Spice is a state of mind: cabbage thoran

Cabbage thoran

Cabbage thoran

Sometimes spice is just a state of mind. Plants don’t come with Dymo-printed labels that say ‘Spice use recommended’.

Now you might think I’m making an issue out of nothing. Obviously, plants that produce a strong appetizing smell can be used as spices, and others not, right? No mind tricks necessary.

But consider what happens during the process of blooming spices, otherwise known as tempering, or tadka. A sequence of spices are thrown into hot oil. They may be seeds — like cumin or black mustard, dry leaves like the bay, or even bits of bark — like cinnamon.

If the temperature is too low, nothing particular happens, while if the temperature is too high, the spice burns. But if the temperature is just right, two things happen. One, the outer surface of the spice browns. This browning, known as the Maillard reaction, is the perfect state of cooked food sought after by chefs, whether it is grill marks on meat or the browned crust of bread or cookies: Golden Brown and Delicious. Each spice produces its own browned flavor, which is reminiscent of its regular flavor, but sharpened and deepened.

The other thing that happens during blooming/tempering/tadka is that the oils inside the spice, those that carry the aromatic compounds, escape into the pool of oil in which they are cooking. As the oil slithers and smears all over the food, as it is wont to do, it carries the essential oils of the spice around with it too.

Tadka is such a powerful method that it has become a standard way to either begin or finish off most dishes in Indian cooking. But now, listen carefully, because this is the most important part. Once the key to unlock flavor known as tadka/tempering/blooming has been found, one can really excavate flavors from non-spices, from seeds that no one would particularly think of as a spice.

Don’t believe me? What would you say about split lentil beans used as spice? Well, in the south, two kinds of lentils, the urad dal and the channa dal are both used during tempering; they each create a characteristic roasty flavor.

Not impressed? How about rice? One of the unique things about the state of Kerala, which just happens to be the home of such stalwarts as pepper, ginger and cinnamon, is the use of raw rice as part of tempering, usually in coconut oil. Used in this way, bland old rice acquires a golden roasty flavor that permeates subtly throughout the food.

Thoran

i’m also having fun learning about one of Kerala’s signature dishes known as thoran. A simple and soothing preparation, it involves any vegetable cooked with some grated coconut, tempered simply with mustard seeds, curry leaves and possibly a couple other things. In my attempt, I left out the grated coconut, choosing instead to cook it in coconut oil to provide a similar sweetness.

This is the perfect kind of simple background where the use of raw rice in tempering can be shown off. So here we go — cabbage thoran.

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Tempering spices including rice

Tempering spices including rice

Coconut oil

Coconut oil

Urad dal in oil

Urad dal in oil

The rest of the spices

The rest of the spices

Cabbage in

Cabbage in

Cabbage cooking

Mixed with dry spices

Cabbage cooked

Cabbage cooked

Cabbage thoran with roti and dal

Cabbage thoran with roti and dal

Cabbage thoran

Ingredients:
  • Half a head of cabbage, shredded
  • 1 tablespoon coconut oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon asafetida
  • 2 teaspoons split and skinned urad dal
  • 1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
  • 2 teaspoons raw rice
  • 5-7 curry leaves
  • 3 small dry red chilies
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1/4 teaspoon red chili powder (optional)
Method:

Heat the coconut oil in a wide, thick-bottomed pan on medium heat. When completely melted, add the spices in the following order: first, the asafetida; wait for it to foam up, then the urad dal; wait for it to start turning reddish, then, the mustard seeds; wait for them to start popping, then the raw rice; wait for it to all turn opaque and start to toast, then the dry red chilies; wait for them to darken, then the curry leaves.

Once the leaves crisp up, throw in the cabbage and stir to combine with the oil. Add the salt, turmeric and red chili powder and mix it nicely with the cabbage until it is evenly covered.

Cover the pan, turn the heat to a simmer and let it cook this way, in its own steam, for about 10 minutes more.

Serve with white rice, or, as I did, with chapati / roti and another side.


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Coconut-yogurty thing from South India

Palladya with rice

Palladya with rice

The other day a friend — Rashmi by name — casually popped in a comment about a ¢#&!Ω# she makes at home, called palladya. Apparently it is similar to the kadhis of the north.

What?! Why have I never heard of this before? Me — a connoisseur of all kadhis everywhere, or so I thought? Why have you kept this secret from me all these years, Rashmi? I thought we were friends. We exchange stories about kids, husbands and various other things. And yet, you kept this from me? Sniff.

