Comments on Onions, Garlic & South Indian Food

In case you don’t read the comments to my blog posts, here’s a few fascinating letters written in response to yesterday’s letter about garlic- and onion-free sambar.

the topic of our discussion:

Saritha Vishwanath from Bangalore, South India writes:

“Dear Kurma, I would like to share a sambar recipe slightly different from
Swathi’s. I am also from South India (Bangalore) and I belong to Smartha
(Worshipers of Shiva) community. I hope you like this recipe.

To make sambar for 2 people: 1/2 cup toor dal (pressure cooked) + use any
vegetables (eggplant, radish, drumsticks, spinach, potato etc).

Boil the vegetables with the dal – this gives a different taste to the sambar.

Add 1 tsp tamarind paste. Salt to taste.

To make the sambar masala: 1/2 tsp coriander seeds, 1
cinnamon stick, 1 tsp channa dal, 4-6 red chillies, 1/4 cup fresh grated coconut.

Pour little oil in a pan, fry the above ingredients except coconut until the dal turns lightly brown. Then grind this with the fresh coconut to a paste.
When the dal and vegetable is done, boil it, adding water, mix the tamarind
paste and the ground masala. Add little salt for taste. Once this is done season
with mustard seeds and asafetida. Also can garnish with coriander.”

Sudakaran Sangaran from Malaysia writes:

“The use of onions and garlic in south Indian cuisine is not culturally
inherent. I have studied an old cookbook written by a Smartha Brahmin mataji
named Smt Meenakshi Ammal. She published her first cookbook Samaithu Par (Cook
and See) in 1951 when books of such categories were not favoured by publishers

There are 350 traditional vegetarian recipes in the book (she went on to publish
another 2 under the same title). Barely even 5% of the recipes include onions
and garlic. In fact, in recipes where these items are called for she added the
word “optional” in brackets next to these two ingredients. So its obvious from this that traditionally orthodox south Indian cooking eschewed onions and garlic.

Another evidence is during the shraddha ceremony, when charity is given to the brahmin priest who performs the rituals. Apart from a dhoti and cash he is given in charity a complete set of raw uncooked food items such as
vegetables, spices, oil, milk, yogurt etc. Onions and garlic are omitted.

The use
of onions and garlic is prevalent in the north whose cooking tradition had been
heavily influenced by the Moghul Muslims. This then gradually infiltrated into
the traditions of the South. All orthodox brahmin households, be they Vaishnava
or Smartha do not use these items as they are regarded as “rajasic” or passion
inducing food. Haribol!”

Anu from South India writes:

“I am from South India and most households do not use garlic or onion in their
regular sambhar. By the way a variation on sambhar is a traditional dish from
Karnataka called “Bisi Bele Bath” – (Hot Dhal Rice). It’s a combination of
dhal, rice, vegetables and sambhar masala with some additional spices like
clove, cinnamon and star anise.”

Any more comments on garlic and onion use in the Subcontinent?


sambar spices:

Uthaya Kumar from Malaysia writes:

“Dear Kurma Ji, I’m a vegetarian. But I do have a penchant for garlic and onions since as you know they are heavily used in South Indian cooking.

More on Sourdough Bread

It’s been a while since I baked my last sourdough loaf. My trip to Peru and other unexpected things temporarily put an end to my regular breadmaking. I am hoping to re-commence soon.

Here’s an article I was sent yesterday. It might re-enliven any old sourdough bakers out there.

Natural Leaven or Commercial Baker’s Yeast?

There are two methods for leavening bread and they differ totally in the way
they act on the flour, as well as on the taste and nutritional effect of the
resulting bread and, in the end, on the health of the consumer. The aim of
bread fermentation is to transform the various nutrients freed by the
milling of the grain and to modify them for optimum assimilation during

A Definition of Natural Leaven

Wild yeast, or multi-micro flora are the natural air-borne ferments that are
generated or seeded in a dough left exposed to a clean and cool atmosphere
under specific conditions of moisture and temperature and the exclusion of
larger specimen. Within that fertile medium, lactic bacteria of the various
beneficial types are found: B. Pastorianum, B. Delbrucki, B.Ternoas well as
saccharomyces such as S.Pastorianus, and S. Cervisiae. This type of
microflora consumes little energy and multiplies quite slowly. Its growth
duplicates the cycle of human breathing and that of wheat embryo
germination. Wild yeast also naturally enriches the bread, due to an
additional development of nutrients by the beneficial enzymes and ferments.

