A South Indian thali for Pakistani taste buds

Published: November 23, 2011
Email

Even though I was sKeptical about cooking South Indian food, my Thali turned out to be a scrumptious delight. PHOTO: ANAM AMIN

I am a proud Pakistani and I love my cuisine. In general, all Pakistanis believe that their food is miles better than any other desi cuisine, especially Indian cuisine. To me, Indian food was like the bogey man under my bed that my mother scared me with when I wouldn’t go to bed on time.

Thus, it came as a dismal shock to me when chef Poppy Agha declared that we would be studying South Indian cuisine. Due to my patriotism, I crinkled my nose at the prospect of this class and was not looking forward to it in the slightest.

How wrong was I? Thanks to Poppy Agha, I discovered a great delight that I had been missing for two decades of my existence. South Indian food is delicious.

Our class began like always with a little flash back on the heritage and the divisions of South India and North India and their range of sub and main cuisines. I was, admittedly, a little put off by the amount of coconut oil (an essential part of South Indian food) and coconut used. However, this didn’t deter me, and I proceeded to cook a gorgeous looking Thali (platter).

Read on to find out how I did it, and how it tasted.

The Thali comprises of  Chettinad Chicken Khuzambu (wet sauce-Tamil Cuisine), Rasam, Maddur Vada, and Pongol

Before starting, we made our own mixed spice also called Milagai Thool, essentially used in any South Indian house which we Pakistani’s refer to as ‘garam masala’.

Melagai thool:

Ingredients:

4 dried red chilies

2 tsps. coriander seed

1 tsp. black peppercorn

1/2 tsp. methi (fenugreek)

4 curry leaves

1/2 tsp. turmeric

Method:

Roast all the spices except the turmeric as it cooks faster. Once you notice the zeera changing colour, turn the heat off and pop them in the blender with the turmeric. Grind and keep aside.

Chettinad Chicken Khuzambu

Ingredients:

Chicken boneless- Cut into bite size pieces

2 tbsps. Ginger- slice half a ginger and mince finely

5 baby onions all cut in half

2 green chilies slit

2 tsps. dried red chilies

2 tsps. coriander powder

2 tbsps. grated coconut

2 tbsps. cashew nuts- roughly chopped

1 piece cinnamon (daal cheeni)

1 tsp. fennel seeds

1 tbsp. fresh mint

2 curry leaves

4 garlic pods minced finely

Coconut Oil

Milagae Thool

Method:

Add Coconut oil in a deep pan to cover the bottom layer. Add garlic, ginger, two tablespoons of mixed spices, coriander powder, dried chili, grated coconut, fennel seeds and then add the chicken. Mix well till the chicken is coated.

Add half a cup of water, onions, green chili, and the cinnamon stick and mix well. Then add one tablespoon of coconut powder leveled.

Before serving add a little water for it to blend.

My take:

When the coconut oil was cooking, it was a very different aroma to take in for me, but it gradually grows on you and the end result, Chettinad Chicken was delicious! It had a completely different taste from our normal chicken curry.

Rasam:

Ingredients:

2 tbsps. tomato paste

1 tsp. tamarind paste (imli) dissolved in a cup of water

2 pods of garlic minced

1 dried red chili

4 curry leaves

1 tbsp. coriander leaves

1 tsp. mustard seeds

1 tsp. cumin ground

1 tsp. black peppercorn ground

3 tsp. brown sugar (gurr)

Method:

Add two tablespoons of coconut oil, garlic, tomato paste and two cups of water. Add the red chili, one teaspoon of salt and brown sugar and stir slowly. Mix in the two curry leaves, Milagae Thool and one tea poon of brown sugar and allow it to cook.

Ending it with a “tarka” basically means to season by popping spices in a pan and adding them to the dish.

In another pan, thus, put one teaspoon of mustard seeds and cumin seeds and two curry leaves. Just when the spices release a lovely smell, pour them over the Rasam. Don’t stir right then. Stir slightly while serving to maintain the flavors of the tarka.

My take:

It’s like a lovely Indian tomato soup – I absolutely adored it. Apparently what we cooked is just an easier version of Rasam.  Regardless, I’m a fan. This dish is served with any meal, eaten hot or cold as a main dish with rice preferably Pongo, or as an appetizer.

Maddur Vadda:

Vadda is traditionally made with lentils, gram flour, or potato. The Vadda I made is known as Maddur Vadda  and is made with onion.

Ingredients:

1/2 cup mixed flour- rice flour, maida, and sooji

1 tsp. cumin seeds

2-3 green chilies- chopped small

3 baby onions- 2 minced finely and 1 sliced (to keep the texture)

2-5 tbsp. of coconut oil

Method:

Add minced and sliced onions to a bowl of flour. Add cumin and two to three tablespoons of water. It’s just like making a kebab, do not put in too much water as this will make the batter too sticky. Add half a teaspoon of salt. Add green chilies and mix.

Take portions of the batter and make flattened Vaddas. They need not be in a perfect shape, just ideally  flatter than kebabs.

Fry them in a mixture of two tablespoons of coconut and four tablespoons of regular oil. We combined the two oils just so the entire Thali doesn’t have the same aroma or similar flavor. Fry them until they are brown on both sides just like in the picture.

My take:

I wasn’t too sure about the Vadda’s before tasting them. I don’t eat Pakora’s or onion rings with pleasure, but on trying my Vaddas, I couldn’t stop myself from devouring the entire plate. I dipped them in Rasam and wiped my plate clean – they were just so scrumptious!

Pongol:

I am a fan of rice; I can even eat yogurt and plain rice! My brothers often tease me by saying that I was adopted from a Bengali family. The rice dish, Pongol, thus, excited me immensely.

Ingredients:

1/2 cup rice soaked in water for at least 30 minutes

Coconut oil and cooking oil

Ginger quarter minced

4 garlic pods- minced

1 tsp. of Milagai Thool

Method:

Add two tablespoons of coconut oil and two tablespoons of cooking oil to a pan. Stir in the ginger and garlic. Drain water out and add the rice to the pan. Add Milagai Thool and half a cup water. Mix well.

Let this cook, and as soon as you see the water is reducing, add half a cup more to it. You’ll notice in a minute while stirring that your rice has started to expand. Just as more water is absorbed, add half a cup more and stir. Repeat it if needed one last time, it should be expanded and sticking together in luscious shades of pink and brown.

My take:

You don’t need any curry or anything to have with this – it’s that good. I tried it with the Chettinad Chicken and also with the Rasam. It tasted divine with both. I especially loved it with the Rasam. It’s remarkable how Rasam can be eaten/served in so many ways.

My overall take on the Thali:

How my perspective has changed about Indian cuisine! It was just magnificent. This Thaali  was not only a surprise to my taste buds but also a memorable desi experience. I’m definitely looking forward to trying out other endless range of cuisine our neighboring country has to offer. A huge thanks to Poppy Agha for allowing me this culinary experience.

Anam.Amin

Anam Amin

An A'level graduate who has recently moved to Karachi, Anam aspires to be a pastry chef.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.