Anyway, now that the secret is out, I am glad to have been introduced to this concoction. It is a soupy thing that uses yogurt as a base just like the kadhis of the north, but instead of using chickpea flour for thickening, it uses ground coconut. Floaters are vegetables, a set similar to the ones in this kadhi from Sindh. Some typical ones are okra, white pumpkin/melon (this one), and other squashes. Ever the iconoclast, I used cauliflower; always trying to fit in at the same time, I used baby squashes (this one).

Palladya

This was my first time making it, you can see how it turned out. We had it with rice and it was yummy. Next time I will try to get a finer grind on the coconut by first grating it. And souring the yogurt by leaving it out all day before using it is a tip from Rashmi I didn’t have time to use, but I will next time.

Soaking channa dal, collecting coconut and spices for grinding

Soaking channa dal, collecting coconut and spices for grinding


The grind, should try to get a finer one next time

The grind, should try to get a finer one next time

Cauliflower

Cauliflower

Frozen tinda (apple gourd)

Frozen tinda (apple gourd)

Cuppa yogurt

Cuppa yogurt

Stovetop

Stovetop

Tempering

Tempering

Palladya: kadhi from South India

Ingredients
  • 3 tablespoons channa dal, soaked for half hour in hot water
  • Half a coconut, grated, or 1 cup frozen
  • 3 or more fresh green chilies
  • 1 inch piece of ginger
  • 1 cup yogurt or buttermilk, soured
  • 1 cup cauliflower florets
  • 1 cup summer squash cubed (I used apple gourd/tinda)
  • 1 teaspoon mustard seeds
  • 6 or so curry leaves
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1-2 tablespoons sesame oil (substitute with any oil)
Method

Grind the drained channa dal, coconut, chilies and ginger together. You will need to add some water in order to get a fine grind, I ended up adding about half a cup. Do try to grate your coconut before throwing into the blender, that way you are more assured of getting it to turn into a smooth paste.

Put the veggies in a pot combined with the coconut paste, salt and some water. Bring to a boil, covered. In about 20 minutes of cooking at a simmer, covered, the vegetables will be more or less cooked. Poke with a knife to make sure.

If so, whip up the yogurt and add it to the pot. Stir, this only needs to heat through. Now the tempering. Heat the oil in a small, thick-bottomed pan. Throw in the mustard seeds when it shimmers; wait for it to pop. When they pop, throw in the curry leaves. When they look shriveled, turn off, pour the oil and spices into the palladya, and stir.

Is it a chutney? Is it rice? It’s both – cilantro rice

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I am very proud of my husband. He went from being a cilantro-hater to a cilantro-tolerator (only if it is minced fine), from there to a wary cilantro-liker (if used in the right dishes), to a must-have-cilantro-flag-waver (in some dishes), to an unabashed cilantro-promoter. The other day he informed me that someone had brought a dish of cilantro-rice to a work potluck. He thought it tasted very nicely savory and wanted me to try making it at home.

This is what marrying an Indian will do to you. Go marry an Indian, all of you — there certainly are enough of us around.

I know he will insist that I put in a disclaimer — that he still can’t stand cilantro that is un-minced and placed right on top of food in all its stemmy and leafy glory. So there you have it, disclaimer placed.

I had never heard of cilantro rice before. Given that I love cilantro and make chutneys with it all the time (here is one and here is another), and also that I’m constantly looking for ways to dress up rice, this is surprising. Cilantro rice marries these two interests. Now that the match has been made, this will be a staple in my kitchen.

Cilantro rice

There are various ways to do this but I basically made a chutney out of the cilantro and cooked it then mixed in rice. You could simply mince the cilantro with a knife or not cook it.

Ingredients
  • 3/4 cup rice
  • Half a bunch cilantro
  • An inch piece of ginger
  • 1 – 4 green serrano chilies
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped onion (I used a shallot)
  • For tempering:
    • 1 tablespoon udad dal
    • 1 teaspoon mustard seeds
    • 6 or so curry leaves
  • 1/4 cup cashew
  • 2 tablespoons sesame oil
  • 1 teaspoon salt
Method

Cook the rice the normal way, but with somewhat less water than usual, to keep the grains from getting too mushy. Grind the cilantro, the chili and the ginger together using as little water as you can get away with — this basically means you are making a chutney. Finely chop the onion.

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Heat the oil in a wide thick-bottomed pan on medium high. Throw the tempering items in in the following order: first, the udad dal, when it reddens the mustard seeds, when they pop the curry leaves. Stand back if you value your peace. Wait for the leaves to sizzle and be done.

