Update: You can now buy vadouvan at places like Amazon and The Spice House (where they are actually using my Red Lentil Soup recipe without permission, ahem.) It will probably be stronger than my homemade version, so if you use packaged vadouvan, start off with a third of the amounts listed in the recipes below and add more to taste.
You may not have heard of vadouvan, but I’m predicting it will be the next trendy ingredient. It’s been popping up on restaurant menus a lot lately and caused a bit of web chatter when Ruth Reichl, editor of Gourmet, mentioned trying it a few months ago, but now that Gourmet has published a recipe for it in this month’s issue–as well as on its site–I’m sure that soon everyone will be making this formerly hard to procure seasoning.
So what is it, and is there any reason other than trendiness to try it? The short answers are 1) a Frenchified version of a south Indian seasoning and 2) Yes.
According to Gourmet, vadouvan originated around the French settlement of Pondicherry in southern India. It appears to me to be a version of the Tamil Nadu seasoning vadagam or vadakam, which is made by combining onions, dal, cumin, curry leaves, and other spices, shaping the mixture into balls, and drying them in the sun to be stored for later use. In the Gourmet version, shallots are added to the mixture, which is roasted in the oven until practically dry, giving it a deep, smoky taste.
Since, as you know, I’m crazy for anything smoky or cuminy, I just had to try this recipe. It took a while, and it required me to heat up my oven and to hover nearby for frequent stirrings. And once I made it, my kitchen smelled like onion and curry for days, though perhaps turning on a vent fan would have helped, something I realized after the fact. But now that I’ve got it made and safely stashed in my freezer, I’m thrilled that I’ll be able to add this savory, oniony, lightly-curry-scented flavor to anything quickly and easily with just a couple of tablespoonfuls.
Of course I adapted the recipe. The original made twice as much, and I was unwilling to commit so many pounds of shallots and onions to an untried recipe. It also called for frying in oil, though not a huge amount considering how much it makes, but I wanted to be able to add the seasoning freely without worrying about how much added fat it contained, so I reduced the oil to just a few quick sprays to keep it from sticking or burning. I altered the ingredient amounts just a little, adding a touch more cumin and mustard seed just because I like them. And finally, I used fresh hot chile peppers because I’ve got more of them than I can use in my garden.
- 3 small hot chili peppers or 1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes
- 8 cloves garlic peeled
- 2 large onions about 1 pound, peeled and cut into eighths
- 1/2 pound shallots peeled and halved
- 1/2 teaspoon ground fenugreek or whole fenugreek ground in coffee mill
- 1/2 tablespoon curry leaves thinly sliced (optional)
- 2 teaspoons cumin
- 1 teaspoon mustard seed
- 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
- 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1/2 tablespoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
Remove the stems from the peppers, place them in a food processor with the garlic, and process until minced. Add half of the onions and pulse to chop coarsely. Remove from the processor and repeat with remaining onions and shallots until all are coarsely chopped.
Spray a large skillet with canola oil and heat on medium-high. Add the chopped vegetables. (Turn your face away as you do this because the fumes will cause you to tear up!) Reduce heat to medium and cook, stirring often and scraping the bottom, until onions begin to brown, about 15-20 minutes. Add all remaining ingredients and stir well.
Preheat oven to 350. Cover a 4-sided baking pan with parchment paper, spray the paper lightly with canola oil, and transfer the onion mixture to it, spreading it out as thinly as possible:
Spray the top of the mixture lightly with canola oil. Bake until browned and most moisture is gone, 1 to 1 1/4 hours, stirring regularly to break up the onions as best you can. Be careful not to burn!
Cool, break up any large clumps, and store in the refrigerator up to one month or the freezer up to six months.
I didn’t want to give you this long-cooking recipe without also showing you a couple of ways to use it. For my first use of vadouvan, I went with something simple, something that adapts easily to different seasonings, something using Indian ingredients, and something my family always likes: red lentil soup. Cooking the lentils with vadouvan gave them an indescribably smoky, sensual flavor. The curry flavor is there, in the background, but the pungency of the roasted onions and shallots wins out. It was a taste that my whole family loved.
Red Lentil Soup with Vadouvan
- 1/2 teaspoon cumin seed
- 1/2 teaspoon mustard seed
- 1 onion chopped
- 1 1/2 cups masoor dal or small red lentils picked over and rinsed
- 4 cups water
- 1/3 cup Vadouvan (start with 1 tbsp. of packaged vadouvan or curry powder)
- 2 cloves garlic minced
- 1/2 teaspoon coriander
- 1 15 ounce can diced tomatoes I used fire-roasted
- 3-4 cups baby spinach
Heat a large saucepan over high heat. When hot, add the cumin and mustard seed; cook for 1 minute or until seeds begin to pop. Immediately add the onion and saute for 3 minutes. Add the lentils, water, vadouvan, garlic, and coriander. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and cook, covered, until lentils are completely soft, about 20 minutes.
Add the tomatoes and salt to taste. Simmer, uncovered, adding more water if necessary, for about 20 minutes. Just before serving, stir in the spinach and cook just until wilted but still bright green.
The vadouvan-cashew cream sauce in the recipe below may be the single greatest reason you should take the time to whip up a batch of vadouvan. I made this for lunch today, eating two of the four servings, and I could easily go back and eat the whole batch. The sauce makes the recipe and would be wonderful on tofu, tempeh, seitan, baked potatoes–anywhere you want a rich, oniony, almost meaty taste. Someday soon I’m going to be simmering chunks of tofu and sliced mushrooms in this sauce and serving it over rice.
Grilled Eggplant with Vadouvan-Cashew Cream Sauce
- 2 small eggplants
- 2/3 cup plain soy milk or other non-dairy milk
- 1/2 tablespoon nutritional yeast
- 1 tablespoon cashews
- 1 tablespoon Vadouvan (start with 1 tsp. of packaged vadouvan or curry powder)
- 1 large tomato
- 1/2 small green chile seeds removed and minced
- 1 clove garlic minced
- 1/2 teaspoon white balsamic vinegar
- salt and pepper
Cut off the tops and bottoms of the eggplants and slice them into 1/2-inch slices. If you like, you may salt the eggplants and allow them to "weep" for half an hour before rinsing and proceeding with the recipe; I did not bother with this.) Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and cook on a well-oiled grill pan until browned on both sides and soft in the middle. (You may also broil or bake the eggplant.)
While the eggplants are cooking, make the sauce by blending the soymilk, nutritional yeast, cashews, and vadouvan in a small blender. Pour into a saucepan, add salt to taste, and bring to a boil. Turn down to very low and keep warm until eggplants are ready.
Chop the tomato and add the garlic, chile pepper, and vinegar. Add salt and black pepper to taste.
Assemble on appetizer plates by layering a spoonful of sauce followed by three slices of eggplant with a little sauce between each slice. Top with the tomato mixture and enjoy.
Makes 4 appetizer-sized servings.