The Southern Indian states of India have a wonderful tradition of vegetarian cuisine, and as I am learning to cook, it has been gratifying to replicate the tastes of South Indian food that I have only ever glimpsed in restaurants before. Tamil food is especially close to my heart, because I might not be Tamilian, but I *am* married to one (V has never actually lived in TN, and remains a born-and-bred "bambaiyya", but so what?). My forays into Tamil cuisine have thus far been limited to a regular turnout of idli-sambar and the occasional dish like eggplant rasavangy. I own two cookbooks that I find quite useful as an introduction to Tamil cuisine: Dakshin and Samayal. But really, the most useful way for me to learn more about Tamil cuisine has been through all those wonderful blogs that are written by home cooks who are well-versed in Tamilian cuisine. To give just one example, this post from Priya's blog Sugar and Spice was very helpful in explaining different Tamil preparations.
Today, for the event, I decided to go with a popular Tamil dish called Vatral Kozhambu. Actually, I have heard about this "curry" (for lack of a better word) for years but only tasted it three weeks ago. In graduate school in NYC, when friends would gather together for a meal, the conversation would often turn to discussions of our favorite comfort food. This is not very surprising, because two prominent characteristics of grad students are (a) they are always hungry, and (b) they are stressed-out and tired more often than not. Comfort food takes care of both needs! During these conversations, my half-Tamil friend Revati would invariably sigh and begin talking about vatral kozhumbu. When I would ask her what it was, she would vaguely refer to this "amazing curry...it is basically tamarind and spices....soooo good" etc., and her words would be accompanied by more sighs and nostalgia. I never did figure out exactly what this magic stuff was.
Then, just three weeks ago, our friend H dropped by with a tupperware container of vatral kozhumbu so I could finally taste it. As luck would have it, that was just the time when I had a terrible cold and allergies and was in no state to cook anything at all. That vatral kozhumbu literally sustained me for 2-3 days while I recovered. Mixed in with ghee and steamed rice, with some leftover cauliflower subzi on the side, it tasted like a little bit of heaven and brought back my appetite. I then realized that vatral kozhumbu is the Tamil version of the Marathi pithale: something that can be turned out in a short amount of time with minimal ingredients, and is the ultimate comfort food to those who grow up eating it. I had to learn how to make it!
From what I understand, vatral refers to dried (preserved) vegetables and kozhambu is a general term for a thick liquidy preparation that is eaten with steamed rice. Although the true-blue version calls for certain dried berries that are quite new to me, there are forms of vatral kozhumbu that use onions or other fresh vegetables instead of the berries. I asked H what recipe she used for the amazing stuff she gave me, and it turns out that she used a modified version of a recipe from the beautiful blog Married To A Desi. Many thanks to Kanchana for sharing her recipe! This is how I made it, from Kanchana's recipe, with helpful suggestions from my friend H.
1. Make the vatral kozhambu powder: Mix together 2 tbsp each of chana dal, toor dal and urad dal. Add 4-5 whole black peppercorns.
Roast together on low heat until aromatic, and a couple of shades darker (be careful not to burn the stuff). Cool and then grind to a fine powder in a spice blender or coffee grinder. Store in an air-tight container and use as required in the recipe.
2. Make the tamarind paste: In one cup hot water, soak 2 heaped tbsp tamarind for 20 minutes (Ready-made tamarind extract should ideally NOT be used here because it can impart a slightly bitter flavor. Since the dish is based on tamarind, use your favorite brand of tamarind pulp. My personal favorite is actually a Thai brand, which has a lighter color but a sweeter, more well-rounded flavor and a softer, more scoop-able pulp). Squeeze out all the tamarind pulp and discard the solids. You should end up with a cup of thick tamarind juice.
2. In a saucepan, heat 1 tbsp sesame oil (this is untoasted sesame oil, different from the one use in Chinese cooking, and is available in stores selling Indian supplies. It is alternatively called "til oil" or "gingelly oil"). Make the tempering with 1 tsp mustard seeds, 1 tsp toor dal, 1 tsp urad dal, 4-5 fenugreek seeds (any more and you risk making the dish bitter), pinch of asafoetida and 8-10 curry leaves. Saute for a couple of minutes until the dal turns golden.
3. Now add 1 small onion, cut into half, then sliced thickly. Saute the onion slices until the edges turn golden. H's tip: you could use okra or eggplant or even pieces of papad.
4. Stir in 2 tbsp vatral kozambu powder, 1 tbsp sambar masala, 1 tsp red chili powder and salt to taste. H suggested the use of sambar masala for more flavor without too much heat. Add the tamarind juice and a cup or so of water. Bring the liquid to a boil and then simmer for 5-10 minutes or until as thick as you like it. All done!
Vatral Kozambu tastes even better the next day, in my opinion. It can stay well in the refrigerator for 4-5 days, making for an instant delicious meal. I mixed some vatral kozumbu with steamed rice and ghee and enjoyed a wonderful lunch, with a side of brussels sprouts poriyal, straight from Krithika's recipe.
Thanks, Lakshmi, for hosting this event. I am learning so much about Tamil cuisine this month from expert home cooks!