Now in goes the onion. They will start to get translucent and start to redden at the edges.

Clear a little space to make a hot spot on the pan and put in the cashews. As they roast they will take on a few dark spots. This will take a few minutes; now it is time to put in the chutney that you ground before. Throw in the salt, cook the paste down for a few minutes.

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The rice goes in next. Break up the clumps with your fingers if need be. Stir to coat all the grains with the chutney. Cover and cook for a few minutes on low.

Here is the result — fiddlehead ferns on one side, squash raita on the other. They will come later.

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Beasties in my batter

My mother always said that South Indians are much smarter than the rest of us simpletons because they eat a lot of urad dal. This is a bean I have mentioned before. It is alternatively called black gram or Vigna Mungo; this is what it looks like:

Vigna mungo, black gram, urad dal: whole on the left, split and dehusked on the right.

Vigna mungo, black gram, urad dal: whole on the top, split and dehusked on the bottom.

It is closely related to the more well-known moong dal (mung bean), they are both in the Vigna genus, which means they are about as closely related as…say…the polar bear and the grizzly bear to each other. Urad dal, though, has a blacker husk, and white (not yellow) underneath.

Even though this bean is eaten as a dal all over India, its most interesting use is in the fermented cakes and crepes of South India — idlis and dosas. In order to ferment it, the lentil is first soaked and ground thoroughly, and mixed with rice batter.

Fermentation of the Lactic Acid type

Let’s take a little digression into what fermentation does to the batter.

Fermentation

Fermentation

  • The mixture is kept warm, and you know what happens when you leave something out of the fridge — a whole jungle gets started in it.
Jungle of beasties

Jungle

  • Creatures like lactic acid bacteria, yeast, and bacteria that like to breathe air. They do battle, and one-by-one, are felled. The air-breathing bacteria (we know them as ‘contaminants’) are killed off right away, while soaking. The yeast also goes nowhere (unless you cheat by adding commercial yeast, which basically sends reinforcements to the yeast faction). The salt kills off many other weaklings.
  • What wins out is a certain lactic acid bacteria called Leuconostoc mesenteroides; and it brings a lactic acid bacterium friend, called Streptococcus faecalis.
Leuconostoc mesenteroides

Leuconostoc mesenteroides

  • These guys get busy stuffing their faces with your batter. They mostly gorge on the sugars and starch.
  • You know what happens when creatures eat — they produce stuff. All right, let’s get graphic — they excrete. One thing they produce is lactic acid, which is responsible for the pleasantly sour taste of idlis and dosas. Another thing they do is pass gas — in this case, it is carbon dioxide. This gas — CO2 — which is also responsible for the bubbles in bread, soda and beer — makes the batter rise and become fluffy. The cool kids call this ‘leavening’.
CO2 bubbles

CO2 bubbles

  • They also somehow increase the amount of vitamin B1, B2 and B3 in the batter.
  • Even though beans and dals of all types are really good for you, they also come with a bit of a sting in the tail — they have some ‘anti-nutritional’ properties which prevent your body from absorbing the goodness. Well, fermentation reduces those bad things.
  • One of the anti-nutritional properties of beans are those that cause you to…you know…flatulate. So the beasties in your batter are helping you from doing that too much, which is a good thing.

So now I’m thinking that my mother was wrong…it is not just urad dal that makes you smarter; it is the little beasties that ferment it.

Idli / dosa batter

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup urad bean, whole, skin on (I used whole grain to add that extra bit of nutrition to it).
  • 2 cups uncooked white rice (I used basmati but a short or medium grain white rice would work as well or better).
  • (in general a 1:2 ratio or dal to rice works well; you can experiment with 1:3, but don’t alter it more.)
  • 2 teaspoons salt (lactic acid bacteria finds salt very congenial, unlike yeast).

Method:

Rinse the dal and rice once in plain water and drain. Now leave them to soak in very generous quantities of filtered, room temperature water, separately. You must leave them for at least six hours; but I let them soak for more than twelve.

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At the end of this time, the rice will have almost doubled, while the beans will have almost tripled. The black gram beans will have become lighter into a green, as seen below:

Black gram (urad dal), soaked

Black gram (urad dal), soaked

Now it is time to grind them separately. I used my trusty blender. This is not the ideal choice, because there is a chance the blades get overheated and kill the beasties. The ideal would be a stone grinder (also known as a wet grinder). Maybe someday I will make the big bucks and spring for one of those. In the meantime, I slum it with my blender (that I got for free from American Express). I have never had a problem.

