Roasted Okra Kuzhambu
Vendakkai Poricha Kuzhambu
This post is sponsored by Vitamix. I was provided with an Ascent series blender for review and recipe development purposes. All thoughts and opinions are my own.
I’m about to spend some time talking about… well, all kinds of stuff. So I’m going to say a little about the food first. This dish is many things – flavourful vegan cooking, a great (and relatively simple) South Indian dish, an awesome and (100% non-slimy) way to use okra, and a different way to approach using a blender. If you’re super familiar with South Indian food, or you’re in a hurry, feel free to click that “Jump to the Recipe” button. But if you’re newer to Indian cooking, stick with me for a bit. Let’s dive in.
Whenever I have the chance, I like to ask readers, friends, and family what kinds of foods and features they would like to see on Diversivore in the future. Interests (and answers) always vary, but I must say that Indian food and Indian cooking come up an awful lot. When I’ve tried to break it down and find out why so many people are interested in this subject, three key factors pop up over and over again. The first is, unsurprisingly, flavour. The cuisine of the subcontinent is enamoured with big, bold, and distinctive tastes, redolent with spice, and punctuated by some unmistakable and memorable ingredients. The second factor is growing awareness of the complexity and diversity of Indian food. This diversity is under-represented in restaurants, but the ever-expanding world of food online is opening some very big doors to the eager and adventurous home cook. As for the third factor is logistical, but very important: where to start. We’ll return to this idea in a little while, and in the Recipe Notes below. So with big flavours and underappreciated cuisines in mind, I decided to embark on a little South Indian culinary kick. When Vitamix approached me and offered to let me use one of their new blenders, I knew that this okra kuzhambu was a perfect recipe to share.
Much like Japanese and Chinese food, the growing popularity of Indian cuisine in the West has led to something I like to call ‘exotic familiarity.’ In essence, these foods have become familiar (even ubiquitous) in a very specific, restaurant-centric, and somewhat Westernized fashion. The unique ingredients, flavours, and cooking techniques serve as the exotic draw to unfamiliar Western palates. But rather than trying to introduce the entirety of a complex food culture (a Herculean task), a small subset of recipes tend to take hold, at which point they are generally adapted and repeated in a way that renders them familiar and predictable. Sushi, ramen, and teriyaki stand in for the entirety of Japanese food. Sweet and fried Cantonese-style foods stands in for the entirety of Chinese cooking. And when it comes to India, the rich, Persian-influenced Mughlai cuisine of the north has come to represent the entirety of the country in the minds of many restaurant goers outside of Asia. This culinary simplification is common of course and not limited to the West, but it’s certainly limiting. Because of this, more and more adventurous chefs and restaurateurs are pushing the horizons and daring people to think beyond the exotically familiar. This in turn is inspiring more and more home cooks to try to branch out in an effort to meaningfully explore the splendour and diversity of food cultures beyond their own. A quick glance at Diversivore’s recipes will tell you that I’m a big fan of this approach. But the ‘where to start’ idea is a very common and very real hurdle that most home cooks encounter.
South Indian Food
The food trend prognosticators out there have predicted that 2017 will be a big year for Indian Food. Sounds good to me. I’m excited to see how this all unfolds and I’ll certainly be contributing more than this one recipe, but I really hope that this rise in popularity benefits some of the poorly known and under-appreciated Indian regional cuisines. This recipe is South Indian in origin (with a few tweaks suited to my Canadian kitchen), and it’s a pretty decent representation of the food from that part of the world. Of course there are numerous regional variations and specialties, and I can’t pretend that this is meant to be an exhaustive treatment of the cuisine. Instead, I’m going to use this recipe to introduce some of the basic features of South Indian cooking, and Indian cooking in general.
INDIAN COOKING FUNDAMENTALS
This whirlwind intro is designed to illustrate some basics while also addressing this recipe. It’s meant to get the ball rolling, but I’ll certainly be leaving a LOT out.
Indian cooking is broadly characterized by the use of a suite of spices (including cumin, coriander seed, fenugreek, turmeric, chilies, mustard seed, and much, MUCH more) and by a heavy reliance on millet, rice, wheat, and pulses (beans, lentils, and peas). Split or hulled pulses are collectively referred to as dal, while whole (un-hulled) pulses are usually referred to as gram or by their specific titles. Dishes made primarily with pulses are also often referred to simply as dal.
