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5 Indian Twists to Make Your Workday Lunches More Exciting

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2016 will be our lunch year. So declared Leslie Stephens in a recent article that made my eyes mist.

Who isn’t tired of leftovers, takeout, leftover takeout, drive-thrus, and flaccid supermarket salads? I want died-and-gone-to-heaven delicious, quick, easy-to-make, fresh, never-ever-repeated lunches (one can dream…).

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Looking into my Indian background for lunch ideas threw a few curve balls at first, as lunches in India can still be fairly elaborate affairs. Check out this lunch box for home-cooked food delivered to office-goers by carriers called dabbawallas. (I will save the story of these cultural icons of Bombay for another article...)

How to Pack a Tiffin Box for Lunch
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How to Pack a Tiffin Box for Lunch

But there are so many flavor-packed components in a traditional Indian meal that each can become foundation of a refreshing, easy-to-make American-style lunch.

Here are 5 Indian twists to make you look forward to lunch:

1) Koshimbir or Indian salad

The only uncooked portion of an Indian meal, koshimbir means salad in Marathi, the leading language of Bombay.

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Made from a wide range of ingredients, koshimbir is drawn together and flavored by tadka, an oil seasoning also known as phodni, chhaunk, or baghaar in different parts of India. It generally serves as the beginning step of a vegetarian dish and is prepared by heating oil in a small pan (there are special pans just for this purpose) and adding black mustard seeds, cumin seeds, and turmeric and letting the seeds pop.

In koshimbir, however, tadka is added at the end, playing the role of a dressing or vinaigrette and bringing all of the other ingredients into a homogenous whole.

Photo by Ashley Rodriguez

I like to use any of the following vegetables for koshimbir: chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, spinach, corn kernels, soaked garbanzo beans, garbanzo beans, sprouted mung beans, grated carrots.

To make it ahead:

  • Soak the garbanzo beans overnight. (In India, we eat raw legumes that have been soaked; if you're concerned, use dried chickpeas that have been cooked 'til al dente. Canned chickpeas, I find, are too soft for this salad.)
  • If you have 5 minutes over the weekend, sprout the mung beans. Soak them in plenty of water overnight, then tie the soaked beans in a wet cheesecloth or a thin, handkerchief-like cloth for 48 hours to sprout. (Though 48 hours seems a lot of time, you'll have them for soups, salads, or even sandwiches, for the rest of the week.)
  • The night before, dice the vegetables into 1/2-inch pieces; dice the onions the morning of your lunch so that the whole dish does not take on an oniony smell. And using frozen corn is totally legitimate. It should thaw by the time you're ready to eat.
  • Combine chopped vegetables, beans, salt, pepper, and lime juice.
  • Pour tadka, mix well, garnish with chopped cilantro, and pack. It's ready for tomorrow's lunch!

2) Dill Chutney Panini

Chutney is such a flavor bomb that it seamlessly transforms into sandwich spreads, dips, marinades, and vinaigrettes. They're all about extremes—hot, sour, sweet or a delightful mixture of all three—which differentiates them from pestos.

How to Make Indian Chutneys Without a Recipe
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How to Make Indian Chutneys Without a Recipe

Considering that dill invites such visceral likes and dislikes, I attempted to turn it into a chutney, and the results were dill-icious (couldn’t help it). Dill chutney can be made in advance and lasts in the fridge for 3 to 4 weeks. Store it in a clean, glass bottle in the fridge and all you'll have to do to prepare the panini is to boil the potato the night before. In the morning, cut the peeled potato into thin, round slices. Take two pieces of bread, spread them with the dill chutney, place a couple of potato pieces and slices of Havarti cheese in between, and throw into the panini maker.

If you have no time for boiling the potato the night before, replace it with pieces of avocado, tomato, or cucumber. And if you still can’t be convinced of dill, go with mint. For mint chutney, follow the same recipe but replace the avocado pieces with raw peanuts; instead of a panini, try a bagel sandwich with cream cheese, mint chutney, and sliced tomatoes and onions.

