Don't Call Me Chef

Published: Saturday October 4, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Tuesday October 7, 2014 MYT 8:15:52 PM

Deepavali dishes to light up your taste buds

Dishes for your Deepavali table: Keralan chicken stew (left), Eggplant milk curry (centre) and tamarind rice (bottom), served with appam, tofu sambal and roti. - Photos by AZMAN GHANI & RAFIQ RAHMAN

Dishes for your Deepavali table: Keralan chicken stew (left), Eggplant milk curry (centre) and tamarind rice (bottom), served with appam, tofu sambal and roti. - Photos by AZMAN GHANI & RAFIQ RAHMAN

For Deepavali, the columnists cook up three Indian dishes that make a slap-up meal.

Food is one way we preserve our culture and traditions and lucky for us Malaysians, we have festivals all year round, which remind us of our heritage. While our daily workday meals may depend on “whatever is quickest to prepare or easiest to take away”, most of us go to great lengths to dig deep into our culinary heritage and prepare traditional meals come festival time.

With Deepavali just around the corner, we decided to get into the spirit of the celebration and cook some of our favourite traditional Indian dishes. Though all three dishes have culturally different origins – the eggplant side dish is a Sri Lankan speciality, the chicken stew has its roots in Kerala, and the rice is a South Indian classic – they marry well together and make for a sumptuous meal. After all, in the melting pot that is Malaysia, it isn’t uncommon to find a mish-mash of different culinary cultures on one dining table.

Eggplant (mish)mash

A STAPLE dish in many Ceylonese households is the brinjal coconut milk curry (kathrikkai paal curry), eaten with rice or puttu (steamed ground rice and coconut cylinders).

Growing up, I never really liked the dish, not because of how it tasted but how it looked – soft and mushy, with seeds of the vegetable all mixed in. Being powerless on what would go on my dinner plate however, I adjusted as best I could. I’d swallow the vegetable with gulps of water – this really made matters worse as the copious amounts of water filled me up and made me feel queasy even before I was halfway through my meal.

I learnt to put away my prejudices eventually. I noticed how much the dish was savoured by the rest of my family during our family gatherings. The “oooohs and aaahs” and licking of fingers didn’t go unnoticed and I eventually tried it and now, love it too.

The paal curry is such a popular dish that nine out of ten times, you’d find it on the menu at any festivity (regardless of whether the food was home cooked or catered). There are slight variations on how the dish is made, but these mostly revolve around personal preferences – I add turmeric to the brinjal which I am told by my aunt is not authentic to the dish. Also, some cooks add plantains with the brinjal – this apparently is a common combination in Sri Lanka where plantains are easily accessible.

This recipe is a combination of the recipes from my sister and my aunt.

Kathrikkai Paal Curry (Eggplant Milk Curry)
Serves 3-4

1 tbsp gingerly oil or more
4-6 shallots, diced
1/2 tsp fenugreek
2 green chillies, sliced
3 round brinjals, skin removed and roughly cut into 2cm cubes
1/4 tsp turmeric
1/4 tsp cumin
1-2 cups water
1/4 cup coconut milk
salt to taste

1/2 tbsp ghee
1 tsp mustard seeds
2 sprigs curry leaves
3 dried red chillies, roughly cut

Heat the gingerly oil in a pan and add the shallots, fenugreek and green chillies and cook till fragrant. Add the brinjal, cumin and turmeric and stir to mix all the ingredients together. Lower the heat and add the water (just enough to cover the brinjal). Cover the pan and allow the brinjal to cook until soft, about 10 minutes, checking from time to time to ensure the water doesn’t dry out before the brinjal is soft. (Add more water if necessary.)

Once the brinjal is very soft – soft enough to be mashed – add the coconut milk and salt and cook for another 5 minutes or so. Using the back of a wooden spoon, mash the brinjal slightly, allowing some to retain their shape. Remove from heat and transfer to a serving dish.

In another small pan, heat the ghee. Add the mustard seeds and once they start to splutter, add the curry leaves and dried chillies and temper for a minute or two. Pour the oil and ingredients onto the brinjal.

