Wednesday, January 20, 2010

ABOVE one of our favorite Indian cookbook

ABOVE An old pickle recipe written in Thaliyola(palm-leaf manuscripts)

With Thomasina Miers who won the title of 'MasterChef',

How To Eat With Your Fingers Indian Style


Onam festival in Kerala celebrates the annual visit of our King Mahabali, there are religious and mythological connotations involved.

Floral arrangements in front yards of houses, temple visits, new clothes, lots of shopping, family visits, making traditional sweets and the Onam Sadya are some of the things we do during Onam season.

‘Sadya’ means, formal meal. A proper Onam Sadya will have only typical malayalee vegetarian preparations served on a green banana leaf. The traditional way of eating rice is in banana leaves, and many hotels and restaurants, especially in the smaller towns and villages still serve rice and other foods in this manner.

In Kerala, we use firm, dark green mature leaves. These are carefully washed and wiped before placing on the table. Though most people eat their food from plates, for the Onam meal, we always cut a few leaves of the banana.

Food eaten on a banana leaf has a unique flavour. Some say it is because the hot food causes the leaf to produce oils and aroma that blend with the food to give you a great experience.

You can enjoy Kerala food in the same plates and vessels you have in your home. In my own home, we have our food in plates. We use the leaf only when I have guests.

Kerala cookery is easy, healthy, fresh and delicious. The problem I foresee for a person living elsewhere would be sourcing of ingredients. Nevertheless if you can obtain the required items, please do try a few of these recipes I give below.

The food we serve for Onam lunch is representative of a typical vegetarian lunch menu. Though there can be more than twenty accompaniments, in the real sense, there would be only seven. The additional ones are variations on the basic seven. The basic accompaniments are as follows:

Accompaniments – Lentil fritter, salted banana chips, sweet banana chips, mango pickles, ginger chutney, vegetables in curds, vegetable goulash, sautéed vegetables

Gravies – Stewed lentils, Spicy vegetable stew, Yoghurt gravy, Butter milk

Desserts – Ripe banana, rice flour flakes in a sweet brown sauce, rice cooked in thickened sweet milk, sweet plantains boiled in milk.

Descriptions of our food written in English cannot easily convey the flavours and tastes. The above descriptions convey a very bland meaning. This is intentional. I would prefer that you sample the foods personally, so you will understand and identify each item by its name as we malayalees do.

I shall give the above foods as we call them, in Malayalam.

Accompaniments – Pappadam, Ethakka varuthathu, Sharkara varutti, Naranga achar, Inji Kari, Pachadi, Aviyal, Thoran.

Gravies – Parippu Kari, Sambar, Pulisseri, Mouru.

Desserts – Poovan pazham, Ada prathaman, Paal Payasam, Pazham prathaman

We use coconut oil for cooking. This has been done for centuries. There are lots of issues on the use of coconut oil, many saying that it is unhealthy, and rich in cholesterol, etc. But our traditional foods are cooked in coconut oil.

The Pappadam is thin crisp bread that crumbles easily. This is eaten with the rice and parippu curry. Generally only one pappadam is served.

We have a variety of banana called the Nendran, which is also called Aethan. The green skin of the fruit attains a golden yellow colour when ripe. Ripe fruits are eaten raw, steamed, fried in various ways, baked, grilled and even thrown into the embers of a fire for a charcoal roast. It is delicious. But when still green, it is peeled and thinly sliced to make fried crisps that develop the same golden yellow colour as the skin of the ripe fruit. We call them banana chips. Banana chips are also sweetened with jaggery. Jaggery is unrefined sugar, soft and brown in colour.

Kerala produces a wide variety of spices. We have black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, cardamom, and a host of other spices. Many centuries back, before the time of the Egyptian empires, trading of spices from this place was prevalent. It is still going on. In the process we have had traders and visitors from many countries. All of them have contributed something that still exists in the culinary habits of our people. We have given a lot to other cultures too.

The spiciest and hottest of our foods would be our pickles and chutneys. The common types are various lime and mango pickles. We do not use the term chutney, rather chammanthi or kari. There are many variations. Though overly spicy, pickles and chutneys blend well when eaten with rice and the accompaniments.

ACHA’s Inji Kari

[Spices used: Fresh ginger, small onions, green chillies, curry leaves, coriander powder, chillies powder, tamarind, mustard seeds, dry chillies, turmeric powder

Others: coconut oil]

Inji Kari is easily described as a sweet and sour ginger sauce. This particular recipe was my father’s favourite, and my mother made sure it was on the table for lunch every day for more than ten years. I like to remember this recipe by his name; we used to call him ‘Acha’.