Vegetarian food is extremely common and popular in much of India (though plenty of meat dishes can be found as well). Vegan dishes are somewhat less common because of the region’s affinity for dairy, but many dishes (like this one) can be made vegan by substituting cooking oil for the ubiquitous clarified butter known as ghee. Various religious dietary restrictions exist within India, leading to a wide (and at times confusing) variety of specialized recipes and variations.
As with any complex cuisine, there are countless techniques used to cook food in the Indian subcontinent, but two are particularly noteworthy here. First is the use of fresh spices, often toasted, and generally ground to make a flavourful spice mix (or masala). Given the impact that this technique has on both the character and quality of a dish, it’s important to avoid shortcuts. Pre-ground spice blends and curry powders have their place, but they generally can’t stand in for a fresh and recipe-specific blend. The second particularly important technique is called tempering (or tadka). Tempering also involves the use of spices, but in a very different way – basically, a handful of spices are quickly fried in very hot oil or ghee before being added (whole) to the dish. In some cases this is done early on in the recipe, while in others (e.g. here) it is done immediately before serving. Despite the fact that the same spice(s) might appear in the tempering and spice-mix, they can have very different effects and flavours.
The food of South India features many of the spices, pulses, and vegetables found further north along with plenty of local ingredients. Coconut, curry leaf, tamarind, and a variety of local vegetables feature prominently in many recipes. Unsurprisingly given the long stretch of coastline, seafood also tends to be pretty common in non-vegetarian dishes. Souring agents are very common in many South Indian dishes, and many recipes will feature tamarind, amla (Indian gooseberry), amchoor (green mango powder), or lemon.
“CURRY” AND KUZHAMBU
The word ‘curry’ is a source of endless confusion in the West, and it’s further complicated in South Indian cooking because of the use of curry leaves (which are by no means required for a dish to be called ‘curry’). Putting aside the many non-Indian usages of the word (English, Japanese, and Thai for example), curry is a confusing enough concept within in Indian cooking. The word comes from the Tamil word kari, which means ‘sauce.’ It does not refer to one particular recipe or type of recipe, but can be generally understood to include any number of dishes in which meat and/or vegetables are cooked with spices, and may or may not include some type of gravy. Needless to say, that covers an awful lot of Indian dishes. Outside of India, these dishes are frequently lumped under the collective ‘curry’ terminology. The term curry is now used generally within India (especially in English), but it does not supplant the more specific and descriptive names (coming from a variety of languages) used to denote individual dishes.
Case in point: kuzhambu (aka kulambu – குழம்பு in Tamil). There is something of a spectrum of South Indian ‘curry’ dishes that differ not only in the ingredients used, but in terms of the consistency of the end product. On one end of the spectrum, you’ve got the soupy or stew-like dishes known as sambar and kuzhambu. Sambar has started to make its way into the English lexicon, but there’s plenty of confusion on the subject. Basically, if the dish uses a lot of lentils, it’s a sambar. If there are no lentils, or only a few lentils used as part of the spice mix (like this recipe), it’s a kuzhambu. Both dishes generally feature tamarind, but there are exceptions (like this recipe). That being said, kuzhambu is often considered a special type or subset of sambar. As for this particular recipe, the Tamil name means okra (vendakkai) fried (poricha) kuzhambu. This doesn’t meant the okra is fried (I actually roast the okra and the tomatoes for an awesome kick of extra flavour), but rather that there’s a step in which a bunch of ingredients are fried before everything gets blended together. This step is typical of the poricha kuzhambus in general, and any number of other vegetables could be featured in place of okra.
Got it? Well that only covers this dish. It gets more complicated (of course). A rasam is a thin and brothy tamarind dish that can be eaten as a soup and lacks large vegetable pieces. Both sambar and rasam often feature eponymous spice blends, but even they get interchanged pretty frequently (and sometimes used in kuzhambu). A kootu is a somewhat thicker dish made with vegetables, dal, and milder spices (notably cumin), but not fenugreek. Kootu is sometimes lumped together with kuzhambu (though presumably my recipe would be problematic because it uses fenugreek in the tempering step). Cut a bunch of the stronger spices out, use lots of mashed dal, and you’ve got masiyal. To further confuse matters, I could have put the word ‘generally’ in those sentences about a dozen times, because pretty much every one of those ‘rules’ is broken in some recipe or another. I can understand why the English felt that the word ‘curry’ seemed good enough. The good news is that there’s enough flexibility and overlap that there’s no ‘right’ way to make your dish. If it turns out tasty, that’s good enough.
(Big thank-you to Heat in the Kitchen, which was the source of much of my linguistic and culinary clarification, and to Kannama Cooks, whose Vendakkai Puli Kuzhambu served as a inspirational jumping off point for my own recipe).
