Pink yam is one of the few seasonal produce available here merely for a couple of weeks during Pongal festival every year. Generally we include a whole array of locally grown seasonal tubers & vegetables into the preparation of our traditional repast to celebrate this harvest festival. So I use a few pieces of pink yam for the festive meal, and save the remaining for preparing delicious kootu, kofta & fries later.
Farmers invest their time, money, and everlasting efforts in their farmlands to grow healthy high-yielding crops and they eagerly look forward to the harvesting season. Obviously, they regard every harvest as a sign of prosperity as they reap the benefits only at the time of harvesting. So farmers here celebrate the harvest festival, Pongal, for 4 days with fun & fervour. They thank the Mother Nature (pancha boothangal/ five elements) that helped them blessed with abundance by preparing Pongal in an open space outside their house and offer it to Sun God. Also they bathe their cows, bulls & other domestic animals including elephants and treat them with sugarcane, banana, sweet pongal, etc.
It is a centuries-old custom still practiced on the day of Vijayadasami that the teachers or parents introduce the syllables of the first language to the kids. We guide them to write the alphabet on a bed of sands as a tradition. Furthermore, we encourage the children to enroll in music, dance, or other art schools on this auspicious day. Now I do feel as if this were the first post when I resume my blogging after a lull of quite a few months. So I have shared a simple Chettinad recipe for a rich and intriguing keerai masiyal. I relished this dish when we dined at a restaurant in Madurai a few months ago before the onset of the pandemic.
Bisi bele bath was a specialty dish prepared in the kitchen of Mysore palace a few centuries ago, and it is still a popular rice dish in Karnataka. It is a hearty meal prepared by stewing rice, lentils & vegetables along with a spice powder in tamarind juice just like sambar sadam, or kadamba sadam or kootanchoru, a counterpart in Tamil cuisine. This Karnataka specialty dish is made flavourful by adding fresh peanuts along with other vegetables, a unique flavorful spice powder made with the distinctly aromatic Marati moggu (kapok bud) as the star ingredient, and also by adding the spices tempered in ghee. It is divine when a spicy Bisi bele bath is served hot (as the name [bisi means hot] suggests) & viscid and hence the perfect meal for cold winter nights.
It was a myth widely circulated in the 80s that coconuts are the main sources of cholesterol-causing artery blocks. So my mother preferred to reduce the use of coconut meat greatly, used coconut milk sparingly, and stopped using coconut oil once for all. But my grandmothers continued to use coconuts profusely, and they found a dish insipid if coconut meat is scantily added into it. In those days, coconut meat was used in almost every vegetable preparation, coconut milk was used for making scrumptious payasam, and coconut oil for frying crunchy snacks like thattai, murukku, banana chips, etc. We relished theeyal mostly in our grandmother’s house as this recipe calls for good lashings of coconut meat fried in coconut oil.
Channa kulambu prepared using small black chickpeas was one of the few curries I liked to relish during my childhood days. In those days my mother never used large white chickpeas, perhaps it was available only in specific places. Nowadays I switch to large white chickpeas for their soft, melt-in-mouth texture and prepare even more delicious channa kulambu. I like to prepare chettinad style aromatic channa kulambu using white chickpeas, drumstick pods & eggplants (brinjal) to savour the beautiful aroma of drumsticks & the delicious flavor of channa.
A long time ago I read through an eye-opening piece of information published in almost all the newspapers & magazines about the special menu meticulously planned by the top chefs to ease the tension during the talks between Indian premier & Pakistan president at Agra summit in 2001. It made me to realize for the first time that the food we ingest not only nourishes our body but also influences our mind, mood, or thoughts as well. It also struck me that it is possible to tame the tantrums played by kids, or to channel the teens’ minds to set their goals by serving mind-calming foods. Apparently every mother could play a crucial role for the physical, mental & emotional well being of her children by serving appropriate food to fulfill their needs.
According to ancient Indian medicine systems Siddha and Ayurveda, tamarind fruits have numerous healing powers. Nowadays, nutritionists recommend to boil the vegetables in tamarind juice instead of plain water to prevent the loss of nutrients, but we have been practising the same for generations. Tamarind is a quintessential ingredient of the traditional south Indian curries like sambar, rasam, or kuzhambu. Besides, we also make pungent tamarind soup (puli thanni) and sweet tamarind juice (panakam) specially on the day of fasting. Obviously, tamarind juice & tamarind soup have excellent detoxifying property and hence they aid in weight loss also.
