Sunday, July 12, 2009
Last night, we were invited to Remya's place for for a yummy "palakkad" dinner. For lack of a better term, I called this dinner Palakkad Special as Remya is a Palakkad Iyer. These are Tam Iyers (redundant, I know) who can trace their roots to Palakkad which became part of Kerala state in 1957. Their traditions including language and cooking is reflective of that association.
The menu for the night started off with a (relatively) simple fried beans and included a Koottu, a typical Tam/Mallu stew featuring (in this case) snake gourd, coconut, toor dal and chana dal. Remya started off boiling the snake gourd pieces, added toor dal and patiently worked her way thru roasting and grinding a mixture of ground coconut and chana dal. While I'm blissfully unaware of the intricacies of the process, the end result was bursting with flavor and spice from all the ingredients.
Also interleaved into this was the sambar. End of the day, Remya is a Tam and you gotto have sambar. At it's heart, Sambar is a tamarind and lentil broth packed with a tonne of stewed veggies and can be found in all south indian restaurants. I'm a sambar snob among other things and 9 out of 10 restaurants come a cropper when it comes to delivering a balanced sambar. Unsurprisingly, this one had the right consistency and flavor. Again, you'd be hardpressed to find a Tam household that makes bad sambar. It's the basis of their food. To rubbish a Tam's Sambar would be good way to get really personal with one.
I thought I'd take a moment to mention what to me is the quintessential element of south indian cooking - termed tiragamutha/popu (Telugu), thaalithal(Tamil) and chaunk/tadka (Hindi). The south indian version almost always features a mix of mustard seeds, methi seeds, dry red chillies and hing heated in oil or ghee. The resulting concoction gives rise to the most intense aromas that I've ever come across in a kitchen anywhere. While it can often lead to a bout of coughing and cause the resulting aromas/odor (depending on your perspective) to hang around the kitchen for a long time, nothing beats its contribution to the end result. There would be no sambar, charu, pulusu, upma, daddojanam and countless other delicacies that define South Indian cooking.
The aroma transports me to a world many miles and years away - to the magical confines of my mother's and grand mother's rustic kitchens back in India. Often times, I come home to the lingering smell left behind by tiragamutha and I just close my eyes and sink into a meditatory repose. Few things can be as evocative ..