My husband, Desi, was born and raised in Madras (or Chennai, although he insists on calling it Madras still) in a very traditional family. But when we got married, his parents and six siblings were more than welcoming to the new daughter-in-law even though she had short hair, didn’t wear saris and didn’t speak a word of Tamil.
What did rattle them, though, was that I didn’t know how to cook any Tamilian food.
Tamilians love their food, and I mean their food. I still remember an attempt I made at trying to get my father-in-law to try out noodles. Even though he was trying to be a sport, I could not help but feel sorry for the man as he struggled with the strange food on his plate, probably wondering why anyone would want to eat this stuff! It was a little terrifying at the time, but today is one of my funniest memories of my wonderful father-in-law who has passed away since.
But getting back to Tamil food, since my husband and I lived far from Madras, in Bombay, there really was no way I could learn from my Tamil family members how to cook authentic recipes. One of my sisters-in-law , Lalitha manni, came to my rescue: she recommended a cookbook from the Lifco series named, quite simply, “How to Cook?.”
The book, by Vedavalli Venkatachary, is very straightforward and unpretentious with no pictures and with directions that sometimes skip a step or two. It has become one of my favorite cookbooks over the years, and one I often run to when I feel in the mood for something simple but wholesome. The book even made the journey with us from India to the United States and now sits in my kitchen shelf here. It is a treasure trove of Tamil recipes for all occasions, ranging from the usual sambhars (kuzhambu) and rasams, to chutneys and side dishes and sweets like sarkarai pongal.
This recipe for Cabbage Kootu is adapted from one of Mrs. Venkatachary’s recipes.
I have always loved cooking with cabbage, not just because it tastes great, but because of its wonderful versatility. In Indian cuisine, it can be cooked as a side dish, added to curries and even makes wonderful bhujias. It can be a great addition to my spicy pakora pancakes, which I blogged about earlier.
What’s more, cabbage is a nutrition powerhouse, packed with fiber, vitamins, and even calcium. It belongs to the family of cruciferous vegetables, along with cauliflower, broccoli, brussels sprouts and kale, which are known to have anti-cancer properties.
I used a whole head of cabbage in this recipe because I can’t have enough of it, but feel free to use a smaller amount, if you prefer. The black pepper gives the kootu a fragrance and taste that is beyond description-you’ll just have to take my word for it. Or make it yourself!
Peppery Cabbage Kootu
1 medium head of cabbage, finely shredded
1 cup split yellow peas (tuvar dal)
1 sprig curry leaves (optional)
2 tbsp chopped coriander leaves
2 tbsp shredded coconut or 1/4 cup coconut milk
1 tbsp mustard seeds
1 tbsp coriander seeds
1 tbsp blackgram dal (udad dal)
1 tbsp chana dal (Bengalgram dal)
2-3 red chilies (you can use more if you like your food really spicy)
1 tbsp black peppercorns
Pressure-cook the split yellow peas and cabbage with about 4 cups of water, a little salt and turmeric until soft. (You can cook it in a saucepan, but it would take much longer).
Fry masala ingredients in a teaspoon of canola or other vegetable oil. When the dals turn golden, remove to a blender and grind into a smooth paste along with coconut or coconut milk.
Add the masala ingredients to the cooked split peas.
Add the curry leaves, if using, and let it all simmer together about 10 minutes, until the flavors have blended together.
In a small vessel, heat about 1 tbsp of oil. Add 2 tsp mustard seeds. Let them sputter and then add them to the split peas.
Garnish with chopped coriander.
Serve hot with rice and papad.