Photo by James Ransom

3) Cilantro Chutney Wrap

Sorry, ketchup lovers: In my opinion, cilantro chutney is the most interesting and versatile condiment known to mankind. Throw in a dash to wake up a boring vinaigrette; thin it with a few teaspoons of water or fresh orange juice and use it to marinate paneer, tofu, bell peppers, and zucchini pieces before grilling; mix it with sour cream as a dip for zucchini fritters; spread it on crackers and top with a piece of cheese and a halved cherry tomato for a quick-yet-fancy appetizer; use it on pizza instead of tomato sauce...

To make cilantro chutney, snip the hard stems off a bunch of cilantro (or a mixture of cilantro and mint) and throw the leaves and stems in a powerful blender with 2 green chile peppers (here, thin-skinned ones will be best). Add a palmful raw peanuts, the juice of 1 medium lime,1 garlic clove, and a few salt pinches into the blender. Pour in some water, just enough to facilitate grinding, and grind to a smooth, creamy paste.

Cilantro chutney will last for 2 weeks in your refrigerator, which means that all lunch requires is a grocery store run: Buy lavash bread, an avocado, feta cheese, and greens of your choice. Cut lavash bread into a large rectangle, spread cilantro chutney over top, then place greens, avocado pieces, and feta cheese. Season with salt and pepper, then roll it into a tight wrap.

Sweet Potato Chana Masala
Sweet Potato Chana Masala

4) Chhole

Chhole, or spiced garbanzo beans, is a North Indian dish normally accompanied by a butter-soaked naan or paratha. And while it's commonly found in lunch buffets in Indian restaurants, it's actually an envy-inviting lunch that requires minimal prep. If you make chhole the night before, you'll reap the rewards for 2 days: For day 1 lunch, replace the heavy naan with a warm bread roll; on day 2, top white or brown rice with chhole and garnish with plain yogurt flavored with cumin.

You will need one 15 1/2-ounce can of garbanzo beans (or about 2 cups of cooked chickpeas, if you're starting with dried beans), 1/2 cup diced red onions, 1/2 teaspoon grated ginger, 1 teaspoon crushed garlic, 2 teaspoons vegetable oil, 1/4 cup tomato paste, 3/4 teaspoon garam masala, 1/4 teaspoon red chile powder, and salt for seasoning.

In a large pot, sauté the onions, ginger, and garlic in the vegetable oil till onions shrivel. Add tomato paste, spices, about 1 cup water, and bring to a rolling boil. Wash the garbanzo beans to remove the sticky can residue and pour them into the pot.

And now the fun part! With the back of a wooden spoon, crush some garbanzo beans as they are cooking to thicken the gravy without any additives. Cook for another 5 to 10 minutes and garnish with hand-torn mint leaves.

Chana Masala
Chana Masala

5) Pasta with Coconut Milk Sauce and Vegetables

This dish is inspired by one of my favorite coastal (western India) curries made from cauliflower, tomatoes, coconut milk, and peanut powder and spiced up by paste of reconstituted dried red chile peppers. To approximate these ingredients into a pasta sauce, blend a cup of coconut milk with a teaspoon of peanut butter and 1/2 teaspoon of any hot red sauce or Sriracha. If you don’t want any heat at all, replace the hot sauce with tomato paste; I promise, the combination of peanut butter and tomato paste tastes great due to the base of coconut milk.

Sauté vegetables of your choice in olive oil and boil any flat pasta in a separate pot. Pour the sauce over the vegetables, add in the boiled pasta, and season with salt and pepper.

Since the sauce is a staple of regular pantry ingredients, make it in the evening—even 3 or 4 days in advance—when you have 5 to 10 minutes. Boil the pasta and cut and sauté vegetables in the morning before work.

10 Ways to Cook with Coconut Milk
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10 Ways to Cook with Coconut Milk

How do you stave off the workday lunch doldrums? Share your ideas in the comments below!