Saturday, July 05, 2008

1001 Tamarind stews

1001 Tamarind based Sour stews:

This entry is for Sig's JFI- Tamarind.

Kulambus and Sambars are two major classes of tamarind stews consumed in the South. A Kulambu is a plain tamarind stew and a Sambar is basically a Kulambu with boiled dal thrown in. In sambars the sourness of tamarind is balanced by the dal. In kulambus we use jaggery to regain this balance.

By changing the base, flavouring and goodies, we can cook up innumerable stews.

The Base :
Change the base and new classes of stews listed in Column 1 appear.

0.: Puli Kulambu is the simplest Tamarind stew cooked with just tamarind, jaggery, flavouring and a vegetable.

1.: Thakkali Kulambu uses tomato puree for an additional punch.

2.: Thenga pal kulambu is a mild kulambu using coconut milk with tamarind. Coconut milk is added at the very end and is to be cooked as little as possible on low heat with constant stirring so that the coconut milk does not curdle.

3.: Iru Puli Kulambu or twice sour stew, uses both tamarind and yogurt.

4.: Kara Kulambu uses a puree of stir fried onions, tomatoes, garlic and coconut for an extra rich stew.

5.: Common Sambar is cooked with tamarind and boiled tuvar dal

6.: Pasi Paruppu Sambar uses mung dal in place of tuvar dal.

7.: Iru Puli Sambar uses both tamarind and yogurt along with tuvar dal.

8.: Iru Paruppu Sambar uses both tuvar dal and mung dal along with tamarind.

9.: Chettinad Sambar is a sambar on steroids using a puree of stir fried onions, tomatoes, garlic and coconut.

Change the flavouring style and new classes of stews spring up. Column 2 summarises these changes.

Change goodies used and more stews appear. 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 urundai kulambu. Column 3 lists these variations.

It took me quite a while to realize that Kulambu & Sambars are universal solutions, not just local recipes. 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 stuff. 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.

‘Safe’ Tamarind Stews
The strong flavourings that South Indian cuisine uses has caused quite a few embarrassing incidents in the kitchens, office and school cafetaria’s abroad. (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”) - and everyone is familiar with the problems of trying to sell a house with a ‘smelly’ Indian kitchen. 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 South Indian 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.

When cooking for newbies to South Indian 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.

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 sour stews. However, you can experiment with a variety of thickeners like Lotus root flour, Sago starch, Arrowroot flour, Corn 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.Each would vary the texture of the stew differently.

Instead of jaggery as a sweetener you can use Panai vellam ( Palm Jaggery), Karupatti, Brown sugar , Molasses, Honey, or just about anything sweet. Each will yield you a sour stew 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 sour stews. Embark on a voyage of discovery, visit the local markets, buy stuff you have never tasted before and turn them into stews never cooked before.

With these innumerable variations, you can cook up a different sour stew for every day of your life and still would not have scratched the surface.


Anonymous said...

That's really nice and I love your hints about South Indian cooking. I read your bio too - quite impressive, but I know what you mean about a quieter simpler life being better.

Susan said...

Oh, please don't replace key ingredients on my account w/ "safe" alternatives! I have an entire cabinet of "dangerous" spices & other flavoring agents that I am not giving up, even though I haven't tried all of them yet (like kokum).

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