The Frugal Foodie: Monica Bhide

Spicing things up in the kitchen doesn’t mean overheating your budget. Cookbook author Monica Bhide shows us how to make an Indian dinner for four for less than $15.

Monica Bhide studies a row of jars filled with things like fig chutney, tamarind curry and tikka masala sauce. Aditi Spice Depot, an Indian grocery store in Vienna, is packed with these premade foodstuffs that Bhide, a food writer and cooking teacher, calls her “helpers.” She often buys the chutneys, spice mixes, sauces, and pickles as time savers and thinks they are perfect for the many home cooks who find the plethora of spices and ingredients typically called for in Indian dishes intimidating.

On this day, however, the only thing that’s intimidating Bhide—author of the new cookbook Modern Spice: Inspired Indian Flavors for the Contemporary Kitchen—is her budget. For this Frugal Foodie challenge, she’s agreed to cook dinner for four for less than $15—not including standard pantry items such as sugar, flour, and olive oil.

Bhide wanders through the store picking up what she needs—a few spices, some potatoes, frozen shredded coconut, yogurt—and we head back to my apartment. There, she gets to work on two vegetable dishes, green beans with curry and coconut and a spicy sauté of potatoes and onions. She slices an onion, peels and chops the potatoes, cuts the chilies into thin strips, and crushes coriander seeds. She tosses mustard seeds and curry leaves into a pan coated with hot oil and lets them sizzle, noting that curry leaves and curry powder are not the same thing and you can’t substitute one for the other. “It’s like using ginger instead of mangoes,” says Bhide.

As Bhide seasons the vegetable dishes, a warm aroma fills the apartment. You can smell the intensity of the heat from the spice (cooks who want less heat can remove the seeds from the chili peppers). The raita, a yogurt dish, will help temper the kick.

I like the heat and am tempted to dive in with a fork and sample what’s cooking on the stove, but Bhide tells me that the first taste is for the gods, so she doesn’t try what she’s cooking. Instead, she cooks by sight and sound. I resign myself to wait and just enjoy the rich mustard color the potatoes have taken on and the pop of the spices as they hit the oil.

All recipes serve four.

Caramelized Onions and Potatoes

½ small red or yellow onion
2 green Thai chilies
2 garlic cloves, minced
4 potatoes, peeled and sliced into wedges
½ teaspoon turmeric
¾ teaspoon cumin
1 tablespoon crushed coriander seeds
Cayenne pepper to taste
¼ cup water
Vegetable oil as needed

Lightly coat a pan with vegetable oil and set it over medium-high heat.
Slice the onion into thin strips and sauté them until slightly caramelized. Cut the chilies into thin strips. If you like the spiciness, don’t remove the seeds; if you prefer a milder flavor, discard them. Add the chilies and garlic to the onions and cook until soft. Add the potatoes and spices and cook for ten minutes. Add the water to the mixture, cover the pan, and cook on low heat until the potatoes are soft, about ten more minutes.

Haricots Verts
With Curry and Coconut

1 teaspoon mustard seeds
10 to 12 curry leaves
1 bag frozen haricots verts
1½ teaspoons crushed coriander seeds
½ teaspoon cayenne
½ teaspoon turmeric
2 tablespoons peanuts
1 cup shredded unsweetened coconut
¼ cup water
Vegetable oil as needed

Lightly coat a pan with vegetable oil and set it over medium-high heat. When the pan is hot, add the mustard seeds and curry leaves. You’ll hear the mustard seeds sizzle. Cook for about 1 minute. Add the haricots verts, the remaining spices, and the peanuts. Cook 3 to 5 minutes. Lower the heat and add the coconut. Cook 1 minute. Add the water, cover, and cook 5 minutes more.


1 cup plain yogurt
2 teaspoons water
1 tablespoon sugar
Pinch salt
Red pepper flakes to taste
Cumin to taste

Mix the yogurt and water and stir until the yogurt is slightly thinned out. Add the sugar and seasonings. Serve with the vegetable dishes and roti or naan bread. The yogurt will cut the heat of the vegetables.

Salty Lassi

3 cups plain yogurt
Ice as needed
Salt to taste
Sugar to taste
Cumin to taste

Fill a blender with the yogurt and ice and blend. Add seasonings to taste.


  • Spicing Up the Indian Kitchen: An Interview With Monica Bhide 

  • Read More Frugal Foodie Columns

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