Let’s do the rice first. I drained it, and added a cup of fresh filtered water along with it. Blend it for about 4 minutes, with breaks. The end result will be a thick white liquid. When you squeeze some between your fingers, you should feel tiny grit, which is the ground up rice. You are not trying to get this to be perfectly smooth. Tiny grit is what you are looking for. Empty it out into a very large bowl, that will be used for rising.

Next let’s do the drained dal. This time you will need to add a cup and a quarter of water to the blender. Blend for about 4 minutes, with breaks. The batter this time will be fluffier and not as watery. When you feel it with your fingers, it should feel smooth, not gritty.

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Black gram (urad dal) batter mixing with rice batter

Pour the dal batter in along with the rice batter. Add 2 teaspoons salt. Mix it with your hands; this is one of those instructions that every South Indian mother imparts to her children; as far as I am aware, no scientist has tested why this is so. The beasties are already on the bean, so it isn’t that. Could it be that this step imparts warmth? In any case, using your clean (but not sanitized) hand, gently stir the batter to combine. Leave it covered in a corner in your kitchen.

Now. I left it at room temperature in San Francisco, but the ideal is room temperature in South India, which would be in the nineties Fahrenheit. So if you like, you can leave it in the oven to rise, with either the oven light on to create warmth, or, after turning on the oven to about a 110 F and turning off. In a warm oven with the light on, this will take 12 hours.

Room temperature of about 70 F worked fine for me, but it did take longer.

In about 12 hours I raised the lid to take a whiff — oof! Wet socks, toe jam, belly button cheese…not sure what else it reminded me of. Clearly, my batter had developed a yeast infection. Be not squeamish, ye of little faith! Put the lid down and keep going.

Now I am not sure if this is typical, but it sure smelled like the batter went through a yeast infection phase on its way to a proper lactic acid bacterial infection. It could be that because I do so much bread in my kitchen (including sourdough) that the little yeasties are floating about just dying to get their naughty little hands into stuff.

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Risen idli/dosa batter

Risen idli/dosa batter

In any case, within about 24 hours of rising, I certainly smelled some of that lactic acid goodness — it smelled sour. It had risen to almost double the original size. The batter was ready.

Idli cakes

Ingredients:

  • 3 cups idli batter from above (this will make one dozen)
  • Idli steamer which usually comes with 12 perforated cups
  • some oil

Method:

Rub a bit of oil on each of the idli trays. Pour about a quarter cup of batter on each. Now place it in a pot with water to about a couple inches already at a boil; cover, turn it down to a simmer, and steam the cakes for about 12 minutes with the lid on.

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Idlis are great with any manner of chutney on the side, or sambhar (dal made out of pigeon peas and its characteristic spice blend).

Dosa crepes

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup batter (this will make about 4 decent sized crepes)
  • 4 teaspoons oil

Method:

Thin out the batter with about a third to half again as much water. So if you start with a cup of water, use between a third of a cup to half a cup extra water. Basically, the batter should flow easily, much like crepe batter.

Heat a wide nonstick pan on medium high heat. Spread about a teaspoon of oil around. Now, we pour about a third of a cup of thin batter and spread it.

Spreading dosa batter into a nice thin layer is an art form. Here is what you need to know.

  • You don’t have to have a thin layer. But the thinner you spread it, the more crisp. Until you achieve that pinnacle of thinness, crispiness and paperiness — paper dosa.
  • If you pour batter on to a hot pan, it will immediately congeal and instead of spreading, you will get a rubbery mass. So the pan needs to be hot while cooking, but cool while pouring on. Traditionally people have used the onion trick — rub half a cut onion on the pan to cool it down. I used the French way of lifting it off the flame as I pour the batter on.
  • To spread it, people have traditionally used a spiral motion — take a flat ladle and spread the batter around with its bowl in a spiral fashion. Once again, I used the French method of tipping the pan this way and that to spread it.

In some places, the batter will be spread so thin that it is lacy.

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Cover with a lid and cook on high heat for about three minutes. Or four. At this point, the underside will definitely look brown and crisp. If you try to lift it off, the crepe will easily peel off; even the thin lacy parts. You can cook it on the other side if you like but it is not strictly necessary.

Lacy, crisp edges of dosa after I took a bite

Lacy, crisp edges of dosa after I took a bite

Dosa can be eaten with similar accompaniments as idli; chutneys, sambhar; or really any manner of vegetable or meat viand. The South Indian restaurant standard is to make a wrap with a potato preparation inside.

Enjoy, and thank you beasties!