Baking by Principle

In baking as in all natural processes, the laws of life must be respected;
it is vital for the fermented bread to retain the dynamic character that
originally develops within the wheat berry as it evolves toward its
germination. Just as the breathing cycle consists of an oxidation, followed
by a reduction, the same cycle is reproduced in the five day cycle of the
germination of wheat. Natural leavened bread (seeded with wild yeast or
natural leaven) also duplicates this cycle: The rising of the dough
corresponds to an oxidation (like wheat germ growth), followed by a
reduction (during the baking of the loaf) identical to the development of
the miniature sprout of wheat. We readily see that of the two methods
available for leavening bread, only natural leaven faithfully follows God’s
laws of the universe.

Beware of White Sourdough

There is also the question of sifting out the bran: Today, many loaves of
sourdough ‘French’ bread are being offered but they are made with white
flours that are almost totally demineralized. The pseudo mycelium
(vegetative part of the thallus of the fungi, composed of several filaments)
cannot feed on such debilitated flours and the bread tastes excessively sour
which tells us that, besides lacking the essential nutrients, it is
unfavorable to the digestive process.

Another problem sometimes occurs in natural baking: An excess of lactic
bacteria may develop and give the bread a definite sourness. Although these
bacteria are natural, they have proliferated in excess because the starter
or sour dough sponge was not cared for daily. Excess proliferation is a
result of a lack of aeration or scrupulous daily feeding (refreshing) or
else is due to the storage of the starter in warm areas or areas
contaminated with vinegar or other acetic acid products. Since lactic
bacteria are anaerobic, they can only develop in the absence of air. When
these have exceeded their limit, a “lactic bread” or “acetic bread” is
obtained, excessively sour that becomes more sour with aging, with
definitely harmful results.

How Baker’s Yeast Works

Commercial yeast is an isolate “mushroom-type” microorganism whose cells are
high in moisture and consist of vacuolated protoplasm. Their reproduction
cycle is extremely rapid and thus one gram of compressed yeast contains
several trillions of yeast cells. In a dough seeded with 1% of commercial
yeast, the number of these cells can double in 6 hours at 80 degree
Fahrenheit. If the fermentation is allowed to continue, the proliferation
will reach a concentration of 150,000,000 cells per cubic centimeter
regardless of how little seeding was done at the start.

With commercial yeast, rising of the dough is lightning fast, coupled with a
reduction (baker’s yeast is a strong reducer), followed by a strong
oxidation during the baking and often accompanied by an alkalinization. This
is increased even more when a portion or all of the bran is removed. We
witness here a phenomenon totally opposed to the normal laws of life. The
end result of this biological decay (staling of bread), is a deficient
oxidative energy that changes into a glycolysed energy, as evidenced by
monster, or anarchistic, cells that are an exact duplicate of human cancer
cells, according to the research of Dr. Warbourg, M.D.

Candida and Anemia are Related to the Consumption of Yeasted Bread

Rickets and anemia can be caused by the consumption of yeasted whole wheat
bread. These chronic calcium deficiencies are corrected and even totally
eliminated when the whole wheat bread is naturally leavened. In the natural
leavening process, the phytic acid and the phytates are hydrolysed by the
phytases of the bran in an acid environment and transformed into phytin and
soluble phosphatic acids of magnesium, calcium and iron which are totally
assimilable and beneficial.

In the case of yeasted bread, with a pH varying from 5.9 to 6.5, the
reduction by hydrolysis of the toxic phytic compounds is insufficient, no
better than 50%, a level that causes yeasted bread to be detrimental,
especially for anemic people.

A full hydrolysis is possible only when the pH remains between 4 and 5.6
maximum, which is the case for natural leaven bread. At the median pH of 4.8
in a dough kept at a temperature of 64 degrees Fahrenheit; there remain only
0.78% (less than 1%) of the phytic acid compounds, which is a totally safe

Sweet Tasting Bread Made with Sourdough Starter

It is quite easy to obtain a sweet tasting bread with a natural leaven
fermentation for a base. The slower proofing of the dough at temperatures
between 62 and 64 degrees Fahrenheit, made from a leaven always stored at
low temperatures of 47 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit and regularly refreshed,
will totally prevent the characteristic sour dough taste often associated
with natural leavened bread.

Two Extra Benefits from the Natural Leaven Process

The limited growth of friendly lactic bacteria and the presence of other
micro-organisms will add little to the acidity, yet will create a good
swelling of the gluten as evidenced by small but regular air cells in the
crumb. As it ages, natural leavened bread will retain its moisture and keep
well without refrigeration, quite opposed from the yeasted bread that stales
and dries out within hours after its baking. With natural leaven, no dried
out bread need ever to be thrown out.