Fresh Ginger
150 gms

150 gms

Green chillies
20 gms

Curry leaves
3 sprigs

Coconut oil
2 tbs.

Coriander powder
1 tsp.

Chillies powder
1 tsp.

20 gms

½ cup

Mustard seeds
1/2 tsp.

Dry red chillies
3 nos.

Molasses syrup
¼ cup

Turmeric powder
¼ tsp.


Mince ginger, shallots, and green chillies fine
Soak the tamarind in water
Heat oil in a heavy pan, add the mustard seeds, when it splutters add the red chillies, curry leaves, then the minced ingredients, fry on low flame till light brown, remove from flame
Add chillies, coriander and turmeric powder, return to flame fry on low fire, to this add the soaked tamarind juice (which should be strained), and the molasses syrup
Simmer till oil separates and the curry gets a saucy consistency, taste for salt
Serve with rice
(This keeps well in the refrigerator)

Pachadi is a sauce made with coconut and mustard paste, curds, and pieces of a single vegetable or fruit. It is garnished with sautéed mustard seeds, dry red chilli and curry leaves. There are different kinds of pachadi, but vellarikka (cucumber), snake gourd (padavalnga) pachadi and pachadi made with pavakka (bitter gourd) are the most common. Other vegetables used could be beetroot and lady’s finger (okra). Pineapple and ripe banana are also used to make a sweet pachadi. You can eat the pachadi with parippu curry and rice, and with rice and sambar. There is no need to warm this dish before serving and it can even be served cold. It will also make a nice dip or can be served as a mildly spicy accompaniment with other foods.

Vendekka Pachadi

[spices used: Green chillies, ginger, mustard seeds, curry leaves, dry chillies,

others: coconut oil]

Though we mix in ground mustard seeds, the quantity used is so little and is more for the flavour. This particular pachadi can be more familiarly described as Sautéed Okra in a warm and spicy yoghurt gravy.


Okra (Lady’s Finger)
250 gms. (chopped)

1 ½ Cup

Green chillies
5 Nos. (chopped)

1/2 “(chopped)

Grated coconut
½ Cup

Coconut oil
1 tbsp.

Mustard seeds
¾ tsp.

Dry Red Chilli
1 No.

Curry leaves
1 sprig

to taste


Sauté and remove the okra. Toss the fried okra with a little salt
Grind the grated coconut to a fine paste with ½ tsp mustard seeds
Beat the curds, stir in the fried okra, coconut paste, green chillies, ginger and salt
Fry mustard seeds, red chilli and curry leaves in the coconut oil, stir into the curds

Avial (Aviyal), a subtle vegetable goulash, is a standard accompaniment with Kerala meals. This is placed to the left of the pachadi on your leaf. The avial has stewed vegetables flavoured with turmeric, cumin and garlic. We also add grated coconut that has been coarsely ground. Though avial is usually made with vegetables and tubers grown in Kerala, we use other vegetables too.


[spices used: Green chillies, Turmeric, Cumin, Garlic, Curry leaves

others: Drumstick, yams, fresh grated coconut, coconut oil]

Preparation of this dish is very easy and it involves absolutely no frying. The very little coconut oil used is for flavour and texture.


Mixed Vegetables
250 gms.

(equal measures wherever possible)

Carrot (Cut into thin evenly sized fingers)

Snake gourd (small pieces)

Drumstick (de-veined and cut into 2” pieces)

Onion (chopped)

Brinjal (Courgette)

Potato (small pieces)

Yams (small pieces)

Beans (small pieces)

Green chillies
6 Nos. (slit)

Turmeric powder
1/2 tsp.

Grated coconut
1/2 Cup

Cumin seeds
1/2 tsp.

a small flake

Fresh curds
1/4 Cup

Curry leaves
1 sprig

Coconut Oil
1 tbsp

to taste


Boil all the vegetables and the chillies together with half cup water.
Add salt after the vegetables are cooked
Coarsely grind the coconut, turmeric powder, cumin and garlic
Stir the paste into the cooked vegetables, add the curds and curry leaves and cook two minutes
Stir in the coconut oil gently, taking care not to mash the vegetables. Serve.

When we make rice and curries at home, there are usually only a few accompaniments. The average spread would have a meat, a fish and a couple of vegetarian dishes. There will be one or two gravies, and a pickle. A very simple lunch would have a vegetarian accompaniment, gravy, and a pickle or chammanthi. A common vegetarian preparation is the Thoran. This can be made with any vegetable. The thoran is slightly moist and will always have fresh grated coconut. It is spiced with mustard, green and red chillies and what we call small onions.

