(Last Updated on : 25/07/2009)
Vegetables are the indispensable ingredient of Indian food. The vegetables were present in the Indian cuisine since the Vedic era. The first vegetables mentioned in the Rigveda are the lotus stem (visa), and the cucumber (urvaruka). Vedas also refer to several others, like lotus roots (shaluka), the bottle-gourd (alabu), the water-chestnut (saphaka, mulali), two other aquatic plants (avaka and andika), and the bittergourd (karivrnta or kara-vella). The Buddhist and Jain canonical literature6 refers to yams (aluka), two convolvulus roots (etaluka and kadambu), and several leafy vegetables. Kautilya
in his Artha-shastra refers to the rajdhana or ksiri (now kauki, Manilkara kauki) and to the cucumber as chidbhita
Most of the vegetables are mentioned in the Ramayana
. The great epic speaks of the surana or elephant yam (vajrakanda), the pindaluka (possibly the sweet potato, the bottlegourd (kalasaku), the sleshmataka and lasora (both Cordia species that bear fruits which can be cooked or pickled), karira (Capparis decidua, with edible sour berries), and sudarshana or vrspani (unidentified).
After 1500 AD various vegetables of Indian food originated in foreign nations. These vegetables have become inseparable from the Indian cooking. Potato, tomato, papaya and the chilli all are essential to Indian cuisine. Moreover, vegetables like cabbage, cauliflower, lettuce, long orange carrots French or sword beans, haricot or navy beans (rajmah) and the winged beans have been introduced. The major vegetables of India are those which are raised by ploughing, namely cereals, pulses and oilseeds. All these food grains find references in Sanskrit Vedic literature.
The collective term for vegetables was shaka, which comprised six kinds. These were ripened vegetables, leaves, tubers, roots, flowers and pods (shimbi). In addition to that there are other entries that include green leafy vegetables such as aroids, melons, pumpkins and gourds. In Ayurveda
, certain vegetables, such as, gourds, brinjal, cucumber and radish reduce pitta and kapha.
In Indian cooking, the place of vegetables is not restricted to side dishes. Vegetables are turned into appetizers, snacks, soups, main dishes, relishes, pickles, conserves, desserts, sweetmeats, breads and beverages. Just about any vegetable can be cooked in all these forms, using different ingredients and techniques. Vegetables served as side dishes with an Indian meal are cooked in just about every way conceivable to man.
Indian vegetable dishes are easy to cook and require some spices to enhance the flavour of the savour. Some spices, such as turmeric, cayenne pepper, ginger powder and mango powder are often added with or after the vegetables, because they burn so easily. The heat is then reduced and the vegetables are cooked in their own moisture and vapour. Finally the heat is increased and the vegetables go through a second stir-frying, to get nicely browned and develop a beautiful shiny glaze. Sometimes a little oil or ghee is added to the vegetables at the end, to increase the glaze. Vegetables cooked thus have a roasted flavour and very soft texture, though the pieces hold their shape.
Some vegetables, such as potatoes, yams, plantain (green banana) and beetroot are often cooked prior to stir-frying. This is done to preserve the full robust aroma of fried spices, as these vegetables require a lot of water and time to cook and prolonged moist cooking robs the spices of much of their fried flavour.
Vegetables in Indian food find their mention in Sanskrit and other literatures as well. Ancient literatures show the ways of preparation of many vegetables. The Manasollasa uses the generic term pude for a delicacy of mixed fried vegetables folded into a turmeric leaf and then steamed; Chavundarayas Lokopakara mentions thirty-one vegetables in one chapter on cooking, and Mangarasas Supa Shastra has a long chapter on the cooking of vegetables.