Bran Value

The high mineral and enzymatic value of bran is widely known and needs
little elaboration. It is necessary however, to discuss the little known
phytic acid and its detrimental effects on the body metabolism. Phytic acid
is inherently present in whole rice and whole wheat and it can cause
allergies and other severe illnesses. This toxic substance can only be
neutralized and eliminated by the skillful fermentation of those cereal
grains through highly principled baking. Thus, the natural baking method
that drastically reduces phytic acid must be adopted universally if one is
to obtain the most beneficial bread.


Bread and grain-based diets, especially at the beginning, give the illusion
that they do not readily digest. Natural leaven bread, because of its
inherent beneficial ferments, slowly recreates the population of friendly
lactobacillus digestive bacteria in the absorption tract. The end result is
a recovery of digestion and proper elimination by the effective action of
friendly bacteria. Natural leaven bread provides more stable nutrition than
that obtained mechanically by non-fermented (and thus non- pre-digested)
bran and other raw or cooked roughage diets, since these only succeed in
physically abrading and irritating the colon.

Pop down to the next article to see my last sourdough adventure here in Sydney. Always a pleasure and a grand success!

Kurma's Sourdough Bread – Proof of the Pudding

Here’s a photo essay of my last batch of sourdough baking. See above for the rationale behind sourdough as opposed to commercial yeasted bread.

start with flour:

Firstly I start with my flour. In this case I added flax seeds and black sesame.

add some salt:

Salt is a very important addition for successful leavening.

add the water:

Purified water goes in next.

add my starter:

Then the most important ingredient is added – the starter culture.

add the flour:

I commence mixing.

stir it in:

The flour is stirred in with a spoon rather than my hands, in a beating motion – I prefer a moist dough.

a nice dough:

I think that’s sufficient.

leave for a long rest:

The dough must be left for many hours to double in size.

oil the tins:

Meanwhile I oil my bread tins. There is no oil in my dough.

flour the tins:

Then I flour the tins so my bread does not stick.

the dough she's a doublin':

Finally my dough is spongy and more than doubled.

the dough in the tins:

I divide the dough carefully into two and pop it in the tins. One kilo of flour makes me two medium loaves.

bread is ready to bake:

After the required time my dough has again doubled in the tins.

The bread is done and cooling:

There’s a couple of nice loaves!

ready for consumption:

And it’s sliced, ready for consumption.

Holy Cow – More on Animal Rights, Veganism and Vegetarianism

Satyaraj Dasa (Steven Rosen):

Without a doubt, I receive more letters about the dairy versus vegan issue than any other topic. Up to now I have directed my correspondees to a previous two-part interview with me, here, and here, authored by Claudette Vaughan from “Abolitionist-online, A Voice for Animal Rights”, and the subsequent response it generated.

holy cow front cover:

Recently Claudette conducted another interview on the topic, this time with Steven J. Rosen, (pictured above), author of “Holy Cow: The Hare Krishna contribution to Vegetarianism and Animal Rights”. Read the interview here…

"Early To Bed Keeps Heart Healthy"

early to bed:

Early To Bed Keeps Heart Healthy

As anyone that knows me will attest, I have always been a keen follower of the doctrine “early to bed, early to rise”. Whenever I can, I am usually in bed by 8pm.

Apparently, medical research is starting to catch up with this ancient wisdom. In a recent study, reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association, sleep-deprived people had 4.5 times the risk of heart disease

Birthday Meditation

fifty six:

Today marks the onset of my fifty-sixth year in this body. Or technically speaking, it marks the end of my fifty-sixth year, since I was zero years old when I was born. But let’s not quibble over details. One thing is sure: indestructible time rules supreme in this mortal world.

This was very aptly described by the Bard himself:

“Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,

But sad mortality o’ersways their power,

How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,

Whose action is no stronger than a flower?

O! how shall summer’s honey breath hold out,

Against the wrackful siege of battering days,

When rocks impregnable are not so stout,

Nor gates of steel so strong but Time decays?

O fearful meditation!…”

(from William Shakespeare, Sonnet 65)

To paraphrase, Shakespeare says that since neither brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor the limitless ocean can resist the power of mortality, how could beauty have a chance of resisting its force when beauty’s power is no stronger than that of a flower?

And how could the sweet-smelling breath of summer hold out against the fierce attack of war-like time when invulnerable rocks are not strong enough, nor steel gates firm enough, to resist its decaying force?

