Family Recipes for South India
By Maya Kaimal Macmillan
Abbeville Press Copyright © 2000 Maya Kaimal Macmillan
All rights reserved.
Excerpt from: Curried Favors:
If my South Indian father hadn’t found himself in a Kansas wheat field thirty years ago, this book would never have been written. Because he was doing atmospheric research on the American prairie, miles from any restaurants, he tried his hand at cooking. Being a scientist gave my father an advantage in cooking--he liked to experiment, and he wrote everything down so he could duplicate his results. Inspired by the flavors of his youth, he started with South Indian standards like sambar, a spicy lentil and vegetable stew; green bean thoren (green beans with coconut and mustard seeds); and Mysore pak, a shortbread-type sweet made with ghee. Dinners in my house would alternate between my American mothers forays into Julia Child and my fathers latest experiments with Indian cooking. My sister and brother and I relished it all, and we were reminded of how good we had it when our school friends visited and, catching a whiff of lamb curry, asked if they could stay for dinner. Just as his trips to the Midwest tapered off, my father was approached by the owner of a cookware store in Boulder, Colorado, to see if hed teach a course on Indian cooking. He taught the popular class for four years and continued refining more North and South Indian dishes all the while. As my interest in cooking grew, I frequently found myself in the kitchen at his elbow—watching, learning, smelling, and tasting. While attending Pomona College in southern California, I formed a cultural club so I could make Indian food for my friends, and when I began working at a New York magazine I catered Indian dinners on deadline nights.
I was often struck by the disparity between the South Indian cooking I grew up with and the North Indian food served in restaurants. The more I cooked, the more I understood about different regional styles, and the more motivated I became to learn about South Indian food. Every few years our family would travel to Kerala, the state in South India where my father grew up. On these trips I would plant myself in my aunts kitchen in her Kottayam home and take careful notes so I could try to reproduce those elusive flavors back in the U.S.
Kerala is an interesting and unique culinary pocket, its cuisine shaped by climate, geography, and religion. This tropical stretch of land extends along the Malabar Coast, where southwestern India meets the Arabian Sea. In the summer months the monsoon transforms it into a virtual rain forest. Coconut, fish, and shellfish are abundant there, and are combined in numerous curries including fish molee (fish with coconut milk and vinegar) and shrimp thiyal (shrimp in a toasted coconut sauce). Fragrant curry leaves (unrelated to curry powder) and mustard seeds, both of which grow in the region, distinctively season South Indian vegetable curries and dhals (split legumes). An extensive network of waterways outlines brilliant green rice paddies, rice being the staple starch in the diet.
In contrast, northern India, with its dry plains and cool temperatures, is ideal for growing wheat. The hard durum variety makes excellent chappathi (flat bread cooked on an iron skillet) and puri (deep-fried flat bread); consequently, breads make up the primary starch of that region. Milk products, including cream, ghee (clarified butter), and paneer (homemade cheese) all feature more prominently in the cooking of the north than that of the south.
While many of the same spices are used in both regions, they are manipulated differently in each. In the north they dry-roast whole spices before grinding them and adding them to their cooking; in the south they blend whole and powdered spices into a wet paste. To round out the flavor of a finished curry, North Indian cooks add a pinch of garam masala, a spice blend usually made with black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom. In the south a curry is finished off with a seasoning of curry leaves, mustard seeds, and dried red pepper, sizzled together in coconut oil.
The southern tip of India was geographically isolated from the Mughal influence that took hold of the north in the Middle Ages. The Mughals were Central Asian invaders who filtered into India, establishing a dynastic rule that lasted from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century. They brought with them a taste for lamb, nuts, and dried fruits, and the forerunners of such contemporary North Indian staples as tandoori chicken and pullao. As Muslims, the Mughals avoided pork but ate other types of meat.
Prior to the arrival of the Mughals, Indian food attitudes in the north and the south were shaped by a Hindu belief that eating and spiritual advancement are part of the same cosmic cycle. Vegetarianism, and specifically avoiding beef, are aspects of this philosophy. The cow and bull have always had an auspicious place in the Hindu religion because of their close associations with the gods Krishna and Shiva, and an important role in the economy as a source of milk and labor. And while Hindus would occasionally eat chicken, fish, goat, or lamb, Buddhists and Jains, on the other hand, followed a strict vegetarian lifestyle, which was relatively easy to do given India’s natural abundance of vegetables, grains, and legumes.
Although the southern cuisine remained largely untouched by the Mughal influence, Kerala’s wealth of black pepper, cinnamon, ginger, and turmeric turned the ports of Cochin and Calicut into magnets for the worldwide spice trade, bringing the region in contact with the Phoenicians, Romans, and Arabs throughout antiquity; Marco Polo in 1294; the Portuguese, including explorer Vasco da Gama, in 1498; and the Dutch and British beginning in the seventeenth century.
As each of these groups angled for a piece of the spice trade, they brought with them new foods that worked their way into the cuisine. Saffron, fennel, and fenugreek came originally from the Mediterranean, while New World tomatoes, potatoes, and cashews came to India by way of the Portuguese. The ingredient with the most dramatic impact on Indian cooking was the chili pepper, first discovered by Columbus in the Caribbean, then brought to India by Portuguese traders. Until that point, Indian cooks relied on black pepper for pungency. Once the more complex-tasting chili arrived, it quickly replaced black pepper as the primary hot ingredient of the cuisine.
