, called dals. In the north its more wheat based, so they use a lot of whole wheat flour for their flatbreads like roti or chapati. In the south its mainly rice, so white rice, or red rice, and those are the two grain choices. Spices, again it varies vastly but in general, in most homes, or in my kitchen for sure, you would find cumin, mustard seeds, turmeric, fenugreek, cloves, cinnamon, a lot of aromatics, ginger, garlic, cilantro, those are just a few of the top of my head.
Sharon: What are some of those legumes, you talked about the different kinds of lentils, what are the other types of legumes that you would have?
Vandana: So garbanzo beans, known as chana, that’s popular, kidney beans, known as rajma, then we have mung beans, the whole green mung beans, then we have black husk, white lentils, called urad, that’s something we use, and then of course what we think of as lentils here, the French green lentils, but then when we split it you also have the red lentils. Many of these are split up, so the mung beans are split up and then you have the yellow colored mung dal, which is the split lentil. So again, there’s just so many, if someone is in interested, I highly encourage a visit to an Indian grocery store, you’ll be amazed by just how many choices there are.
Sharon: Yes, I have one in my neighborhood that I love to go to. But a lot of those things you can find in any supermarkets as well, right?
Vandana: Exactly, it’s gotten so easy to get many of these ingredients, I love walking through my regular grocery stores and finding garam marsala or finding these lentils and grains in just the basic aisles.
Sharon: Right. So, what are some of the classic dishes that are plant-based vegetarian or vegan, that are in the food culture that you just really love to highlight?
Vandana: I love anything with beans, when we think about foods, most of us have a story that connected to our food, it’s not just nourishment. So, for me, what I love is rajma and rice, that was a classic lunch combination at my school lunch, so I love that, its kidney beans in an onion tomato gravy, and it’s served with rice, and it’s a phenomenal combination. Or I love cauliflower, so there’s a combination of cauliflower and potato that’s very popular and it’s called aloo gobi, and it goes really well with a flatbread called roti or chapati. I also like kichadi, which is rice and split green lentils or mung beans, and it’s the ideal comfort food. In India, traditionally if your stomach is upset or you’re feeling under the weather, or even as the first food for a child sometimes, it’s kichadi. I think of it as a warm hug in a bowl, it’s so comforting, it’s got turmeric and cumin, just very luscious, you add a little ghee or coconut oil into it, some spices, aromatics, it’s just so flavorful. I also like rasam, which is a spicy tomato broth, and that’s what I grew up having if you were under the weather or feeling sick, it was my mom’s version of chicken soup I guess, it’s completely vegan and vegetarian. It’s got a lot of spices, clears up the sinuses, and it’s just so tasty.
Sharon: Wow, all those things sound so good, you’re making me hungry! So, you know, a lot of us know about Indian food from eating out, it’s such a popular global cuisine, I love to eat at my favorite Indian restaurant in my neighborhood. But are there certain nutrition pitfalls that you try to recommend that people be aware of?
Vandana: Sure, so you know the reason I actually wrote this book is because when I first came here in the early 90’s, I noticed there was a huge gap between what I grew up eating in India as Indian food and what was served in restaurants. So, some things to keep in mind are that often, foods served in restaurants are overcooked vegetables, so you are losing a lot of nutrients there. Second, they’re often loaded in oils and fats, so it’s much higher in calories than it would be if you had made it at home. Third, you’re often served refined grains, rather than the whole wheat flour that’s used at home. The rice served is usually basmati rice, which is a delicious aromatic rice, but if you’re making it at home maybe you could swap it out for brown basmati rice to get more of the whole grain component. So those are some of the things I would watch out for.
Sharon: I know I do that at home, I use brown basmati rice, and I get that at my supermarket. And there are really good reasons why people could try cooking at home, right?
Vandana: Absolutely. I think what holds people back from cooking Indian food at home is potentially being overwhelmed with how many ingredients they might need for one recipe, so that’s a key concern, and the second concern is not knowing how to use these spices, so that’s another reason why I wrote this book, to really streamline the process. You don’t need to invest in 20 or 30 ingredients for a recipe, just buy a few basic ingredients and that will work itself into all the recipes in the book. Take shortcuts, use canned beans, use prepped vegetables from the grocery store in the frozen section, use tomato sauce or tomato cans, it’s ok to take those shortcuts and still amp up the flavor and nutrition.
Sharon: Those are great tips, and I wanted to ask a little bit more about other cooking tips, because I agree with you, I think people are intimidated and they think, oh there’s no way, I don’t have all the right ingredients, and I just don’t know how to do this cooking style. So, if you could lead us through your basic tips on how to approach that cooking style?
Vandana: Sure! So, the first thing is of course like anything else, I would suggest you look through a recipe completely before you sit down to make it. Look at the ingredients you need, have everything chopped, prepped, ready to go, because once you start cooking it goes by really fast. And like I said you could use canned precooked beans or lentils to speed up the process. One of my favorite cooking utensils at home is my pressure cooker. Every Indian home has at least one, if not more pressure cookers, and now with the instant pot being so popular here, that’s another way to get that in. If you don’t have time to use those, go ahead and buy the canned or frozen beans and lentils. You can also chop up your vegetables over the weekend or buy prepped vegetables. You can make your spice mix ahead of time, that way you can use different beans different days of the week so it’s not the exact same flavor. And play around, be creative, recipes are just guidelines, they don’t need to be followed precisely. If you don’t have an exact ingredient it’s not going to ruin the recipe. Most Indian recipes have a few different ingredients, so one off is not going to make or break that recipe.