A terrifying meditation indeed. One might ask ‘how is it possible that Time is so powerful, irreversible and indestructible?’.

My answer: ‘Time is actually God Himself. That meditation is an awesome one. As Bhagavad-gita describes, God is also the taste of water, the fragrance of all fragrant things, the ability in man, the strength of the strong, the light of the sun and the moon, and much, much more.’

As I always do on my birthday, I think deeply about the meaning and purpose of my life. And as I have always done since my blog was born over three years ago, I once again share my meagre realisations with you all, dear readers.

Oh, and as far as birthday presents are concerned (while I am running short on socks) my Spiritual Master Srila Prabhupada wrote:

“Krsna-prema, Krsna consciousness, is the highest gift which can be bestowed
on anyone whom we presume to love.” (Srimad-bhagavatam 3.23.8)

Christmas Hypocrisy

Tracey from Melbourne writes:

“Hello Kurma. Can you shed any light on the connection between Christmas and meat-eating?”


“Yes Tracey. Here’s an excerpt from an essay I wrote some years ago:

“You have dined, and however scrupulously the slaughterhouse is concealed in the graceful distance of miles, there is complicity”

(Ralph Waldo Emerson)

For even a moderate meat eater, the idea of doing without some sort of meat over Christmas produces a vague sense of guilt and apprehension, as though they were breaking an ancient taboo. Why is this, and from where does this idea originate?

The pre-occupation with and consumption of large quantities of flesh foods at Christmas time can be traced back to the medieval European church. In “The Heretic’s Feast – A History of Vegetarianism”, Colin Spencer points out:

“From November to April there was no pasture; the little hay that could be cut had to be saved for the oxen, the war horses, and the breeding stock. The slaughter of hogs began in September, while cattle were killed on The Feast of St. Martin, Martinmas. On this day, as it could not be preserved, the offal was cooked and eaten, so chitterlings, tripe, black puddings, pasties of liver, and dishes of kidneys were all consumed with great gusto, in the knowledge that such dishes in such profusion would not be available for another year. This feast and annual slaughter was called Yule. The Church managed to move the date towards Christmas, and unite the two.”

The spirit of ‘good will to all men’, the catch-cry of all pious folk does not extend to the millions of unfortunate chickens, pigs, cows and sheep that are victims of the gastronomic carnage that is called Christmas.

And still, for all the adoration of meat that pervades the Christmas season, the majority of meat-eaters would prefer to remain ignorant of the reality of flesh foods. They would still rather keep their illusion and continue to think of meat as an inert substance. Think again.”

One More Menu-planning Day 'til Christmas

Want another Christmas lunch idea? Try using polenta, a very versatile grain. It can be used in many ways, it’s hearty and filling, and easy to handle. If you haven’t used it before, here’s a delicious recipe.


Italian Fried Corn-Bread (Polenta)

Polenta is a yellow maize or cornmeal popular in northern Italy. Regarded there as a staple food, it can be used in many ways after it has been prepared as a rather thick porridge. Here in Australia, polenta is prepared from a special strain of corn grown in Queensland known as Yellow Dent.

Plain boiled polenta can be grilled, baked, or, as in this recipe, fried. Served with a homemade tomato sauce and sprinkled with parmesan cheese, it makes a delicious side dish. Serves 6-8 persons.

2 litres water

2 teaspoons salt

3½ cups cornmeal (polenta)

90g butter

3 tablespoons olive oil

fresh, herbed tomato puree to serve

parmesan cheese to serve

Bring to the boil the water and salt in a 6-litre/quart saucepan over full heat. Gradually sprinkle the cornmeal over the water, stirring constantly with a wire whisk. Make sure that there are no lumps of cornmeal. Reduce the heat to low. Continue to stir the polenta mixture until it is very thick (approximately 10 minutes).

Leave the polenta over low heat for about another 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. It will be ready to remove from the heat when a wooden spoon will stand upright in the centre of the mixture and not drop to the side of the pan.

Spoon the mixture into an oiled 28 cm x 18 cm dish. Smooth out the mixture and leave to cool at room temperature for at least 4 hours.

Carefully turn out the slab of polenta from the tin and cut it in half lengthways. Cut each half into seven slices crossways, each one 4 cm wide.

Heat the butter and oil together in a heavy frying pan. When hot, add about 6 slabs of polenta to the frying pan and reduce the heat to low. Fry gently until the polenta is dark golden brown on each side.

Serve the polenta on a serving dish topped with fresh tomato sauce and gratings of Parmesan cheese.