As part of a new series, I’m excited to share the glories of some of my favorite Indian recipes, namely what my momma taught me. My family is from the southern Indian state of Kerala, and the food I grew up eating is not typically found in the Indian restaurants we all frequent. Some restaurants may serve dosa* and a few other South Indian dishes, but there is so much diversity of flavor that is not represented. These posts serve to share what I love about South Indian, namely Malayali, cooking and food.
*Nirav and I disagree on the pronunciation of dosa. I pronounce the ‘s’ as an ‘sh,’ whereas he does not. However, being that dosa is South Indian, and I’m South Indian, obviously I’m right ;)
Just as a background, Kerala is a coastal state and thus incorporates alot of fish and seafood. The state, known as “God’s own country,” is very green, lush, and tropical. As a result, coconut heavily influences our cooking. Ground coconut is used in countless dishes. Coconut milk allows for delicious variety in curries. “Toddy” or palm wine from coconut palms, is used in one of my favorite breakfast dishes, palappam — a pancake made from a batter of ground basmati rice and coconut milk (YUM).
Now don’t assume that because coconut is present, these dishes are sweet. On the contrary! Malayalis are firm believers that sweet should be saved for dessert, and we never incorporate sugar in our savory dishes. Perhaps the natural sweetness of coconut accomplishes the same task as adding sugar to cut the acidity in some dishes (like in homemade tomato sauce), but coconut is undoubtedly healthier than table sugar. In any event, we love our food spicy, and coconut soaks up the spices beautifully. I think the savory flavor afforded by coconut deserves its own “flavor” nomenclature, like umami is used to describe that delicious, warm, savory, meaty, salty flavor of, say, a good meat broth.
Not only does coconut take spice well, it also highlights but also tempers sour and bitter flavors. In all of our fish dishes, sour tamarind is a key ingredient. My mom makes a delicious dry shrimp dish with ground coconut and sour tamarind that is tangy and mouthwatering. She also somehow makes bitter melon (bitter gourd) palatable. This is a vegetable that most Indians in my age group detest, but when done right, I love it. Plus it is super healthy for you!
Finally, as I have learned a number of recipes from my mom over the past several years, I realized how much we rely on fresh green chilies for spice rather than red chili powder. The latter is reserved for certain dishes, notably tomato-sauce based curries. The taste from green chilies is very distinct and changes the entire flavor profile for me.
So without further ado, here is the first recipe for Avial. Avial is basically a vegetable medley using any number and combination of vegetables you prefer. It is not a curry, but rather a somewhat sticky side dish bound together with – what else – ground coconut. It is vegetarian, vegan, and paleo friendly. I learned how to make it thanks to a strong pregnancy craving when my mom was not in town to make it for me ;)
*Slice all vegetables into long, thin “rectangles” that are similarly sized. See photos to get a sense of what I mean. Each rectangle is about 1.5-2 inches long.
180g carrots (about 3 carrots), sliced
155g eggplant, peeled and sliced (about 1/2-3/4 of a medium purple eggplant)
165g ivy gourd, quartered length-wise (see photo)
255g white melon (see photo)
105g onion (about 1 medium onion), sliced thin
1-1.5 tomatoes, sliced
1/2-1 tsp tamarind paste
Other vegetables I like to use: fresh green beans cut into 2″ pieces, yellow melon or pumpkin, unripe (yellow) plantain, white potato, basically whatever you like! Just make sure to slice them all about the same size. I really love the texture and flavor that unripe plantain and green beans add, but unfortunately I did not have any on hand this time.
For the coconut paste:
1.5 cups ground coconut (I buy frozen)
2-3 garlic cloves
1″ fresh ginger
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 green chili (2 if you want more heat)
1-2 teaspoons turmeric powder
1. Wash all the cut veggies in a colander and strain the water.
2. In a large pot, heat some coconut oil (not alot, just enough to lightly coat ALL the veggies). You can use whatever oil you prefer, but recently I have decided to stop cooking with olive oil and use coconut oil.
3. Add all the veggies at once to the pot and stir with the oil. Add some salt and mix. Turn the heat to low.
4. Make the coconut paste:
– in a blender (you can also use a single serve blender or magic bullet), add all the ingredients for the coconut paste and a little bit of water. Grind together, adding bits of water at a time until you have a thick but loose paste — not too thick that it doesn’t run, and not too thin like water. You should be able to pour it out with a little effort.
5. Pour the coconut paste over the veggies and stir together. Add a little bit of water to let everything cook down, but not so much water that you’re left with too much liquid. As the veggies cook, you may need to add water periodically so they don’t stick to the pan. By the end of the cooking process, most of the water should be evaporated. This is not a curry. The coconut should be a binder for the veggies.
6. In a small bowl, mix the tamarind paste with a tiny bit of water to loosen it up. Pour this over the veggies and mix. This adds a slight sourness to the dish.
7. Add more salt to taste. Once all the veggies are cooked to your liking, remove from heat and let sit so it can congeal a bit.
8. Serve with rice, naan, roti, paratha, whatever you like!
I hope you love this recipe as much as I do, and please let me know how you like it if you do try it!
Carrots and Ivy Gourd
I forgot to take a photo of the white melon before removing the rind and cutting it. On the left is the cut melon, on the right is the rind (discarded).
Coconut paste ingredients plus a little water, to be blended
Veggies in the pot with coconut oil, coconut paste poured in
Tamarind paste loosened with a tiny bit of water
The final product!