Spicy Green Beans, at the Center of the Plate


Just as soon as I had devoured the sautéed celery with mustard seeds and coconut that my friend Linta made for dinner one night, I immediately wanted to make a version of it at home.

But that was several years ago. After a few failed attempts to get my family on board, I finally had to admit that sautéed celery with mustard seeds was too hard a sell at my house — all that sexy coconut notwithstanding.


Some of the key players include garlic, ginger, mustard seeds, turmeric and bay leaf.

Andrew Scrivani for The New York Times

I thought of the dish again recently, just as I was passing the celery at the farmers’ market. That’s when a small mountain of green beans caught my eye.

And I remembered that Linta had mentioned that she sometimes made the dish, called thoran, with green beans instead of celery. So the combination of flavors made perfect sense.

I no longer had Linta’s exact recipe, but the flavors were still vivid in my mind. Along with coconut and mustard seeds, there were turmeric, chile and fresh curry leaves.

I could get everything I needed within a few blocks of my home in Brooklyn, except for the curry leaves. So I substituted a not-very-authentic combination of bay leaf and basil. They don’t have anything close to the musky, fragrant depth of a curry leaf, but they are delightful in their own fresh, woodsy ways. I also added some fresh ginger and garlic for increased pungency.


Green beans, a substitute for the celery in the original dish.

Andrew Scrivani for The New York Times

Because green beans have denser flesh than celery, they can be slow to absorb seasonings. So to make sure all the beans were truly imbued with the spices and aromatics, I added some water to the pan after sautéing everything. As the water simmered, it cooked the beans through and acted as a conduit to bring the rich, spicy flavors deep into their cores.

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