Celebration rice

RICE is a staple food in South Indian cooking. It is usually simply boiled as it is eaten with curries that are often heavily spiced.

There are also rice dishes made specially for celebrations. “Sour rice” – known as puliyodharai, puliyogare or pulihora depending on the region – is one such dish. The flavours in this dish are typical of South Indian cuisine – sour, peppery, salty and a little sweet.

Unlike a pilaf or a briyani for example, where all the ingredients are cooked together as a one-pot dish, tamarind rice is more like a salad – cooked rice is flavoured with a spice powder and tossed with the tangy “dressing”. It may take time and a little extra effort, but it’s a good alternative to plain rice.

It’s certainly a great dish to have for Deepavali.

Tamarind Rice
Serves 5-6

1½ cups long-grain rice, preferably Basmathi
1 tsp mustard seeds
1 tbsp channa dal (split bengal gram), soaked for 30 minutes
1 tbsp urad dal (split black gram), soaked for 30 minutes
2-3 dried red chillies
1 sprig curry leaves
¼ tsp asafoetida
¼ tsp turmeric powder
2 tbsp seedless tamarind paste
¾ cup water
¾ tbsp palm sugar
½ cup roasted peanuts
salt to taste

Powdered spice mix (podi)
1 tbsp chana dal
½ tbsp urad dal
1½ tbsp coriander seeds
½ tsp fenugreek seeds
½ tsp cumin seeds
1 tbsp white sesame seeds
1 large sprig curry leaves
1 tbsp black peppercorns
4-5 dried red chillies

Cook the rice with a teaspoon of salt. Fluff to separate the grains and place in a mixing bowl.

First, make the powdered spice mix: Dry roast all the ingredients in a heavy pan until fragrant. Cool and grind into a powder.

For tempering, heat two tablespoon of oil in a pan and add the mustard seeds. When they sputter, add the drained channa and urad dals and fry until light brown. Add the dried chillies, curry leaves, asafoetida and turmeric powder and fry for a few seconds.

Add the tamarind paste, water and palm sugar and cook on low heat, stirring constantly, until the oil separates and the dals are tender, 8-10 minutes. Remove from heat.

Add ¾ of the tamarind sauce to the rice and toss to combine. Add salt to taste. Stir in 3-4 tablespoons of the powdered mix and the roasted peanuts. Add more of the tamarind sauce if desired.

An aromatic stew

THE first meal we had after landing in Chennai earlier this year was homecooked appam with mutton stew. I loved the combination, and especially the stew because it was so tasty and aromatic. Our friend Becky said it’s an easy dish to prepare, and just recommended a Keralan cookbook for the recipe.

I made that meal but with chicken, the first weekend after I came back from the trip to cure my post-holiday blues.

I failed miserably at making appam – even with the non-stick pan I lugged home – but the chicken stew is easy to make.

It’s still the aroma of the spices, curry leaves and green chillies that I love most, and it’s always a reminder of a wonderful holiday with good friends who pampered and spoilt us.

Chicken Stew
Serves 4-5

2-3 tbsp cooking oil
1 cinnamon stick
2-3 cloves
2-3 cardamons
1 sprig curry leaves
2 big onions, cut into chunks
1 tbsp sliced young ginger
3-4 green chillies, slit sideways
1 chicken, cut into medium pieces
2-3 potatoes, quartered
2 cups thin coconut milk
1 cup thick coconut milk
salt and ground pepper, to taste

Heat up the cooking oil and fry the spices and curry leaves till aromatic.

Add the onions, ginger and green chillies.

Stir for a few minutes till fragrant.

Then add the chicken and potatoes. Fry to mix everything up for about five minutes over medium heat.

Lower the heat and add the thin coconut milk.

Let it simmer till the chicken is cooked and the potatoes have softened.

Then add the thick coconut milk and season. Cook for another two or three minutes.

Serve with appam or rice.

Find the individual recipes in Lifestyle/Food/Recipes

Tags / Keywords: Don't Call Me Chef, Deepavali, tamarind rice, Keralan chicken stew, eggplant, recipe, South Indian cuisine, Sri Lanka cuisine

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