Moringa trees are the most common trees grown in almost every house here in South India. Despite the facts that moringa trees attract pests and they are so fragile that they can not withstand strong winds, we grow this tree mainly to enjoy the benefits of nutritious leaves, flowers & pods. Normally, we don’t allow the children to go near this tree as woolly caterpillars found on it may cause itchy skin hives when contact with their strands. Also it is a common phenomenon that branches of drumstick trees break apart and falling down during windy or rainy season.
I am grateful to the creator of the well renowned TV series, The Popeye show, for motivating my son, a picky eater, to have a liking for an insipid spinach even at his tender age. Though he did not like to take spinach with rice, he enjoyed taking plain spinach just like his hero, the great Popeye, gobbled it up! This cartoon show successfully conveyed a profound theory, “we are what we eat”, even to the kids. Hence it made my job easier to convey the importance of taking all the greens including Chinese spinach.
The larger population of the world generally prefers to preserve their bountiful seasonal fruits, vegetables & other fresh produce by freeze-drying them. But we, Indians, prefer to sun-drying our fresh herbs, berries & spices. We have been using sun-dried (dehydrated) ingredients for culinary and medicinal purposes for over 1000 years. Ayurveda, Siddha, and other Indian medicine systems prescribe medicines prepared using sun-dried herbs or fresh herbs. We use dried herbs for making powders & tablets (chooranam) and fresh herbs for external applications, or for making decoctions, etc. We also prepare delicious vatha kuzhambu, a traditional South Indian kuzhambu, using sun-dried vegetables, berries, or fruits and serve with rice.
We grew up relishing sweet fruity beetroot pachadi served in every wedding feast, it was an unforgettable experience for us to relish the beautiful reddish-purple puree infused with the flavors of native fruits. Nowadays, this traditional fruit dessert has not been included in the menu prepared for the feasts, and beetroot jam is replaced by vanilla ice cream with fruit salad.
Onions & bitter gourds (bitter melons/ Balsam pears) share a similarity. They both have strong flavors when taken raw, but they lose their flavors when cooked. Onions have strong pungency but they turn mildly sweet when stir fried. Likewise, bitter gourds are bitter when taken raw, its bitterness is reduced by half when cooked, it is mildly bitter when deep fried in hot oil, and the bitterness can be totally eliminated when stir fried at low temperature for a long time. It is actually a myth that bitter gourds are always bitter. So we can prepare delicious dishes using these nutritious melons. Here I have prepared stir-fried balsam pear liked even by the kids.
It is really challenging to prepare piquant poriyal using mildly sweet earthy-flavored beetroots. I tried various beetroot poriyal recipes by adding different ingredients to mask the sweet flavor and make it more palatable. Incidentally, I found that we can add a burst of flavor by sauteing beetroot along with garlic in coconut oil and spicing it up by adding pepper. I have also added nicely fluffed up yellow lentils along with deep red beetroot chunks for adding beautiful color and delicious texture.
Pazhaya sadam (fermented rice) is a classic version of overnight oats popular in the west. It has been the staple food for working class here in India, but this humble meal is in vogue even among elites in the recent times. This is mainly because people prefer to take simple nourishing meal over a lavish meal followed by a number of pills of different shapes & colors.
It is really challenging for every mother to cook vegetables that don’t have distinct flavor. Yard long beans (karamani) is one such insipid vegetable full of nourishments compared to the commonly used green beans. So it is hard to ignore the properties of these native beans and include tender green beans often instead of fibrous long beans. Now I have prepared a delicious poriyal using native beans commonly known as yard long beans or pachai karamani.
Appalam making is a leading cottage industry prevalent in my maternal grandfather’s village. As a kid I was completely awestruck watching women & girls in our neighbourhood kneading mountainous dough, rolling appalam at lightning speed, and stacking dried appalam like a tower. Whenever I felt bored I used to run to one of those houses. I spent endless hours there watching them making appalam and enjoying their warmth & their food. During my mother’s recent visit there, they fondly remembered my childhood favorite appala-poo and prepared them along with appalam specially for me, even though they are not into this business currently.
Kadamba sambar is a traditional flavorful South Indian curry prepared with assorted (kadambam) vegetables & tubers usually served with rice. It is popularly known as idi sambar (meaning pounded sambar) in Tirunelveli & Kanyakumari regions, as the spice powder was earlier prepared by pounding in a large stone mortar (ural) using a 3-feet long metal-tipped wooden pestle (ulakkai).