A Culinary love affair - Sai Kiran, Storyteller
A hot afternoon. As I was trying my best to hold back the sleep, I noticed that the speed of the ceiling fan, placed directly above our class desk, got slower and eventually came to rest. I immediately turned my sight to the switchboard only to see that the fan's switch was still in ON position. The fact then dawned on me that it was a power outage. I cursed. Some laughed. Manasa cracked a joke under her breath. A few others joined with the laughter. Shirley ma’am turned around, saw the laughter, and my face for some reason. Now, sometimes things happen to people for no apparent reason. She vented out her entire classroom worth of anger at my face and made me stand for the rest of the lecture. I remember I was teary-eyed and that the next hour was lunch. Still teary-eyed, I reluctantly opened the lunchbox to find ‘mor kuzhambu’ mixed with rice. The yellow coloured froth in the sides was a delight to see and some of it was smudged underneath the lid as well. I couldn’t resist the temptation and had a spoonful of it. The ground coconut and the beaten curd gives this dish a graceful consistency. The white pumpkin was cooked perfectly and the mustard seeds were beautifully tempered and sprinkled throughout the dish. As I was lost in the world of textures,
I turned around to see Manasa standing with her hand extended. It took me a while to realise that she was waiting for a hand shake. I politely obliged.
“What ma’am did was unfair,” she remarked. It was the start of a friendship. It was one of the most memorable lunches I had till date.
‘Mor kuzhambu’ is one of the few dishes that has a variant every 50 km in India. The textures vary from region to region. Punjab’s ‘kadhi pakora’ is slightly thicker than ‘mor kuzhambu’. Flavours vary too. Gujarat's ‘kadhi’ is on the sweeter end of the spectrum. The variations of the dish seem endless in South India ranging from ‘majige huli’ in Karnataka to ‘mor kuttan’ in Palakkad. While it’s not uncommon to pair ‘roti’ with ‘kadhi’, it’s almost a sin to pair it with ‘mor kuzhambu’.
‘Mor kuzhambu’ tastes great just as it is but the experience is different when paired with ‘paruppu usili’. ‘Paruppu usili’ or as I like to call it, ‘paruppusili’ (in a single breath), literally translates to dal crumble in Tamil. The same lentil crumble can be paired with any of the following vegetables – French beans, Cluster beans, Cabbage, Carrot, Ivy gourd. Traditionally, ‘paruppusili’ is made in a heavy-bottomed brass or cast-iron vessel called a ‘VaaNali’ (similar to a kadai), which aids in forming a beautiful crisp crust at the bottom. The soft, spicy, fragrant lentil crumble paired with steamed cluster beans marries perfectly with the tart ‘mor kuzhambu’. This duo is so popular that no tambrahm wedding or function feast is complete without these two dishes. The fact that there’s already enough dal in crumbled form, it is paired with ‘mor kozhambu’, instead of eating it with sambar, which would make it a dal overdose and probably difficult to digest. I, personally, like to fold in ‘paruppusili’ with piping hot rice, ghee and have it as ‘kaai saadham’, my favorite dish as a kid. It’s one of the few dishes that I missed after I moved out of my home. I didn’t realize how much effort it takes to get this dish right. Of course, when I visit home now, this is one dish that’s always on my demand list for either my mom or my perima/aunt.
I’d like to consider another remarkable South Indian ‘kuzhambu’ and compare it here. It’s ‘karuvepillai poondu kuzhambu’. While both the dishes are entirely different, in terms of cooking technique, taste, and consistency, they have one thing in common - the way the ingredients are used and the balance they bring to the dish. The dynamic between garlic cloves and curry leaves in this ‘kuzhambu’ is unparalleled. It is often made when someone is recovering from a cold. When the taste buds are dead and everything tastes insipid, this ‘kuzhambu’ is served to awaken the palate. This is one dish that I enjoy in sickness and health. This is also one of my go-to dishes in the colder months. While ‘mor kuzhambu’ tastes great when paired with ‘paruppusili’, this ‘kuzhambu’ is best enjoyed as it is. Steaming hot rice, a couple of ladles of ‘karuveppilai poondu kuzhambu’, and gingelly oil - simplicity at its best.
Both the aforementioned dishes seem to work because of the core underlying philosophy, I feel, which is ‘minimum ingredients, maximum flavour’. Economics is an integral part of the cooking process. For those of you who wish to learn the concept of budget, please observe how a meal is being prepared in your kitchen. It’s like an open introductory course to economics. Next time when we see our mom, let’s just thank her. It doesn’t matter why.
Happiness is Homemade ❤️
- Sai Kiran
Storyteller - Sweet Karam Coffee