As a young girl, I was always curious about the goings-on in the kitchen. Hovering around my dear aunt, the then head chef in my grand dad’s kitchen was one of my favorite pastimes. Over the years, whether it was for my keen interest or my unsolicited opinions, somewhat naturally, I had earned a say in vital decisions such as the daily menu. Vegetables would be brought fresh for the next day, the evening before, in a green tarpaulin bag. Plastic had no place then. And in the morning, before leaving for school, I would dash to the kitchen to see what’s cooking for lunch. Whenever it was green beans, there were only two ways I would love them, either in a simple stir fry with freshly grated coconut or an elaborately prepared gravy in the form of this lip smacking traditional South Indian dish. This was the recipe I wanted to learn to make first, whenever I would start cooking on my own.
Analogous to a mixed vegetable Korma in texture, Kootu is a vegetable stew like curry with a thick coconut-lentil-masala based gravy, its consistency falling somewhere midway between a dry vegetable side and sambar. Puzhi (pronounced poo-lee with the tongue twisting backwards on the ‘L’ sound) meaning tamarind in tamil is the characteristic ingredient in this dish coupled with black peppercorns. Kootu can also be called a cousin of Kozhambu, as the two have both cooking technique and ingredients in common.
A typical tell-tale trio of Bengal gram, Black gram and Coriander seeds form the basic foundation of many a South Indian gravy based recipes including this one. Spices are carefully roasted and masala is always freshly ground to be consumed the same day. Curry leaves are a must here, being a signature of Tamil cooking, appearing one way or another, either roasted and ground or in the tempering.
Kootu is usually an integral part of all feasts as well as a mainstay item on the Iyengar wedding menu. Heaven seems just a few feet away when gobbling a morsel of ghee laden hot steaming rice hand mixed with Puzhi Kootu with a crunchy side of Appalam (papad), polished off by licking both sides of the palm without an ounce of shame or hesitation!
A meal of Kootu with rice and papad can feel a little on the heavy side and for that reason, it is usually prepared only during the warmer months and typically during daytime, for proper digestion. Black peppercorns and hing are added to neutralize the heaviness of the lentils in the roasted ingredients. Curry leaf and cinnamon are flavor enhancers.
I make this dish once in a blue moon, when I am craving for a traditional meal. My most favorite part of making this dish is definitely roasting the spices, they fill my kitchen with an enchanting aroma and my heart with immense satisfaction. Chewing on a lone gravy soaked fried peanut in the middle of a morsel to me, is undeniably the best part of savoring Kootu.
Now, which South Indian curry or gravy do you like?
- 1 medium carrot washed, peeled and small diced
- a big handful of beans washed, strings removed and fine chopped
- 1/2 cup fresh green chana or green chickpeas
- 1/4 cup toor dal/pigeon peas
- 1/4 tsp turmeric
- half a small lime sized tamarind seeds removed
- 2 tbsp coriander seeds / dhania
- 2 tbsp split bengal gram chana dal
- 2 tbsp split black gram / urad dal
- 8 whole dried red chillies byadagi chillies
- 1 tsp black peppercorns
- 5-6 curry leaves washed and towel dried
- 1/2 ″ piece of cinnamon bark / chakke
- a big pinch of hing/asafoetida
- 1/2 cup freshly grated coconut
- a few drops of ghee for roasting pepper
- 1/4 tsp oil for roasting
- water for grinding
- 2-3 tsp peanut oil
- 2 tbsp peanuts
- 1 tsp bengal gram / urad dal
Wash Toor dal well until water runs clear. Wash and soak tamarind in warm water for 10-15 mins.
Pressure cook toor dal with turmeric for 3-4 whistles or until well cooked. Meanwhile, in a medium-sized heavy bottomed pot, cook covered chopped beans, diced carrots and green chana in just enough water, until soft but not mushy. Season with salt and keep aside. When the cooker has cooled, whisk turmeric into the cooked dal, stir to mash well and pour into the pot with cooked veggies.
Alternatively, to cook lentils in open pot method, bring water to a boil in a medium-sized pot over high heat. Reduce heat to medium, add the washed toor dal or pigeon peas and cook semi covered, and simmer until lentils are soft, about 30 minutes. Add more warm water if needed to keep them from drying out.
Dry roast While the veggies and dal cook, place a kadai or medium skillet over medium heat for dry roasting the spices. When the skillet is hot enough, drip few drops of ghee, pop in the black pepper and roast until they just begin to splutter. Remove onto a plate. Add bengal gram, red chillies, curry leaves, cinnamon bark, coriander seeds and lastly black gram and roast on low to medium heat until bengal gram and black gram turn golden brown and curry leaves are crisp. Switch off, add hing and grated coconut and sauté until coconut smells toasty or hissing sound subsides.
Squish soaked tamarind to pulp. In a blender, grind the dry roasted ingredients along with tamarind pulp and some water to a smooth paste.
Pour this paste into the pot with cooked veggies and dal. Adjust the salt, add more water to fix the consistency if required (it will be relatively thick, like that of Dosa batter) and bring to a gentle boil over low-medium heat, stirring intermittently (to avoid sticking burning at the bottom), about 15 mins. Simmer for 5-10 mins before switching off.
For the tempering Heat oil in a small kadai or saucepan over high heat. When the oil is hot enough or shimmering, add peanuts and reduce heat to medium. When they begin to splutter, toss in bengal gram and sauté until bengal grams turn golden brown. Tip the tempering on the simmering Kootu, cover immediately and keep aside.
Serve hot with a spoon of ghee drizzled over hot rice or grain of your choice and a side of papad.
For roasting, rule of thumb is – dhania, chana dal and urad dal are in equal proportions.
Because of the coconut, it does not keep well for long at room temperature. Store leftovers immediately in the refrigerator.
This recipe works well with other vegetables like Ash gourd, green peas, kohlrabi and chayote (chow-chow / bangalore brinjal).
Make sure to use a heavy bottomed pot for simmering, or the Kootu being thick in consistency sticks to the bottom of the pot and burns easily.
Adjust the quantity of red chillies and peppercorns to suit your spice level.
Frozen grated coconut must be thawed before using.