Though Dr Nandita Iyer did not cook much when she was younger, she has always appreciated good food. As a 16-year-old in Mumbai, Iyer attended coaching classes for science and mathematics for which she needed to leave home at 5.15 am. As the morning wore on, she would (understandably) be famished and her attention was always drawn to another student who used to bring koki – a kind of flat spicy bread typically made in Sindhi households – for lunch. “How good it would smell in that closed classroom,” Iyer recalled in an interview last month.

Cooking is now a huge part of the 40-year-old’s life. Since 2006, she has been writing about healthy vegetarian food and crafting her own recipes on her popular blog, Saffron Trail. And next month, her first book of recipes, titled The Everyday Healthy Vegetarian will be published by Hachette India.

Delicious, and healthy

When Iyer started Saffron Trail, it was still the early days of food blogging in India and only a handful of websites existed, including Sailu’s Food and Finely Chopped, she said. But these days, it is almost impossible to scroll through Facebook without coming across a three-minute video on making a quick chicken dinner or a beginner’s guide to frosting a cupcake.

After a year of blogging – during which time Saffron Trail’s audience continued to grow – Iyer was made an offer to create a cookbook. At the time, she decided against it but, in 2015, the opportunity to write a book came up again and this time she was ready. “I thought the time is right. I’ve been a food blogger for long enough and I wanted to add something else with my bio.”

Healthy living is a huge part of Iyer’s cooking. Though studying medicine in Mumbai left time for little else – “I barely knew how to make tea” – Iyer soon turned her attention to understanding food and how it can be used to help maintain good health. She focused on creating vegetarian dishes using seasonal produce with high nutritional value.

Photo credit: Nandita Iyer.

When Iyer started working on her book, she actively avoided refined sugar, and made an effort to choose the healthiest ingredients she could find. Those ingredients are now divided into four sections of The Everyday Healthy Vegetarian: Good Carbs, Eat the Rainbow, Protein Punch and Healthy Fats. Iyer also made sure to include nutritional notes in her recipes, such as the anti-oxidant properties of betel leaves or the presence of thymol, which prevents tooth decay, in tulsi. “People [can] understand why this is good for you, instead of [me] just saying, ‘yes, this is good for you,’” she said.

Recipes in Iyer’s book include a mix of familiar vegetables and others that home cooks might not use every day, like ash gourd or sweet potato. Her recipes almost always use seasonal vegetables, but she shies away from catering to holiday seasons, including Diwali or Thanksgiving for her large audience in the United States. “During Halloween, everyone’s doing pumpkin, pumpkin, pumpkin,” she said. “It’s just boring for me.”

One of Iyer’s favourite recipes in the book was inspired by her grandmother’s coconut-based molaga podi. Made with desiccated coconut, dried chilli, sesame seeds and various dals, each ingredient is slowly toasted to a golden brown and coarsely powdered together. Another favourite is a quick pasta sauce that uses ripe avocado, sundried tomatoes, black olives and walnuts.

“I need to inspire [readers] with some new ideas that they can interpret in their own kitchens,” she said.

Iyer’s recipes also come from her rooftop garden at her home in Bengaluru. Photo credit: Nikhita Venugopal

A personal journey

A self-described impulsive cook, Saffron Trail started out as “my own diary of what I’m trying out”. The blog, she said, was a way to record her experiments in the kitchen, to note down the ingredients and quantities for spur-of-the-moment dishes, or save interesting recipes she found along the way in magazines or newspapers. “I wasn’t even checking things like Google Analytics,” she said. “I was just doing it entirely for myself.”

After moving to Bengaluru in 2011, Iyer started to pay more attention to the traffic that her site drew. Recipes with the most views tended to be simple ones that beginner cooks were eager to learn – filter coffee, phulkas and aloo parathas, for example. But for her, her blog remains first and foremost “a reflection of what I cook at home”.

Inspiration for Iyer’s recipes now also comes from her rooftop garden at her home in Bengaluru, where she grows chillis, tomatoes and a range of other vegetables. For example, one time, she had a surplus of sweet potatoes and taking advantage of her “problem of plenty”, Iyer came up with several new sweet potato recipes, from cakes and muffins to bread and stuffed paratha. And years later, inspired by the memory of her classmate’s delicious lunch, Iyer eventually made her own version of koki – “I’m so impulsive in my cooking. I rarely ever want to follow the rules.”

From The Everyday Healthy Vegetarian

Black-Eyed Pea Burgers
In Indian cuisine, black-eyed peas or lobia are usually made into a spicy curry served with parathas or rice. However, these hearty beans can be used in a lot more dishes such as soups, salads and burgers. This burger recipe makes a good meatless option for vegetarians and vegans.

1⁄2 cup Black-eyed peas (lobia), soaked overnight
2 small onions, finely chopped
1 tsp dried mixed herbs of choice
1⁄2 cup dry breadcrumbs (whole-wheat bread)
1⁄2 tsp salt
1⁄2 tsp black pepper, freshly ground
1⁄2 tsp fresh ginger, grated

1 Drain the black-eyed peas and rinse thoroughly.
2 Place them in a pressure cooker with 2 cups of water.
3 Close the pressure cooker with the lid and the pressure weight plugged in.
4 Cook the peas for 3-4 minutes over low heat after the cooker reaches full pressure (first whistle).
5 Open the cooker after the pressure subsides.
6 Drain the cooked beans through a sieve and transfer them to a bowl.
7 Add all remaining ingredients and mix well.
8 Mash the mixture well.
9 Divide into 2 portions and shape into burgers.
10 Keep them on a plate, cover with cling wrap and refrigerate for a minimum of 2 hours.

2 tbsp oil

1 Heat the oil in a frying pan.
2 Remove the patties from the refrigerator and shallow-fry them on both sides for approximately 7-8 minutes on each side till golden-brown.

Serve with a salad or inside a burger bun with all the other trimmings of a burger.