I’m convinced that every little province and village in India has their own variation on the common theme of a gravy made with chickpea flour, with their own specific set of spices, and their own means of adding sourness, sweetness, heat, and random floating stuff. Sindhis do as well. It would be more accurate to say that each region of Sindh had their own version, and my family’s version is more-or-less shared with other Hyderabadi Amils.
First things first. Chickpea flour, or besan, is the fine flour ground from channa dal. It is one of the most versatile ingredients I know of — it can be mixed into rotis, used like eggs to make omelets, thicken stews, deep-fried to make pakoras, and finally, cooked with liquid to make a thick gravy with a deep musky fragrance that can be poured over rice. That, my friends, in all its endless variations, is a kadhi.
A kadhi’s base is besan. There may be as little as one tablespoon for four cups of liquid, or as much as half a cup. There is a liquid — it is, after all, a gravy — which may be yogurt, buttermilk, water, or pureed tomatoes. The besan may be roasted in oil, or not. The spices often used are cumin seeds, asafetida, fenugreek; but any or all may be omitted or others added. There is usually a source of sourness. Sometimes the yogurt or pureed tomatoes suffice, sometimes tamarind is added. The musky flavor of besan goes well with sweet, so a small amount of jaggery is usually added. Sugar is fine too.
On to the main business: Sindhi kadhi.
Step 1: Mise en place and tempering
Collect your spices. Have your besan at hand with a half cup measure. Have your wooden spoon by your side. Put in about a quarter cup of oil in a thick-bottomed pot on medium high. If you have a pressure cooker, use that. When the oil shimmers, put in a sprinkling of asafetida and a half a teaspoon of red chili powder. Then, half a tablespoon of cumin seeds, wait ten seconds, and then half a tablespoon of fenugreek seeds. If you have curry leaves, put in about six of them. Minced ginger — half an inch piece — goes in next. If you want additional heat sliced serrano chilies can go in too. Stir for a minute. The oil has been seasoned.
Step 2: Roasting the besan.
I use about half a cup of besan. I like the stuff. Lower the heat to medium-low. Put the besan into the oil and stir vigorously. It should look like the picture above — all the besan should be dissolved into the oil — if there is too little oil, you will have a hard time moistening all of the besan. In that case, add a few spoons more of oil. Gently sizzling, the besan will roast; you might notice a wonderful aroma of roastiness arising. Keep stirring. Keep this going for about seven minutes. It might darken a shade or two, but be careful not to burn it.
Step 3: water
I use four cups of hot water, and stir vigorously to make sure there are no lumps. Sometimes I resort to a whisk. You can pour in the water all at once, or if you want to make a ritual out of it, do it bit by bit. I doubt it matters. Bring it to a boil, and keep it on a simmer for about 10 minutes. The smell of cooked besan will arise, it is heavenly. And, in about ten minutes, the gravy will thicken, and look like this:
Step 4: Salty, sour and sweet.
Add your salt to taste, add a half teaspoon of tamarind paste, and a half inch piece of jaggery if you have it, otherwise a teaspoon of sugar.
Step 5: Floating stuff — the vegetables.
Now each kadhi needs some kind of floating stuff that cooks with the gravy, and equally lends and borrows flavor. Many, many versions of kadhi use dumplings made out of — well, more besan. The Sindhi version chooses the healthier route of vegetables, known as vakhar. This is a generic term for all vegetables that are chosen to be the free floating blocks in one’s kadhi.
What to use? Of course, this is up to one’s taste and what one has in the pantry. But some commonly used vegetables are: cauliflower; french beans; okra; Indian drumstick (pods of Moringa oleifera); guar or cluster bean pods; young potatoes; tinda which is a type of gourd, easily substituted with zucchini; eggplant. Basically anything chunky and not too starchy can be used.
The key thing is that they must all be cubed into rather large cubes to avoid them melting into the sauce. Two-inch cubes is what one is aiming for. Cauliflowers in particular must be kept rather large because they turn mushy so easily.
Anyway, a plateful of vegetables, in they go. Salt the vegetables separately in order to get your salt estimate correct. If you have a pressure cooker, cover, bring to a whistle, and pressure cook for exactly 5 minutes 30 seconds — I’m serious, that is the number you want. If you don’t, simply bring to a boil and simmer, half covered, for twenty minutes, and keep checking for done-ness of the vegetables. Remember — the besan, though it certainly needs its rawness cooked out of — has already been cooked enough. The rest is about the vakhar.
This is what they look like when they have first been put in:
And after going through the pressure cooker, they will alter into this:
Subtly different, but infinitely luscious. Enjoy with a plateful of long-grained white rice. Pour so much gravy onto the rice that you feel the need to use a spoon rather than a fork. Then you know you have hit the sweet spot.