Friday, March 21, 2008

1001 Kulambu

Kulambus are one of the easiest curries to make. Dissolve a spoon or two (or even three, as I do) of tamarind paste in a cup of water. Bring it to a boil, add a couple of pinches of sambar powder, a pinch of salt, and a pinch (or two or three) of jaggery. Let it simmer for five minutes and your basic kulambu is ready. Kulambu is nothing but sambar without Tuvar dal – In other words it is just a flavoured sweet and sour stew. In sambars the sourness of tamarind is balanced by the dal. In kulambus we use jaggery to regain this balance.

The defining characteristics of a Kulambu are sourness, sweetness, flavouring and absence of dal.
The sourness comes usually from Tamarind, sweetness from jaggery and flavour from Sambar podi. However, kulambus are so versatile that whole new families can be created by small variations of the basic ingredients. By varying the sourness, flavouring and the goodies added, we can cook up scores of kulambus. The one page cookbook summarises these variations.

Change the souring agent and new families of kulambus appear. Replace tamarind with Tomato and you have Thakkali Kulambu. Use Mango and you have Manga Kulambu. Use yogurt and you have more kulambu and so on. Column 1 lists the types of Kulambus you can cook up by changing the souring agent. See
Divya’s Thakkali Kulambu, Revathy’s More Kulambu.

Change the flavouring style and new classes of Kulambu like Araithu vita Kulambu, Poricha Kulambu etc, spring up. Column 2 summarises these changes. See Amma’s Araichu Vitta Kulambu.

Change goodies used and more kulambus spring up, Use sun dried veggies and you have Vatral kulambu. Use a mix of boiled pulses and you have Kadalai kulambu. Use steamed lentil balls and you get Paruppu urundal kulambu. Column 3 lists these variations. See Sriranjini’s Vatral kulambu, Prema’s Vatral Kulambu, Laksh’s Kadalai Kulambu, Mami’s Paruppu Urundai kulambu.

It took me quite a while to realize that Kulambu is a universal solution, not just a local recipe. For example, Vatral Kulambu is about converting dried goodies into a tasty stew. The genius of this solution is that it is not limited to local vegetables. As it is universal, it can handle any dried foodstuff with ease. Every culture has its own dried foodstuff and almost all of them can be turned into delicious sour stews. Vatral kulambus can gracefully accommodate a huge variety of dried goodies – from the Sangriya, Ker,or Gunda of Rajasthan to the dried shitake / porcini mushrooms or sea weeds of the far east or even the dehydrated fruits / dried meats of the west.

Similarly, feel free to experiment with other goodies by using locally available vegetables, pulses and fruits. See Tamil Cuisine’s Kulambu list

Safe Kulambus
The strong flavouring that Tamil cuisine uses has caused quite a few embarrassing incidents in the kitchens, office and school cafetaria’s of the west. (My brother in law was politely asked to have his lunch in the privacy of his cubicle and my nephew refuses to pack in a traditional lunch, dismissing it with what his friends comment -“ Yucky”. ) This is not demeaning or insulting as it stems from ignorance – it is no different from my grandma turning away in disgust after smelling parmesan cheese.

On the other hand, I’ve had the pleasure of introducing Tamil cuisine to people from all over the world and have watched many go bonkers over it. It is not easy to appreciate a thousand year old cuisine, without putting in a little effort to understand it. For the uninitiated, we need to alter the flavouring and souring agents so as not to cause a ‘cuisine shock’. ‘Strange’ local spices need to be replaced by ‘safe’ spices familiar to your guests.

Red chillies can be replaced by the milder paprika or black pepper, Asafetida by onion- garlic powder, Black mustard by brown mustard, Coriander seeds by cumin and tamarind by tomato/sour cream/ yogurt. Traditional sesame oil can be replaced with oils familiar to your guests. ‘Strange’ vegetables like sundakkai can be avoided. When you have a doubt with your guest’s familiarity with an ingredient, it is usually better to replace it with a safer alternative.

You can however use the original ingredients if you know your guests are familiar with it. For example Tamarind is familiar to people from Latin America, the Middle East and Africa. (In fact, the word Tamarind is an Arab word meaning Tamar – I- hind or Dates of India).

When cooking for newbies to Tamil cuisine, I do the following:

1. Tell my guests exactly what to expect – “I’m cooking up a sweet and sour stew from coconut milk and tamarind” and not “ I’m cooking up a Tamil delicacy – Thengapal Kulambu”.

2. Avoid strong flavourings like asafetida, turmeric, chili powder & sambar powder and use milder alternatives.

3. Let my guests handle the spices, smell them and even taste them. I talk about each of the spices and the reason why it is used. I do the same with vegetables my guests might not have encountered earlier.

Once you’ve let your guests taste a ‘safe’ kulambu, it is easy to let them work their way up to traditional kulambus.

Advanced kulambus for the Bold Cook
Tread with caution. You are entering unchartered territory here !
In this section we'll try out exotic variations, most of which has never before been cooked, for the simple reason that the world was not always a global village.

Experiment by using any of the following souring agents.

  • Use a variety of Tamarind pulps - from the very sweet to the very sour. Check out the tamarind varieties in South east asian, African, Latin American and Arab speciality stores.
  • Use the pulp of sour fruits like gooseberries, Elanthai palam etc.,
  • Use few bits of Kokkum ( kodumpuli) soaked in water
  • Use a couple of spoons of a variety of vinegars / wines mixed with a cup of coconut milk.
  • Use a cup of sour cream. Or even soy sauce mixed with coconut milk.

Each cuisine has its own set of spices. In addition to the traditional spices we use for flavouring you can try experimenting with various spices.

Allspice which tastes like a mixture of cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg can be used in masala kulambus. Vanilla bean can be used for mild kulambus like thengapal kulambu. You can add subtle flavoring by garnishing kulambus with a variety of herbs like rosemary or dill. Or experiment with a variety of European herbs like Marjoram, Oregano, Sage, Tarragon, and Thyme. To be safe, add these added towards end of cooking as delicate herbs lose their flavour on overcooking.

Traditionally only rice flour or gram flour (besan) are used to thicken kulambus. However, you can experiment with a variety of thickeners like Lotus root flour, Sago starch, Arrowroot flour, Okra powder or tapioca flour. Dissolve a pinch of these thickeners in a spoon of water and add it towards the end of cooking.

Instead of jaggery as a sweetener you can use Panai vellam, karupatti, Brown sugar , molasses, honey, or just about anything sweet. Each will yield you a kulambu with a subtly different taste.

Each region has its share of local fresh and dried goodies. Almost all of these can be turned into delicious kulambus. Embark on a voyage of discovery, visit the local markets, buy stuff you have never tasted before and turn them into kulambus never cooked before.

With these innumerable variations you can cook up a different kulambu for every day of your life and still would not have scratched the surface. And that’s the genius of Tamil cuisine!

And this one goes to Srivalli's Curry Mela.

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