The above mentioned accompaniments are for being taken with the rice and gravies. When you have the food in your plates, it would be advisable to take very small portions of rice, so you can get to sample each course. Here in Kerala, the rice served is expected to be portioned by the guest, to allow for gravies. We serve parippu curry first. This is made with a lentil called ‘green gram’. They are tiny green beans fried dry over a low flame and hulled to remove the skin. A little ghee (clarified melted butter) is poured over the rice and parippu curry. This improves the flavour, and also helps any prevent digestive problems such as gas formation that can arise from the use of this lentil. The pappadam is also eaten with this.

After the parippu curry, we serve sambar. We do not call the sambar a curry. It is just sambar. We have it with rice, with our different breads (dosa, appam, idili, porotta, etc.) Sambar and chammanthi are regular features on malayalee dining tables. You cannot have a Kerala meal without a sambar. Sambar is poured over rice and mixed in using fingers. This is eaten with avial and the other side dishes.


[spices used: Small onions, green chillies, tamarind pulp, sambar powder mix, mustard, fenugreek, curry leaves, dry chillies, and asafoetida

others: Drumstick, yams, snake gourd, coconut oil]

We make sambar in various ways and the recipe I am giving below is an easy one.


1/4 cup (pigeon pea / tuvar dal)

Small onions
1 cup (Or 1 Large onion, quartered)

Green Chillies
2 (slit)

Mixed Vegetables

(yams, colocasia, green banana, drumstick, cucumber, snake gourd, pumpkin, potato, carrots, beans)
1cup (cubed)

Tamarind pulp
2 tbsp

to taste

Sambar powder
2 tsp

(Please check whether the sambar powder contains asafoetida powder. If that has not been added, keep one pinch available)

½ tsp

Coriander leaves (Cilantro)
a small sprig

½ tsp

½ tsp

Dry Chillies

Curry leaves
1 sprig

Coconut Oil
1 tbsp

Cook the lentils, whole onions and chillies in 2 cups of water till the lentils are soft and well cooked. If you are using your pressure cooker, one whistle will do.
Add mixed vegetables, tamarind pulp and salt and cook a little while. (There should be sufficient liquid to cover the vegetables. Else, pour enough hot water). In your pressure cooker, another whistle.
Add sambar powder mixed in a little water, and ½ tsp. sugar. Add a pinch of asafoetida powder if needed.
Put in finely chopped coriander/cilantro leaves
Again add water if required; simmer for 5 minutes
Lightly fry mustard and fenugreek seeds, dry chillies and curry leaves in the coconut oil and stir into the sambar

Properly served, the next gravy would be served only after a Prathaman. This is dessert. The term prathaman in malayalam language means the important one. The excellence of the sadya is judged by the dessert served. This cannot be just anything. It has to be a Payasam. The Payasam is a sweet gruel. There are different kinds of payasams. As mentioned earlier, more varieties are added as the occasion demands, but at least two are served. The common types are ada prathaman and ari payasam. The ada prathaman is made with thin rice flour flakes in a sweet brown sauce of coconut milk and the soft brown sugar we call jaggery. The ari payasam has a similar sauce, but whole rice is used. We use a local, bold red variety.

The payasams are served hot. They are poured on the same banana leaf, and after this rice is again served.

Ari Payasam

[spices used: Cardamom

others: jaggery, coconut milk]

This recipe is a common one used in homes in Kerala. It may be served by itself too, cold or warm.


Red raw rice
1 Cup

1 1/2 Cup

Coconut Milk
1 Cup

1 tbsp.

1 No. (crushed)


Soak the sago in a cup of water one hour earlier

Mix the Jaggery in half cup water and melt over flame

Keep warm

Wash the rice

Put the rice, soaked sago and cardamom along with six cups of water, in a heavy bottomed vessel, cook, stirring occasionally

When almost done, before all the moisture evaporates, stir in the strained Jaggery/Molasses syrup. Mix well and cook over low flame to allow the rice to absorb the sugar

When this too is almost evaporated, pour the coconut milk, and warm lightly without allowing to boil. If it boils, the milk will curdle.

May be served hot or cold, garnished with cashews and raisins fried in ghee or butter.

To finish off the meal, and to remove the sweetness of the payasam, some more rice is served and a mildly spiced, but overly sour yoghurt gravy, the Pulisseri, is served. This is particular item contains a blend of spices that help digest and also remove unpleasant flavours.

After this a little buttermilk is brought. This is poured over the fingers, which are then used to mix in the buttermilk into the rice. The buttermilk made in Kerala will have a little crushed small onions, a few chillies of the very hot variety called Kanthari in malayalam, and more familiarly known as Birds-eye-chilli, some crushed fresh ginger root and a few fresh curry leaves. This thin liquid cleans your fingers and also helps deodorise the breath.