Since antiquity, the predominantly Hindu state of Kerala has been home to a thriving Christian population, some of whom St. Thomas the Apostle is believed to have converted in A.D. 52, some of whom arrived in the fourth century after fleeing persecution in Syria. This Syrian Christian community, which distinguishes itself by wearing only white, made a significant contribution to Kerala’s cuisine, adding to the local fare meat dishes such as lamb stew and piralen (stir-fried meat marinated in vinegar and spices). The Christians eat all types of meat, including beef and pork. Today approximately 20 percent of Kerala’s population is Christian, 60 percent is Hindu, and 20 percent is Muslim, and it is one of two states in India where slaughtering beef is legal (West Bengal is the other).
Among Kerala’s Hindu population is a large ancient subgroup called the Nayars (Nairs), to which my father belongs. Unlike the Namboodiris (Kerala’s strictly vegetarian priest class), the Nayars eat chicken, fish, and lamb, although they never serve meat at wedding feasts. Certain dishes like aviyal (mixed vegetables cooked with coconut and tamarind) and thoren (shredded vegetables with grated coconut) are strongly associated with Nayar cooking.
The Muslim population in Karala, called Moplas, descends from the Arab spice traders who frequented the Malabar Coast. The Muslims introduced elements of their own cooking to the south, with dishes like biriyani, an elaborate combination of rice and meat, and kabab (grilled marinated meat).
The cooking of Kerala has much in common with that of its neighboring South Indian states: Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh. Sharing similar climates, all four states incorporate coconut milk, tamarind, curry leaves, and mustard seeds into their dishes. The cooking in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka tends to be vegetarian, and dosa (fermented rice pancakes) and sambar are consumed in abundance. Andhra Pradesh’s food is Muslim influenced, and renowned as the hottest food in India. Quintessential Kerala dishes, such as appam (rice and coconut pancakes), stew (coconut milk curries), and kichadi (chopped vegetables in a coconut and yogurt sauce), rely on the ever-present coconut. Nevertheless, few people know about the cuisine of these southern states because a majority of the Indian restaurants outside of India serve Mughal-style, North Indian food, since that is widely considered the most refined cooking in India.
If you are lucky enough to have a South Indian restaurant nearby, there’s a good chance its a vegetarian one. South Indian vegetarian restaurants have been successful in some urban areas, and it seems restaurant owners are reluctant to tamper with this formula. Furthermore, there is a perception among Indian restaurateurs that many of the common South Indian dishes like stews and thorens are rustic, homey foods that would not appeal to non-Indians. As a result, it is very difficult to find typical Kerala-style fish and meat curries outside of India. This book helps to fill that gap and at the same time provides some of the perennial North Indian favorites, like Rogan Josh (page 138), Spinach Paneer (page 81), and Eggplant Bhurta (page 96), that are enjoyed in North and South India alike. Taken together, these recipes give a sense of the wide array of flavors that make up Indian cuisine.
Tips on Finding Ingredients
A nice surprise is that most of the ingredients you’ll need are sold in supermarkets. If not, they are available from local Indian, East Asian, or even Hispanic markets, or health food stores (see Notes on Ingredients, pages 17-24). For those not near international grocery stores, I’ve listed some mail-order sources in the back of this book (page 176).
You won’t find references to commercial curry powder in any of these recipes. The terms "curry" and "curry powder" have become so generic that many people only have the vaguest sense of their meaning. "Curry powder" is not a single spice, and "curry" does not define a particular dish. A better definition of curry is a preparation of meat, fish, vegetables, eggs, or even fruit, cooked with a mixture of aromatic spices; it can be wet or dry, spicy or mild. Premixed, packaged "curry powder" doesn’t allow for variety. If you want your dishes to be vibrant and distinctive tasting, blend your own spices for each recipe.
There are many possible origins for the word "curry": it could be from the Tamil (a South Indian language) word kari, meaning "sauce," or from kari leaves (or curry leaves, as I call them here) used in cooking in the south, or even from the wok-shaped vessel called a kadhai. These theories aside, we do know that the British took to using it in the eighteenth century as a general term for all the spicy Indian dishes they encountered, thus bringing it into common use.
If you keep some basic ingredients on hand—and you may already have them—it will take very little effort to use this book. You will need coriander, cumin, black pepper, red pepper (cayenne), turmeric, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, mustard seeds (preferably brown), fennel seeds, and dried red chilies, all of which should be kept in airtight containers to preserve their flavors; anything more than two years old should be replaced. Some ingredients that may not be on your shelf are fresh green chilies, coconut milk, dried grated unsweetened coconut, curry leaves, and tamarind. Cooking with these ingredients will bring you much closer to replicating authentic flavors, so try to obtain them if possible. In some cases a substitution is suggested if the first choice is hard to find; in other cases exotic ingredients, like asafetida, are often listed as optional. In general, the more closely you follow the recipe, the more satisfying your results will be… (Continues...)
Excerpted from Curried Favors by Maya Kaimal Macmillan. Copyright © 2000 Maya Kaimal Macmillan. Excerpted by permission of Abbeville Press.
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