It’s almost a given that you cannot go to a Tamil home without being invited to stay for a meal. Tamilians love to feed as much as they love to eat, and when we go to Chennai on our visits back to India it is not unusual for us to have two lunches, two dinners, and umpteen snacks, all in a single day, as we make the rounds of our relatives’ homes.
When we lived in Bombay, we were not above exploiting all this hospitality. The mother of one of our friends, Malathy, was a great cook. Luckily our home was not far from Malathy’s, and whenever we were craving a great homecooked Tamil meal Desi and I would just drop in for a visit, sure that we’d be well fed.
While almost any meal you’d eat in a Tamil home would be special, we were never happier than when we were served Vengaya Sambar or Onion Sambar, a delicious dal made with tiny red onions. This dish, one of Desi’s favorites, fast became one of my favorites too because it is just so delicious. It was also one of the first types of sambar I learned to cook when I started to putter around the kitchen.
Many years — and hundreds of sambars later– I want to share with you this classic dish beloved in every home kitchen in Chennai. My version is made with fresh ground sambar masala that takes just minutes to put together. The red pearl onions (chinna vengayam in Tamil) are key to this dish because of their unique flavor. If you can’t easily find them in your grocery store don’t be tempted to substitute with the more commonly available white pearl onions because you just won’t get the same flavor. Red pearl onions are sold both fresh or frozen at Indian grocery stores and buy the fresh ones if possible because while the frozen onions are lower on labor (you don’t have to peel them), they can sometimes be chewy. If you absolutely cannot find red pearl onions, I’d advise buying shallots instead and cutting them into small pieces.
Vengaya Sambar tastes best poured over some hot boiled rice with a side of crispy potato curry. And don’t forget to toast up some poppadums!
1 tbsp of tamarind extract mixed with 1 cup of water. Alternately, if you’re using tamarind pods, soak a 1-inch ball of the pods in warm water for 15 minutes, then extract the flavor by crushing the pods with your fingers. Discard the solids and reserve the liquid portion.
½ tsp turmeric
3 tsp vegetable oil
2 tbsp coriander seeds
2 dry red chillies
1 tbsp chana dal or bengal gram dal
¼ tsp dry fenugreek seeds (methi)
2 cups red pearl onions, ends trimmed and papery skins peeled. Tamil cooks sometimes soak the onions overnight which makes it easier to slip the skins off.
1 sprig of curry leaves (about 12 individual leaves)
1 tsp mustard seeds
A generous pinch of hing or asafetida
Salt to taste
Mix the lentils and turmeric, add water and cook until tender in a pressure cooker. Or cover the peas with an inch of water in a pot and bring to a boil, then slap on a lid, lower to simmer, and boil for 30-45 minutes or until the peas are tender enough to mash. Add more water if needed as they cook.
Prepare the ground masala by heating 1 tsp of oil. Add to it the coriander seeds, chana dal, fenugreek seeds and chillies and saute until the coriander seeds and dal turn a few shades darker and are lightly golden-brown. Remove to a blender, add enough water to keep the blades moving, and process to a smooth paste.
Heat 1 tsp of the oil, add the pearl onions and stir-fry until the start to turn golden. Add the tamarind extract and let the mixture cook about 8 minutes.
Add the ground masala and stir well to mix. Add the cooked tuvar dal and bring everything to a boil.
Lower the heat to a simmer, add salt to taste, and let the sambar cook for 10 minutes so all the flavors have a chance to meld together.
To temper the sambar– an important flavor-building step– heat the last teaspoon of oil in a small saucepan and add the mustard seeds. When they crackle, add the asafetida and curry leaves. Fry for a few seconds, turn off the heat, and pour over the sambar. Mix well.
Most South Indian cooks have a pot full of dosa batter sitting in their refrigerators which they can pull out at any time to make a quick and nutritious breakfast, lunch, snack or dinner. Dosas cook pretty quickly on the skillet so in no time at all one can have a pile of hot, steaming crepes ready to eat.And making a dosa batter itself is not difficult, although it does require some soaking time to let the rice and lentils soften so once they are ground up into the batter they can cook quickly on the skillet. I like making quick dosas such as my moong dosa or coriander adai because they require even less soaking time than a regular dosa. But when I get the craving for a traditional dosa, I have a foolproof batter that’s ready in about 4 hours. Not bad.
This time, I wanted to make my foolproof batter healthier by using brown rice instead of white, which I usually use. I have used brown rice in dosa batters before but I find it usually requires more soaking time. While wondering this past weekend, late in the afternoon, how I could get my dosa batter ready for dinner, I had a brainwave. Parboiled rice.
Now before some of you seasoned cooks out there scream, hey, that’s what Indian cooks usually use for dosa, hear me out. I am not talking about the parboiled rice you can buy off the shelf. Instead, I thought I’d parboil my brown rice for a few minutes and then soak it with the lentils, reducing the total soaking time. Get it?
So that’s what I did, and I couldn’t be more pleased with the results. I needed just five hours of soaking time and the dosas themselves were perfect– I spread them thin and they were crispy around the edges and delicious with the nutty flavor of brown rice.
½ cup poha (flattened rice). You can get a brown-rice version of this in Indian stores too.
