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A vegetarian Indian bowl for wary in-laws

Here’s how you can surprise conservative eaters—make a meal that is familiar yet seemingly exotic

Chettiyar brinjal curry (Photo: Samar Halarnkar)
Chettiyar brinjal curry (Photo: Samar Halarnkar)

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It is good for a man who cooks to have in-laws. Let me rephrase that—it is good for a man who cooks to have in-laws like mine.

They are very easy to cook for because even before I am ready with a meal, they are appreciative of it. “It looks very nice,” they will say. If I say they should at least taste it first, they reply, “Your food is always good, Samar.” After that, of course, it is hard to make an adverse comment, which indeed they have never made and never will. “Too good,” is the standard response.

The reason for this fulsome praise could be because my in-laws are, as I have pointed out, Sindhi. In Sindhi families, it is hard for sons-in-law to do wrong (unless perhaps there is murder and cheating involved). They are put on a pedestal and spoilt. In the early days of marriage, my in-laws were aghast when I paid restaurant bills, were hesitant to visit because son-in-law would—horrors—wash dishes or cook and were generally wary whenever I sprung out of my chair.

I was never a great cook but my father-in-law, who runs a charming old-world hotel, insisted—and still does—that I am a gourmet chef. Flattery works, so I tend to spend more time in the kitchen when they are here.

The problem is that much of what I cook regularly isn’t of interest to them.

Essentially, they eat one chapati, a little rice, dal, a vegetable and, perhaps, a small piece of chicken or fish. They are wary of unfamiliar food. They shun pork, beef and other meats and spare parts. South Indian food is about as exotic as it gets for them, with the occasional pasta or Chinese hot and sour soup and fried rice.

Brought up right, they eat with a spoon, using it even with idli and sambar and chapati and dal. The wife tells me her father would frown when he saw elbows on the table. It took her some time to eat dosas with her hands and she still uses spoons liberally.

These foibles apart, one could not wish for kinder, gentler in-laws, so I try to make sure I alter my non-vegetarian proclivities to cater to at least some of their tastes.

At breakfast time, I like to make them what they do not get back home, which is their modest hotel room, where they have lived for half a century. They always welcome our morning staple, home-made dosas and chutney. “Too good,” they say. I may not have many gifts but I do possess the ability to churn out top-quality dosas, soft inside, crisp outside—with minimal oil. It’s all about maintaining the right temperature on the dosa pan.

A whole roast fish or chicken may appear formidable to my in-laws, and they will take their little piece and wax eloquent about it, but I really have to put in effort to make their comfort food, which is, as I said, based on familiar vegetables.

What could I do that might surprise them and yet seem familiar?

Perhaps I could create a little bowl for them. My slap-dash, use-what-you-have and do-it-quickly methods would fail me, so I planned it.

The base would be rice, which they often eat with their solitary chapati, scooping dal and vegetable on to the rice with a spoon, then shovelling it into the chapati. I understand because I often eat my fish or meat curry with chapati and rice—without the spoon, of course.

For real inspiration, I wandered off one morning to the grocery store to poke and prod the morning’s arrivals, humming and murmuring to myself as I thought about the produce at hand.

I sourced some tomato rice from my mother and settled for mainly Tamil components, since that is vegetarian food they are unfamiliar with. I smashed a coconut, chopped tomatoes and onions, struggled to find split black gram dal and poppy seeds. There is always a pleasure in using uncommon ingredients and watching them all come together.

I made a cucumber pachadi, like a raita, a Chettiyar brinjal curry—from a classic book on Tamil cooking, Aharam, by Sabita Radhakrishna—and some fried zucchini (sprinkled with Mangalurean bafat powder and salt) of my own design.

“Well?” I asked the in-laws. I don’t think what I cooked mattered but I asked anyway.

“Too good,” they said.

Chettiyar brinjal curry
Serves 6

8 small brinjals, chopped into small cubes
2 medium tomatoes, cubed
2 large potatoes, chopped into small cubes
2 medium onions, finely chopped
10-12 cloves of garlic, chopped fine
2 tbsp grated fresh coconut
1 tsp poppy seeds
10 dried red chillies
3 tbsp coriander seeds
For the seasoning: 1-inch piece cinnamon, 10 curry leaves, 1 tsp fennel seeds
2 tbsp oil
2-3 cups of water
Salt to taste


Make a powder by grinding dried red chillies and coriander seeds. Make a paste by grinding grated coconut and poppy seeds, adding a little water if needed. Set both aside.

In a pan, heat the oil and add the seasoning ingredients. When fennel seeds start to sizzle and pop, add onion and garlic. Sauté till onion begins to brown, then add ground coriander and chilli powder and sauté for two-three minutes, adding a drizzle of water if too dry. Add potatoes, brinjals and salt and sauté for about five minutes, until the brinjal begins to soften. Add poppy seed and coconut paste and mix well. Stir in tomatoes. Add water, bring to a boil and turn down the heat to a simmer until cooked. Garnish with coriander leaves before serving.

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. 

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