Sharon: That’s really great! What about equipment? You talked about the instant pot; I have one of those that I use for some of my favorite Indian recipes. People sometimes feel like they have to have all this special equipment. Is there anything else that you just use consistently or maybe people already have in their homes?
Vandana: Right, so besides a pressure cooker or instant pot, I would say most other ingredients you would have at home, you would want a good knife, and a good peeler. I think the one thing I like to use every day is my spice grinder. It’s basically a coffee grinder that I set aside just for my whole spices. because when you roast and crush up fresh spices, the aroma and flavor profile is so much deeper than if you just bought a store-bought spice mix. So, I like to use that. Otherwise I would say if you are into this kind of cooking, something like an Indian spice container called a masala dabba. I think is really fun. So, I have mine here to show you, I’m not sure I can tilt it, but you can kind of see it. So, every home in North India has something sort of like this. I have a few different containers like this. These are spices I use on a daily basis, so I have turmeric, I have a combination of cumin and coriander, this beige colored one, I have red chili, I have fenugreek seeds, I have cumin seeds, and then I have a couple different lentils, and in South Indian cooking you use actually these beans to add a little crunch when you finish up a dish on top, you drizzle it on top and it just adds a little extra crunch and toasty notes.
Sharon: It’s so beautiful and colorful, that’s one of my favorite things about the Indian food and cooking, it’s just so aromatic and delicious, and all those beautiful colors, so thanks for sharing that with us. So, you grind your spices and toast them before you cook almost on a daily basis, is that a tradition for you?
Vandana: I like to especially if it’s a special dish, and I really want to amp up the flavor. Not necessarily all the ingredient, but if I’m making something that needs cumin, you can just dry roast some cumin seeds, either in a pan on the stove or put it on a baking sheet in the oven, just so it gets a little crunchy and then crush it, and that aroma is just so amazing. You will notice a difference between that and a store-bought cumin powder.
Sharon: Wow, now you’re inspiring me to do that! So, what are some of your favorite dishes? I know you talked about some of the classic foods, but what are your favorites? Maybe some from your book even?
Vandana: It’s like asking which one is my favorite baby, I have so many! But I would say the curried power bowl, which I came up with. It’s not really a traditional recipe, I just pulled together a few of my favorite ingredients and it came up on a warm summer day, I came home from work, it was a day we wanted to just sit down in the backyard relax and enjoy the ambiance. I just pulled a few ingredients from the kitchen, went out to the backyard and made this on our backyard stove. It’s a one bowl meal, it has cauliflower, garbanzo beans, spices, and you can serve it over either a bed of greens, quinoa or brown rice, and you have a complete meal in one bowl. So, it’s an easy, easy recipe.
Sharon: You could do that for meal prep too, couldn’t you?
Vandana: Exactly, make that together and mix and match different combinations for the week. Another favorite recipe would be chai, because it’s a delicious easy pick me up. Traditional Indian chai is made from spices, milk and tea. You could use any kind of milk, dairy or dairy alternative, any beverage works. I’ve got a chai masala recipe in the book, so you can have your own spice mix you can put in there. I have a slow process for one and I also have and instant one, so you just mix different powders and you’re ready to go. I also have a turmeric milk late, as were getting into the fall we often think about pumpkin spice latte, but I encourage you to give turmeric milk latte a try, because it has some of those aromatics and its actually really good for our overall health, decreases risk for colds, and coughs, so that would be a fun one to try.
Sharon: Yes, thank you for sharing that recipe last week when I got a cold! Did you have that recipe as a child, is that something traditional that your mother might have prepared for you?
Vandana: Yes, and here’s the deal. Growing up I actually didn’t like turmeric milk because the traditional way of making it was literally just milk heated up with some turmeric in it! It was pure, and there was ghee floating in there, it was something I avoided at all costs! But as I got into nutrition, learning about the benefits, I was sort of on a mission to make it more flavorful, and I went with the recipe I have in the book, because now I actually look forward to drinking it even when I’m not sick.
Sharon: Right, it’s very comforting, makes you feel so good. I love to make that recipe as well, so I appreciate you sharing that with us. Thank you so much for talking with us about one of our favorite subjects, eating more delicious healthy Indian foods as part of a plant-based diet as well. And were going to be sharing Vandana’s favorite recipe, the curried power bowl, right?
Vandana: Yes, and here’s how my book looks! On the cover right there is the curried power bowl, so hopefully your listeners and readers will enjoy it! I have taken some of my favorite ingredients and created a delicious one bowl meal for convenience, flavor and easy clean up. The golden hue of turmeric and aromatics turn each bite into a flavor and textural explosion. The addition of garbanzo beans to this recipe provides a nice protein and fiber upgrade. This recipe came about one warm summer day when I had just gotten home from work and wanted to relax in our backyard with my family. I pulled together a few ingredients that I thought may play well together and cooked this in a wok in our backyard stove while sipping on some wine. This dish is in honor of my husband who loves simple one-bowl meals.
Sharon: Please make sure you check out the blog that goes with this interview, it’s at sharonpalmer.pvccbh3-liquidwebsites.com or theplantpowereddietitian.com. I’m going to share information about Vandana’s book and any resources that she’d like to share as well, so make sure you check it out. Thank you so much for joining us today I just can’t wait to cook up these delicious recipes.
Vandana: Thank you so much Sharon, it’s always a pleasure chatting with you!
Sharon: I just want to thank you for joining us today and check out the blog, this has been Sharon, reminding you to live and eat well.