2 tbsp chana dal (bengal gram dal)
½ cup udad dal (black gram dal)
½ tsp methi seeds
Salt to taste
[b]For the Coriander Chutney[/b]
½ cup chopped coriander leaves and stems
½ cup coconut milk
A few drops of lemon juice
Salt to taste
Cover the brown rice with water in a microwave-safe bowl and nuke it for five minutes.
Allow the rice to sit in the hot water for another half an hour.
Now add the rice to the remaining ingredients, along with the water. Add more water to cover the lentils and rice. Allow them to soak for at least 5 hours and more if you have the time. Drain.
Blend the rice-dal mixture, in several batches, adding enough water to make a smooth batter that’s runny enough to spread into a crepe, but thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.
Heat a cast-iron or non-stick griddle. The griddle should be hot enough that when you sprinkle a few drops of water on it, they sizzle and evaporate.
Using a ladle with a rounded bottom, pour some batter into the center of the griddle and, in a quick but smooth motion, spread outward in circles. Don’t be afraid if you make holes: just add a small drop of batter to patch it. If your dosa does not spread smoothly, it’s possible your ladle is hot. Turn off or lower the heat, and try again.
Pour a few drops of oil around the dosa’s edges to help it crisp up. Once the underside is golden brown, loosen the dosa gently from the skillet and flip over. If your griddle was hot enough to begin with, this step will be very, very easy.
Cook the other side for a few seconds, giving more time if your dosa is thicker. Serve hot with some sambar or chutney or both.
Because I was pressed for time, I served the dosas with this super-simple chutney that requires just four ingredients but tastes just divine.
To make the chutney, just give all the ingredients a whir in the blender until the cilantro is completely broken down. Check salt and serve with the dosas.
Desi and I are being tourists in our own city this week. There isn’t a better place to live in than Washington if you want to do that– the city’s filled with great buildings, monuments and the most amazing museums and almost all of it is free.
Yesterday we were at the Museum of American History which is home to everything from Dorothy’s ruby slippers from the “Wizard of Oz” to Julia Child’s entire kitchen from her home in Massachusetts. It was the setting for almost all her television shows. As we left the museum, exhausted, we caught this glimpse of the Washington monument, ethereal in the twilight.
(C) All recipes and photographs copyright of Holy Cow! Vegan Recipes.
Adai was one of the first foods I tasted in my Tamil mom-in-law’s kitchen. It became an instant favorite. Unlike its simpler but yummy counterpart, the plain old dosa, an Adai is a star, hiding complex flavors beneath its lovely, golden skin.It is also, in my opinion, a little more fun to cook because it lets you play around quite a bit with the ingredients so you can make your own special version suited to your own special tastes. To my Golden Delicious Adai, I added ginger, curry leaves, onions and cabbage, and the results were amazing. Spinach or other leafy greens would also work very well here.Now while a traditional Adai tends to be thicker than a dosa, Desi doesn’t really like it that way. He loves everything thin and crispy. So my Golden Delicious Adai tends to be thinner and crispier than usual- a crepe, rather than a pancake. I ground up the cabbage and onions along with the rice and dal, instead of just chopping them and mixing them into the batter at the tail end, to make it easier to spread the adai on the griddle in a super-thin layer.So without further ado, here it is in all its mouthwatering glory, my Golden Delicious Adai. Enjoy!
Soak the rice and the dals in water for at least 2 hours. Then grind to a fairly smooth paste in a blender. The consistency should be slightly grainy but not unlike that of a regular pancake batter, thin enough to spread on a hot griddle but thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.
Once the batter has acquired the right consistency, add to the blender the ginger, onion, cabbage, green chillies, curry leaves, chili powder, turmeric, salt. Process for about a minute or so until the cabbage and onion have broken down into small but still discernible bits. Remove the batter to a bowl and add the chopped cilantro.
Heat a griddle (cast-iron or non-stick) until drops of water spashed on it’s face sputter away immediately. Smear evenly with a thin layer of oil.
Take about ½ cup of batter in a rounded ladle. Pour into the center of the hot griddle, then, with a quick, concentric motion, spread the batter into a round as thinly as you can. Don’t worry if it leaves gaps. You can fill them in with drops of batter.
Pour a few drops of oil around the edges which will help crisp up the adai further.
When the underside turns golden-brown, flip the adai and cook the other side for about a minute.
Rasam and sambar are two of the most basic dishes cooked in every Tamilian kitchen. They are usually made at the same meal, in fact at almost every meal, and are a wonderful example of the resourceful creativity of the Indian housewife: when cooked, the thick lentils sit at the bottom of the pan while the flavor-infused water used to cook the lentils floats at the top. The lentils, when cooked with spices and veggies, become the sambar, while the lentil-flavored water, after being flavored with tamarind and tomatoes, turns into the tangy, spicy rasam.
Rasam was one of the first dishes I learned to cook. In fact, my rasam would often earn the praise of even the Tamil side of my family. I love it so much, I usually drink it all by itself, like a watery soup.
I usually make my own rasam powder, but you can also use store-bought for this recipe. I used lemon in this rasam instead of the more traditional tamarind for the tangy flavor, and added garlic to introduce a different kind of heat into the rasam. Although I call this a “screaming-hot” rasam, it is more by my fairly wimpy standards of spiciness. You can easily control the heat by using more or less rasam powder or garlic.