Opinion | The challenge of Chermoula
Indians regard their vegetarian cuisines as supreme, but little can match the joys of vegetables grilled with one of the world’s simplest marinades
Let me admit this up front: To write a column about vegetables does not come easy to me.
When I said I was doing just that, my vegetarian wife only rolled her eyes. Her well of sarcasm had dried up. It has been 20 years, and after enduring smart-aleck—well we don’t really mean to be smart-alecky—comments from the Halarnkars, she has replaced acerbity with a silent weariness, sometimes a deliberately audible sigh.
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This led me to think, am I antagonistic to vegetarian food? After some deliberation, I have concluded that I am not.
Ever since I returned to Bengaluru nearly a decade ago, my extravagant breakfasts of two eggs and leftover kheema or fish curry gradually ended. They were replaced with dosas, which we have almost every day, with chutney and, on weekends, potatoes and sambar.
All right, so lunch and dinner are rarely all vegetarian, but I really do not have a problem if they are. It is the spouse who feels uncomfortable if there is not a token meat entrée, not me. I would also like to add here that there are many vegetables that I eat that she does not.
For instance, last week she refused but I enjoyed the ironba—banana stem with mashed vegetables—that came with the khai akao han, a smoked fish curry, all of it from Aunty Zaimi’s Tangkhul Tribal Kitchen, one of the many home-cooking options curated under the umbrella of Bengaluru’s 12/2 Kitchen.
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She tends to be quite mainstream in her vegetable options, very much a dal-sabzi kind of girl, not so much fried plantains or ridge gourds and other southern staples. Admittedly, I am not great on some basics, such as bhindi—kill me first—but my acceptance of vegetables came some years ago when I conquered the final frontier: spinach.
Palak and I have long had a strained relationship. My mother insisted I eat it into my early teens, and it was an ordeal. I would keep a glass of water handy, gulp and wash it down with a shudder.
Now, I feel somewhat uncomfortable—and substantially guilty—if there is no palak in my meal. I am not so sure I love the taste, but it’s easy to eat, washes down easily and merges well with curries and dals.
I eat most vegetables today but my favourite vegetarian cuisines are from the Arab world sprawling across the Maghreb and the Middle East—low on spice, high on freshness. The Maghreb and the Barbary is the western edge of the Arab world in north-west Africa and their essential spices are part of our culinary palette as well: cumin, black pepper, paprika (Kashmiri mirch works well), cinnamon, cloves, saffron, mint, parsley and coriander.
Nearly a quarter of the few vegetarian entrées in my book of dubious culinary adventures are from the Arab world, the cuisines of which regularly feature in my kitchen.
Grilled vegetables that fit somewhere between the Mediterranean and the Maghreb are my go-to dish for rainy evenings, a favourite of my largely vegetarian in-laws and the wife. Before grilling, I splash them with olive oil and a dusting of one spice—harissa, sumac or Kashmiri mirch powder—with garlic scattered amidst.
These vegetables are on the dinner table at least once a week, when they become the main entrée. The side dishes, for my daughter and I, are beef or chicken kebabs, air-fried chicken or fried fish.
But the family favourite used to be my chermoula paste, a condiment really, which I used to make during my Delhi days, a decade ago. The light spice always appeared to pair well not justwith red wine but with the heat and dust of the northern summer. Perhaps it had something to do with the equally dry Maghreb south of the Atlas mountains.
As far as I know, the light, simple and tangy chermoula is usually used to marinate grilled or fried fish but I discovered long ago that it works beautifully with vegetables. It is a breeze to make and takes no more than 5 minutes.
After that, it’s up to you really. Use it in soups, use it as a marinade, use it with sautéed vegetables, as I have done below. You can make extra and refrigerate it for a couple of days, although I find it best fresh.
As I said, I eat a variety of Indian vegetables now and even like some. But give me grilled vegetables with a dash of chermoula, a glass of wine, some bread and a rainy evening, and there is nothing better.
ZUCCHINI AND EGGPLANT IN CHERMOULA
For the chermoula
Half-cup coriander, chopped
4 large pieces of garlic
2 tsp cumin seeds
2 tsp Kashmiri chilli powder
1 tbsp olive oil
Juice of 1 lime (ideally lemon)
Salt to taste if using as a dip
Place all the ingredients in a small grinder and pulse briefly (10 seconds or so) into a coarse paste. Set aside.
For the vegetables
1 zucchini, cut into slim semi-circles
5 small eggplants, diced
Half tomato, chopped
8-10 pieces of garlic, finely chopped
2 tbsp pomegranate (or any) vinegar
1 small green chilli, finely chopped
Salt to taste
1 tbsp olive oil
Heat oil gently in a wok. Let the green chilli splutter, then add garlic and sauté for a minute. Add eggplant and sauté till almost done, adding vinegar while sautéing. Add tomato and sauté for a minute. Add zucchini and saltand sauté until done. Add 3-4 heaped teaspoons of chermoula sauce and toss for a minute. Serve hot.
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.