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Eating in and loving it as much as eating out

We like eating out, but the food is designed to kill us slowly. Here’s how you can cut the spice, cream, fat and oil and love what you cook

Healthy Chemmeen Vattichathu. (Photo: Samar Halarnkar)

By Samar Halarnkar

LAST PUBLISHED 17.06.2023  |  09:00 AM IST

I like new culinary experiences, I really do. But I am increasingly wary of experiencing them in restaurants because I find myself growing intolerant of the extra spices, salt and oceans of oil one must endure.

I was feeling especially rebellious recently, after a series of meals brought from outside. Some were great, some were average, but they all shared the great Indian deficiencies of being just too heavy—yes, even Italian food.

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Why must everything drown in oil or cream or whatever? Why must everything make you feel like you are going to burst? Why must even salad dressing be creamy? Why is it so difficult to produce great food that is also healthy?

I know, I know. Restaurateurs will privately tell you their food is tasty because they add the things that aren’t so great for us, things we cannot help but love. Staff meals at many restaurants are often simple and light. Can you imagine if they regularly ate the food they served us?

Of course, our bodies are not meant to endure restaurant food every day but that is precisely what many working professionals, who keep uncertain hours, do. It takes some effort but with good planning, it is certainly possible to cook for the week, using light, easy recipes.

The other problem is more intractable: How do you recreate something you really liked in a restaurant in your home kitchen?

I am happy to say it isn’t that difficult to crack the code. For instance, I find it difficult to eat Italian food made in a restaurant because—let’s face it—few restaurants can match the freshness and low-oil version of our aglio olio or arrabiata, which isn’t masala-laden as many desi arrabiatas tend to be. I always add cooking instructions to Zomato—“VERY little oil please"—but it is clear their interpretation differs vastly from mine.

It’s the same with coastal Konkan or Punjabi, paneer-style cuisine. After years of fine-tuning, our home versions are dramatically better and healthier than anything you would find in a restaurant. While I do like the food in, say, Mumbai’s famed Mangalorean restaurants, I cannot countenance their attempts to clog our arteries. As for that great Indian staple, paneer, the restaurant versions are so laden with cream and oil that you should eat them at your own risk.

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I found this dilemma particularly pronounced with Malayali food, which I adore but eat sparingly because restaurant versions are almost always over- spiced and swimming in coconut oil. I was reminded of this dilemma when I was browsing through Why Cook, a new book on women achievers who also cook: musicians, CEOs, teachers and mountaineers sharing their favourite recipes.

I was struck by a prawn entrée I had frequently encountered in restaurants, a chemmeen vattichathu. It looked earthy and lovely but—alas—it called for four tablespoons of coconut oil. Guiltily, I modified food writer and farmer Neha Sumitran’s wonderful recipe, dropping the coconut oil entirely and using three teaspoons—instead of the five tablespoons prescribed.

Alongside the chemmeen, I made my standardised version of Khasi pork, both paired with sannas, those delightful Mangalorean cousins of the idli. For vegetarians, I drizzled a tahini sauce over pan-fried—yes, with very little oil—eggplant slices and the wife’s low-oil, delicious paneer recipe. Spinach rice, dal and salad completed the meal, all of it washed down with a home-made white-wine sangria which also was, um, relatively healthy since it had no added sugar or syrup.

Admittedly, my version of the chemmeen vattichathu did not look anything as accomplished as Sumitran’s. But my guests seemed to approve. Amongst them was Gayatri Menon, a professor, a Malayali and one of the best cooks I know. Her contribution to the lunch was an extraordinary almond cake (I will get the recipe for you sometime). I anxiously waited for her reaction, admitting that I had done away entirely with coconut oil.

“Omitting coconut oil," said Menon gravely, “is one of the best things one can do to Mallu food." She said it, not me.

Healthy Chemmeen Vattichathu

Serves 6

Ingredients

1kg medium prawn

3 tbsp garlic cloves

2-inch piece ginger

5 stalks of curry leaves (or about 40 leaves)

Lemon-sized ball of tamarind, soaked in three-fourths cup of hot water for 30 minutes

Half tsp fenugreek seeds

25 sambar onions

1 tbsp coriander powder + 2 tbsp Kashmiri chilli powder, dissolved in half cup water

3 tsp vegetable oil

Salt to taste

Method

Roughly pound fresh ginger and garlic together in a mortar-pestle until it becomes a coarse paste. Set aside.

Pound the sambar onions until fully crushed in a mortar pestle. Set aside.

Squeeze the tamarind into the water in which it was soaking. Keep squeezing all the juice out, discarding seeds and other detritus. Set aside.

In a vessel with a heavy bottom, heat the oil gently. Add fenugreek seeds until they start changing colour. Add curry leaves and crushed sambar onions. Fry until the onions start turning golden or brown (the latter is likely if you use the quantity of oil specified here; if you would like them to be golden, add more oil). Add the ginger-garlic paste and sauté for two-three minutes. Lower heat, add the coriander and Kashmiri chilli powders mixed with water. Drizzle more water if there is any fear of burning. Add the tamarind extract, two cups of water and stir well. Add salt. Cover, reduce flame and simmer for about 30 minutes to thicken the curry. Add prawns, shake the vessel so curry coats the prawns. It should be done in five minutes. Serve with rice, dosas or sannas (as I did).

Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures. @samar11 on Twitter. 

Also read | A mango snob, an Alphonso and a mango ‘idli’