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!
- FOR THE VADAI:
- 1 cup chana dal (bengal gram dal)
- ¼ cup brown rice flour
- 2 red chillies
- 1 tsp fennel seeds
- 1 tsp cumin seeds
- ¼ tsp turmeric
- Salt to taste
- Oil for frying
- 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
- ½ tsp chilli powder, like cayenne
- ¼ 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
- TO MAKE THE VADAI:
- 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.
- TO MAKE THE CURRY:
- 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.
- Serve hot.