This South Indian Vegetable Curry from the spice coast of Kerala in India is quite authentic, but it’s also an easy recipe to put together for a quick weeknight meal. Mixed vegetables are cooked to tenderness and drowned in a sauce of coconut milk and a few simple spices. A vegan, gluten-free, soy-free and nut-free recipe.
If you’ve never eaten an Avial, as this South Indian vegetable curry is known in Kerala, the land it originates from, get ready for a delicious treat.
An Avial is a medley of colorful vegetables drowning in a coconut sauce and flavored, among other ingredients, with coconut oil. That’s right — the oil here is not just a cooking medium, but it actually acts as a key flavoring ingredient. Which is not really surprising because Kerala is a coastal state and coconut grows abundantly here, finding its way into almost all of the recipes that are local to this region.
I am rather persnickety about where I add coconut or coconut oil. That’s because I love coconut with a passion– its unique flavor make it invaluable in recipes like this South Indian Vegetable Curry. But that flavor can also drown out other essential flavors in recipes where it’s not meant to be added. A biryani, for instance, would be weird when made with coconut oil. So would curries like Chana Masala or other recipes from the north of India, where the coconut is an unfamiliar intruder, and for good reason.
My South Indian Vegetable Curry does veer from the traditional in one aspect, though– instead of grinding up fresh coconut, as a cook from Kerala would do, I use coconut milk.
There are two reasons for this: one is that I like the sauciness that the coconut milk adds. Traditional avial is rather thick but I like a little sauce for my rice, and so does Desi.
The other reason is that coconut milk just makes this recipe easier and quicker than if you had to start with fresh coconut and go through all the steps of cracking it open, prising out the flesh, and then grinding it up. Coconut milk gives you all the flavor without all the work, so why bother? (I prefer not to use the prepackaged frozen shredded coconut in this recipe because it simply doesn’t have the juiciness of fresh coconut so key to this recipe).
How to make this easy and tasty South Indian Vegetable Curry:
- Start with your favorite veggies. Root veggies like carrots, sweet potatoes and potatoes are awesome. In Kerala, raw plantains, which also grow abundantly there, would very likely go into this dish. You can also use green beans and even green peas.
- Cut your veggies evenly, so they cook at the same time. For the best results, cut your veggies in chunky slivers about 1 1/2 inches long.
- Use the best quality coconut milk you can find. The coconut flavor, imparted by the coconut milk and the coconut oil, are really key here.
- Use coconut oil. There’s really no compromise or substitution here, it’s an essential ingredient.
- The curry leaves add a great flavor punch, so try and find them. If you absolutely can’t, saute some cilantro leaves in the hot oil and add. It won’t be the same, but it’ll be good.
- The vegan yogurt is optional, but try and use it because it really deepens the flavors here. You can sub lime juice if you don’t have any, but yogurt is definitely preferred.
- Not all avial recipes include ginger, but I love it here. Ginger and coconut milk are great flavors together, and the ginger tastes amazing in this sauce.
There you have it, a primer on making an amazing avial.
Here’s your ingredient list:
- Fresh veggies. I used sweet potatoes, potatoes, a purple and a white carrot and green beans. Frozen is fine for green beans or peas, if you use them.
- Coconut milk
- Coconut oil
- Cumin seeds
- Mustard seeds
- Green chili peppers, like jalapeno
- Curry leaves
- Cilantro for garnishing
- Vegan yogurt (optional. Can use lime instead)
What to serve with this South Indian Vegetable Curry:
Rice. Rice. And more rice. Rice is the grain of choice in Kerala and white rice tastes best with this curry. Choose a long-grain, fragrant rice like Basmati for the best flavor. You can use quinoa or brown rice, but white rice is, frankly, way better here.
You don’t need much else on the side– perhaps poppadum and Indian pickle, but they’re strictly optional. When you have a plate of rice and avial in front of you, you really don’t need to gild the lily.
Try these recipes next:
- 4-5 cups mixed vegetables, cut into chunky slivers about 1 1/2 inches long (I used a sweet potato, two large gold potatoes, two carrots, and a cup of green beans)
- 1/2 tsp turmeric
- 1 13.5 oz can coconut milk (not the light kind)
- 1 tsp cumin seeds
- 1 tsp bengal gram dal (can sub with 1 tsp raw rice)
- 2 green chili peppers like jalapeno (deseed and use more or less depending on how hot the pepper is)
- 1-2 tbsp coconut oil (more oil means more flavor)
- 2 sprigs (about 25-30) curry leaves
- 1 tsp black or brown mustard seeds
- 1-inch knob ginger (cut into thin slivers)
- 1/4 cup vegan yogurt (I used my cultured cashew yogurt-- link in notes below-- but use any kind. For best results, it should be tangy)
- Salt to taste
- Coriander and fresh coconut, if you have some, for garnish
Place all the cut veggies into a large pot with 1 cup of water and turmeric.
Place the coconut milk in the blender with the cumin, green chili peppers, and bengal gram dal or rice. Blend into a paste. Set aside.
When the veggies are cooked -- it should take no more than 15-20 minutes -- add the coconut paste to the veggies and stir well to mix. Let the curry come to a gentle boil over medium-low heat.
Turn off the heat and add the yogurt or lime juice. Stir to mix but be careful not to mash up the veggies because they'll be very tender at this stage.
Heat the coconut oil. Add mustard seeds and when they sputter, add the curry leaves and the ginger. Saute for a minute or two until the fragrance permeates the house.
Pour the tempering over the avial and stir to mix. Garnish, if you wish, with coriander and some fresh coconut.
Serve hot with rice.