On Vegetarian Recipes That Aren’t A No-Meat Compromise (Sweet Pepper Chickpea Curry Recipe)
Dishes should be well-balanced. In a formal Japanese meal (kaiseki), the dishes are not sorted by starch, vegetables, fish, red meat, and desserts, or by their dominant chemical profile: carbohydrates, proteins, and sucrose. They are categorized by color (because we eat with our eyes, too), cooking style (raw, braised, grilled, etc.) and even the type of vessel that holds the dish (e.g., the bowl course, which is usually a soup). There should be a variety of these elements represented, even if it weren’t a formal setting.
One culture shock I had when I came to North America was not only the way menus were organized (salads, fish/seafood, chicken, beef, desserts) but the thinking that layout affected people (or the menu format as a result of how people thought). I still remember an American asking me about the use of tofu in Asian cuisine, puzzled why a cherished “protein substitute” for vegetarians would be paired with meat. Never mind that I should have corrected that tofu is protein and not its substitute, or that it wasn’t some innovation created recently to satisfy the Western interest in vegetarianism. The comment sounded wrong in so many ways, I didn’t know where to start. Then I understood by leafing through cookbooks for vegetarians. They were no-meat versions trying to be that iconic meat dish, where tofu was a “meat protein substitute”.
Here’s a dish that’s hearty on its own, without any animal protein, as if it were crafted to be simply delicious which happened to not have any animal product by chance, because it didn’t need it, and adding it would not have elevated the dish. It requires a food processor, but the ingredients are easy to find and relatively inexpensive. I’m not a fan of having to use gadgets for cooking but I like this recipe because you pretty much purée everything, and no washing is required after each use.
Sweet Pepper Chickpea Curry
- Roughly chop 3 sweet onions (or regular, if Maui/Walla Walla onions are unavailable) so you can place them in the food processor. Purée them and place into a heavy pot with a generous amount of olive oil (at least 3 Tablespoons) on high heat to start. Sprinkle with some sea salt to help get the moisture out of the onions. It’s a lot of onions, so you can start the mise en place for the rest of the ingredients now, remembering to check on the onions as you don’t want to burn them.
- While the onions are sweating, remove seeds of 3 red peppers, and coarsely chop. Set aside.
- Keep checking on the onions. They are probably not done yet, but turn down the heat to medium high, as they will start to burn after the initial water content has evaporated.
- Peel 5 – 10 cloves of garlic (depending on how much you like garlic), as well as 2 inches of fresh ginger. Chop them roughly for the food processor.
- Combine the red peppers, garlic and the ginger and purée them in the food processor.
- Check on the onions. If they are just starting to develop color, you are done. Add 2 tablespoons of cumin. 1 tablespoons of coriander, 1 tsp of turmeric, 1/2 tsp of cayenne pepper (these measurements are not exact: the recipe is forgiving, so you can add more at the end).
- Add the red pepper mixture into the pot.
- Boil a cup or so of water in a small sauce pan, and take about a cup to 1.5 cups of whole almonds and blanch them in hot water. Turn off the heat, drain the water and take off the skin. Purée them in the food processor and add them to the pot. The ground almonds should be as fine as you can make them.
- Drain and rinse 1 – 2 cans of chickpeas. Place them in the pot.
- Add about a cube of vegetarian bouillon dissolved in a cup or so of hot water. Add to the pot.
- For more pepper goodness, add another pepper (I like to add a different color one, but red is also good, to show contrast by size and texture) by seeding them and them chopping them into bite size pieces. Toss into the poss.
- Heat through for another 10 minutes or so, and check for flavor. You will probably need to add more sea salt, possibly more cumin and coriander, but also a tablespoon of sugar if the onions weren’t sweet. If there is depth missing, I add a splash of soy sauce. Finish off with some lemon or lime juice, and chopped cilantro leaves and stems.
- Garnish with more cilantro leaves and serve with aromatic yellow rice.
Variation: I have reduced the amount of chickpeas and added some fried tofu cubes. Tofu does add some bitterness so I’ve balanced it out with a bit of honey or sugar.
Photo: Sweet Pepper Chickpea Curry served with Aromatic Yellow Rice