I personally think that there are two excellent approaches to exploring other food cultures in a meaningful way. The first is to work on a set of foundations in order to learn the key concepts, culinary techniques, and flavour profiles of a cuisine. This is certainly the most in-depth method and it will yield huge gains over the long run, but it’s also requires a not-insignificant time and resource investment. This makes it an unattractive prospect to those looking to broaden their horizons and explore a little. The second approach is to find one really great, delicious, and detailed recipe, and to dive into that. The second approach is what we’re going to do today with this recipe.
While this is not meant to be an exhaustive introduction to South Indian cooking, you’ll probably still need to do a little shopping for some of the less familiar ingredients. I know this can seem daunting at times, but without the right ingredients, you’re robbing yourself of the very flavours you’re trying to understand, and dooming your efforts from the get go. Besides, I personally think that buying new spices is half of the fun, and in my experience most specialty stores are more than happy to help you try to find ingredients you might not know that well.
Spices are one thing (and a cheap thing at that), but I do recognize that nobody wants to drop a ton of money on specialized gear when they’re trying to get started, which is why I built this recipe around one piece of popular (and beloved) kitchen gear: a really great blender. You’ll find that a lot of Indian recipes aimed at Indian cooks feature small combination machines called ‘mixer grinders’ meant for working with whole spices AND wet ingredients. While those are wonderful tools, I didn’t want to assume that the average western kitchen would be equipped with them. So when Vitamix gave me one of their new Ascent Series blenders and the opportunity to develop a recipe, I decided I’d see how well it could handle South Indian food. I was pretty darned pleased (check out my review on the Vitamix US site if you want to know more about my thoughts and a sneak peak at the another specialty South Indian ingredient I’ll be featuring later on). Beyond the blender, all you need is a coffee grinder (or dedicated spice grinder) for the whole spices, or a mortar and pestle plus a little elbow grease. If you don’t have a coffee grinder (or elbows), you can substitute pre-ground spices for the whole ones, but I would STRONGLY encourage you to get a cheap coffee grinder and to start using whole spices, not just for Indian food, but for virtually all your cooking. There’s no comparing the flavour.
SPICES AND SPECIALTY INGREDIENTS
Any well-equipped Indian grocery store should have everything you need for this recipe (and then some). I find curry leaves can be a little hit-and-miss in terms of quality, but even that shouldn’t give you too much trouble.
Most of the spices are pretty well-known to Western cooks, but I’ll clarify a couple of things. First – yes, you’re using whole, uncooked rice and beans (urad and toor dal) in the spice blend. This is pretty common actually, and it adds a really cool flavour component to the dish. Both dal varieties are common in Indian grocery stores – urad dal is the split, hulled version of black gram (aka mungo bean). Toor dal is sometimes sold under the name ‘pigeon pea,’ though this is less common in Indian grocery stores. The only other ingredient I’d consider somewhat ‘obscure’ is amchoor powder, and it too is easy to find in Indian grocery stores. It’s simply dried, powdered green (unripe) mango. It’s sour, and tasty. If you’re familiar with using tamarind, feel free to use it in place of (or alongside) the amchoor powder too.
Lastly, make sure you use unsweetened coconut. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you can also use a small chunk of fresh coconut. The flavour is amazing.
This step can look intimidating, but it’s really quite easy. The idea is to heat the oil until shimmering and quite hot, then add the tempering spices (including the curry leaves). For most home cooks, a very small pot or pan is probably the easiest way to do this, though you’ll want to make sure that you spread the spices around evenly to avoid clumping and uneven cooking. You’ll want to have everything ready to go before you start, as the whole process is quite quick. Keep a close eye on the spices as they temper and take care not to burn them. If you do burn your spices, start over, as they’ll ruin the dish.
When it comes to serving the dish, I’m a proponent of the ‘eat it however you want to’ school of thinking. A fairly standard approach in India would be to serve this with rice, maybe some kind of bread (e.g. papadum), a dry curry (i.e. a spiced meat or veggie dish that is NOT soupy), and some pickles/chutneys. It’s a nice spread. But if you’re keeping it simple, this recipe (and kuzhambu in general) has a nice thick, soupy consistency that works really well with (or over) rice.
I like to top the dish with a few of the nicer looking tempered curry leaves and a little chopped cucumber. If you’re so inclined, a bit of plain yogurt is a nice added touch too.
NOTE: The nutritional information shown does NOT include rice or any other side serving.
No ingredient pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
No pantry pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
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