Green leaves, green chilies and 3 grandmothers

 
The story of thotakora pulusu
 
“Mummy, it’s just not fair to put green karepak (curry leaves) in thotakoora pulusu (greens sambar!). Such a low-down trick” – I can still hear my brother Anand’s voice grumbling as he picked out the pesky green leaves from the ‘pulusu’! Not fair that they hide in there for an unsuspecting eater to bite into them and promptly spit them out in disgust – ditto for green chilies in the same sambar!
 
But it takes the combination of three green things to create the most heavenly sambar on earth – thotakoora pulusu. 3 things that used to grow in all our backyards so that when budgets were overdrawn, even piggy banks emptied, there was still a yummy dish to look forward to – those women were truly alchemists!
 
Warning: The recipe that i am going to give you now is patented by 3 sisters – my grandmother Nemali Chandramathi and her two sisters Susilakkayya and Paapayakkaya – you think they came up with one ingredient each in a Masterchef challenge? Maybe but masterchefs all, each one of them!
 
P.S: I just made a big pot and there was nothing left to clear up even – try it out and tell me if it’s awesome or not!
 
Here goes:
 
Thotakoora (green amaranth, molakeerai in Tamil)) – 1 large bunch – should make about 4 cups – wash and chop
Cooked toor dal – 1.5 cups
Tamarind paste – 1.5 heaped tsp
Jaggery – 2 tsp
Sambar powder – my recipe is below – 3 heaped tsp
Turmeric – 1 large pinch 
Salt
To garnish : Gingelly oil 1 tbsp
Asafoetida – 1large pinch
Mustard seeds – 1/2 tsp
Urad dal – 1/2 tsp
Jeera (cumin seeds) – 1/4 tsp
Curry leaves (you can spit ’em out later if you want but you do need them for garnishing!)
Green chilies – 2 or 3 – slit
 
Use an ‘eeya pathram’ if you have one. “eeyam” is an alloy of tin and other metals and improves the taste of anything with tamarind in it – like rasam and sambar. In Telugu, it’s called a Shweta (white) chembu but i never heard this term while growing up and i’m pretty sure it’s not known to many people… otherwise any heavy bottomed vessel will do (I know some people like that too but this pulusu is truly low cal)!
 
Drop in the chopped greens with a glass of water and a pinch of turmeric. Cover and cook for 3-4 minutes till the greens have shrunk a bit but are not cooked through. Add the tamarind paste, jaggery, sambar powder and salt. Cover and cook again for 3-4 minutes.
Add the cooked dal and green chilies and let simmer for another couple of minutes. Switch off.
 
In a small ‘popu’ pan (little saucepan), heat the oil, add the ingredients for garnishing, starting with the mustard and letting it splutter before adding the other stuff. Pour over sambar. 
 
Eat with rice and a wee bit of ghee – preferable. 
 
Sambar podi – roast separately and powder together 
coriander seeds – 1 cup
chana dal 1/4 cup
urad dal – 1/4 cup
fenugreek (methi) seeds – 1 tbsp and 
asafoetida – 1 pinkie nail sized lump
curry leaves – 2 sprigs
While powdering, add 1/4 cup of chili powder and powder the whole thing fine.
 
Remember the veggie korma we made yesterday? And against my advice re. the calories, you converted it into pakoda kurma? Well, this is a perfect dish to assuage those pangs of conscience – one tbsp oil altogether! This is actually perfect student fare – one dish meal with greens and dal and very low – all rolled into one.
 
P.S: there’s a story behind the picture too – made the pulusu today, photographed it and when time to load pic came around, realised that i hadn’t put the storage device back in the camera after yesterday -and pulusu already consumed like i mentioned! Therefore here’s a picture of the raw stuff!! – the green leaves only – thanks to the brilliant idea of s-i-l and daughter!!
 

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Hyderabadi kurma / qorma: Of wordgames and growing up in Hyderabad

 

The queen of Hyderabadi khana – Ameenakkayya!

I haven’t mentioned her earlier but Ameena Nemali was my inspiration to learn to cook! Anything she touched turned to culinary gold – even the humblest ‘mamidikai pappu’ (raw mango dal) which is the month-end, budgets-are-over staple in every Telugu household, tasted divine when she made it.

I have spent many, many lazy weekends, reading and playing wordgames with cousins and generally gassing away till the lunch or dinner call came. Everyone else would chatter as they filed in but to me – a foodie in the budding even then – the table needed to be approached with a feeling of sanctity; anything less was a desecration to the lady’s art!

