My mom died when I was seven, but many of the few memories I have of her have to do with food.You see, she loved to cook. She was a Maharashtrian, and the food she prepared reflected the ingredients and influences of her corner of the world.
Although I never had a chance to learn how to cook from my mom, she left me with an everlasting love for Marathi food. My own style of cooking reflects the many cultures that have influenced my life and the places I’ve lived in or visited, but to this day it is Marathi food that appeals the most to my tastebuds: in other words, it is my comfort food.
Growing up in Bombay, it wasn’t hard to find Maharashtrian food. The ubiquitous but delicious vada-pav, the lip-smacking misal and the earthy zunka-bhakar are all part of the diverse smorgasbord that is Bombay street food. At my Marathi relatives’ homes I’d eat everyday homecooked delicacies like whisper-soft polis (chapatis), the ethereal varan (a simple tuvar dal preparation) and the mouthwatering bharli vangi (stuffed eggplants).
When I started cooking on my own, I gravitated, quite naturally, to Marathi cuisine, learning largely through cookbooks and from memory. In recent years, I was lucky to find precious resources on Marathi food on the Web, like Nupur’s One Hot Stove which, as many of you already know, is a treasure-trove of Maharashtrian (and other) recipes.
My recipe for today, Usal, is one of my favorites because it was one of the first Marathi dishes I learned to cook well– yes, that’s how simple it is.
I have eaten drier versions of this dish, but I like my usal with plenty of gravy that I can soak up with chapatis. I also made some modifications necessitated by the lack of ingredients in my temperamental pantry. For instance, usal uses goda (sweet) masala, which has a lot of the same ingredients as garam masala but also coconut and sesame seeds. I didn’t have any prepared goda masala on hand, nor any grated coconut, so I made the goda masala minus the coconut and just added some extra coconut milk to the recipe.
One quick note for those not completely familiar with Indian cuisine on the matki or moth beans that are used traditionally for usal: these look like cute little brown capsules and cook up in a relatively short time, making this dish a heaven-sent for busy cooks.
So here it is, my version of usal: classic Marathi comfort food. Enjoy!
- 1 cup matki or moth beans, soaked and sprouted
- 1 cup light coconut milk
- 1 tbsp canola oil
- 1 medium red onion, diced
- 1 tsp sugar
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 large tomato, diced
- 1 large potato, diced into tiny bits
- 1 tsp red chili powder
- ½ tsp turmeric (optional)
- 2 tbsp coriander leaves, chopped
- Salt to taste
- For the goda masala:
- 1 tbsp coriander seeds
- 1 tsp sesame seeds
- 4 cloves
- 4 cardamom pods
- 2 1-inch pieces of cinnamon bark
- 2 dry bay leaves
- 10 peppercorns
- ¼ cup coconut shreds
- Roast the masala ingredients in a dry skillet until lightly brown and fragrant. Fry the coconut last and keep a close eye on it because it can burn in an instant. Cool, powder in a spice grinder, and reserve.
- Heat the oil in a saucepan.
- Add the onions and sugar and saute until browned at the edges, about 5 minutes.
- Add the garlic and stir for a minute.
- Add the tomato, the powdered masala, and chili and turmeric powders.
- Let this cook, stirring a few times, until the tomatoes start to express the oil.
- Add the potatoes and stir in.
- Add the matki beans, about 3 cups of water, and half the coconut milk.
- Cover and simmer on a medium heat about 20-30 minutes, until the matki beans have cooked and are tender but not mushy.
- Add the remaining coconut milk, garnish with coriander and some raw onions and lemon, if desired.
- Serve piping hot.
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