Although I had already been aware of this aspect of many traditional Indian diets, I was struck by the general taboo against using onions and garlic that she placed on her cooking. This proscription, it was explained to me, is maintained by many Indians for the purpose of avoiding impurities that affect the body's balance and hence spiritual meditation. I am not Hindu of course, but I was not altogether surprised by this explanation after a bit of reflection, for as much as I enjoy the flavours of onions and garlic, there is a quality to them that I feel compelled to avoid for a while after eating too many. And as much as I enjoy eggs and cheese, I similarly feel the need to eat a mostly vegan diet for a few days if I've overindulged.
… Which got me to thinking. I found that my sweetie was skeptical on the subject, but then I should not have been surprised — he has that typical male aptitude for being internally insensitive, for all his other fine qualities. Still, I decided that there could be no harm in following some Indian sensibilities at least when it comes to Indian food, and resolved that I would make more of an effort to substitute onions and garlic with asafoetida or hing as do many Indian vegetarians. A very potent and pungent powder made from the dried resin of the stem and roots of a giant fennel plant that grows in Iran, Afghanistan and the Kashmir region of India, asafoetida is a staple in many Indian kitchens for its alleged anti-flatulent properties and for the flavours of onion and garlic that it imparts to food when fried quickly in hot oil or ghee. So strong it is that a pinch will do for any recipe, so a tin will last you ages. Every Indian grocery will carry it. I'll still use onions and garlic in other cuisines like Mediterranean where it would be unthinkable to do without, and will continue to use them in my Indian dishes, but Indian dal and vegetable cooking is perfectly suited to using asafoetida, and I will continue to adjust recipes accordingly.
As it turned out, I had already planned on making this curried black-eyed pea soup with onions and garlic when the thought came to me, and it was but a matter of moments to make the substitution. A very light, fragrant and colourful soup perfect for lunches or small dinners, I did not miss the onions and garlic at all — in fact, I'm convinced that the asafoetida is what made it perfect.
Black-eyed peas in an Indian curried soup
1 cup dried black-eyed peas
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
3 medium tomatoes, chopped
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
juice of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
1/4 teaspoon asafoetida
small handful of fresh coriander, chopped
1 teaspoon sea salt, or to taste
Rinse the black-eyed peas and soak overnight in a large saucepan in 4 cups of water with a little yogurt whey or lemon juice added. Bring to a boil, skimming off the foam. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer until the beans are plump and tender, about 30-40 minutes.
Meanwhile, toast the ground coriander and cumin in a small frying pan without oil over medium-low heat until the spices darken a couple of shades and acquire a smoky fragrance. Remove from heat and set aside.
When the black-eyed peas are cooked, stir in the toasted spices along with the tomatoes, turmeric and cayenne. Bring to a boil again, then reduce the heat to low and simmer partially covered for 10 minutes. Add the lemon juice.
Heat the oil in a small frying pan over medium heat. When hot, toss in the black mustard seeds and asafoetida and quickly stir until the seeds begin to turn grey and splutter, a few seconds. Quickly remove from heat and mix into the soup.
Let the soup simmer for a couple more minutes to let the flavours mingle, then stir in the fresh coriander and salt to taste.
Serve hot in warmed bowls with hot white rice and fresh greens on the side. Serves 4 to 6.