Desi’s the kind of guy who usually just eats whatever I cook, but sometimes — to my delight– he will come up with a special request. Usually it’s a taste from his childhood in Madras. This past weekend it was a request for Vadakari (also sometimes called Vada Kari or Vadai Curry), a spicy dish he and his brothers would sometimes order at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Chromepet, a suburb of Madras where he grew up.
I have been cooking Tamil food for so long now I could pass for a native, but I must confess Vadakari is not something I’d ever heard of before. So I set about trying to find a recipe and landed at this one which sounded really good. I adapted it a little, and voila! I had a wonderful new recipe that not only any vegan would love, but one that would satisfy any carnivore’s chewy tooth. Now that’s a find.
Vadakari is exactly what it sounds like (well, at least to a Tamilian). It is a curry, or a spicy gravy of tomatoes and onions with tiny little lentil dumplings, or vadai. The vadai are deep-fried, then broken into little pieces and added to the gravy, which gives them a really great chewy texture.
Desi told me that Vadakari is served with pooris, puffy little Indian breads, probably just as a ploy to get me to make some (did I ever tell you he’s nuts about pooris?). But this curry would also be gorgeous with some chapatis or any Indian flatbread, like a naan.
Here’s the recipe. Enjoy, all!
Ingredients for the vadai:
1 cup chana dal (bengal gram dal)
1/4 cup brown rice flour
2 red chillies
1 tsp fennel seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
1/4 tsp turmeric
Salt to taste
Oil for frying
Soak the chana dal for 3 hours or if you don’t have the time do what I did and cheat– put the chana dal in a microwave-safe bowl, add enough water to top the dal by at least an inch, and zap for three minutes. Then drain.
Grind the chana dal with the rest of the ingredients. If the processor or blender blades refuse to turn because the mixture is too dry, add just a tiny bit of water, a tablespoon at a time. You want a coarse paste that clumps together, but it should not be too watery or you won’t be able to form your vadas.
Form 1-inch vadas by pulling off a piece of the dough, rolling it into a ball, and then flattening it between your palms. I got about 16 vadas.
Heat the oil in a wok or saucepan. Deep-fry the vadas until they are golden-brown. Don’t let them brown too quickly or they’ll stay raw inside. Drain onto a paper towel. Once the vadais are cool enough to handle, break them up into small pieces.
Ingredients for the curry:
1 tsp black mustard seeds
1 onion, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced or crushed with a garlic press
10-12 curry leaves
1 tbsp ginger paste
1 large tomato, finely chopped
1/2 tsp chilli powder, like cayenne
1/4 tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp garam masala powder
A generous pinch of asafoetida (hing)
1 tsp vegetable or canola oil
1 cup coconut milk
Salt to taste
Coriander leaves for garnish
Heat the oil in a saucepan. Add the mustard seeds and asafoetida. When the seeds sputter, add the onions and curry leaves.
Saute until the onions start to turn transparent. Add the ginger and garlic and stir well, about a minute. Add the tomatoes.
Add the turmeric, chilli powder, and garam masala powder. Mix them in and saute the mixture until the tomatoes are all crushed into a paste and most of the liquid has evaporated.
Add a cup of water, bring it to a boil, then add the pieces of vadai. Once the vadai absorb most of the water, add coconut milk and salt to taste.
Stir well, bring the curry to a boil, and let it simmer another five minutes. Turn off the heat and add chopped coriander leaves.