Her repertoire seemed limitless – Andhra cooking to super-thin dosas with chutney and please-can-I-have-more sambar, Kayasth cuisine to bakes and finally what she was most famous for – at least in my eyes (!!) – Hyderabadi khana! The memory of her pakoda kurma with fried rice still makes my eyes water – imagine what the actual stuff did to the salivary glands of a ten-year old! I shall always regret not writing down more of her recipes…

Tried for years to reproduce her kurma – with no great success till finally, i think i made the breakthrough quite recently!

Have substituted the pakodas with vegetables for a low-fat version but for those of you who can’t touch your toes anyway, what does an extra pakoda or two matter 😉

Hyderabadi kurma

2 cups of assorted vegetables cut into large chunks – potatoes, cauliflower, carrot, beans, peas and even the humble knolkhol!

2 large tomatoes

2 large onions (i know American onions are enormous – these are Indian onions! Should be slightly larger than a large egg.

4-5 cloves garlic

Ginger – 1/2 ” piece

2 green chilies

Chili powder – 1 tsp

1 tsp poppy seeds (khus khus)

2 tbsp cashew nuts

Dry coconut (copra) – 2 tbsp – if you don’t have this, try roasting fresh coconut for a few minutes on a very low heat.

2 black cardamoms – badi ilaichi – these will give you that ‘smoky’ flavour

4 cloves

1 ” piece cinnamon

2 green cardamoms

1 cup thick curd – whipped

Oil – 1 tbsp

Ghee – 1 tbsp

Grind to a fine paste the onions, garlic, ginger and green chilies. This is paste 1.

Heat the poppy seeds on a low flame for about 3-4 minutes – there’ll be a slightly ‘nutty’ smell hanging around NOT emanating from you. Switch off and let cool. Grind together with a little water the poppy seeds, cashew nuts, copra and black cardamom with a little water. This is paste 2.

Heat the oil and ghee in a large frypan and drop in the cloves, cinnamon and green cardamoms – ouch – don’t stand so close! They splutter!

Add paste 1 and keep stirring till onions no longer smell raw. If the paste keeps sticking to the pan, add a few drops of water and keep stirring – this is the only part of the recipe which needs a bit of patience – even an Indian student in Amreeka can make it! Add the chili powder and fry a bit. Add about 1/2 cup yogurt one tbsp at a time and fry till it is incorporated into the gravy.

Then add paste 2 and two cups of water and stir about. Now add the vegetables. If using cauliflower, let everything else half cook before you add – otherwise the caulis will overcook and generally taste yucky! Add salt, cover and cook til vegetables are almost done.

Chunk the tomatoes – i usually cut each tomato into just 4 pieces and drop in. Cover and cook for 3-4 minutes more. Switch off and add the rest of the  whipped yogurt. Voila!

 

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Tofu rice: America – here I come! Armed with recipes, no less!

Tofu Rice
I think I’ve “arrived”!  Am now getting requests – 5 so far – to ensure that this species gets fed and doesn’t get tooooo… homesick!
So, America-bound students, we’ll start with a  recipe so it doesn’t get too boring and then do a NRI student cooking in America # 101.
Thought back to my own early days of learning how to cook- I must have been about 7 years old. We were “between-cooks” at the moment and my Mom was squeezing in some time for sambar-rice in between intensely grueling bouts of work at the hospital – those days everyone seemed to be multiplying soooo fast – an ob-gyn’s life was spent in trying to catch a breath between the breech in bed 7 and the C-section in bed 9, taking time to peek at the gory innards of bed 8!!! All this proliferation of our species must have been boy, they sure did miss TVs and video games 😉
To come back to our story, mom was stuck at the hospital and my dad was away on “tour”. I was 7, Arvind a year older and Anand 2 years over him – obviously without the faintest idea of cooking! 7 pm, rumbles in three tummies reaching a crescendo of cacophony…along comes saviour – in the form of 14-year old Anil next door – who grandly announces that he knows how to make rice!! Remember the setting is not AD but the dark ages before the advent of gas stoves and pressure cookers! Being too short in general to reach over the stovetop, the stove ( a kerosene-guzzling short, squat little monster) was brought down to the floor. Rice was washed and placed in a round brass ‘gundu’, water measured with almost ritualistic attention and poured over the rice, finger stuck in- nobody told us the measure was up to an adult hand’s forefinger so we must have fallen short! Then, with bated breath (I don’t think I’ve watched even a James Bond movie with so much suspense), we sat around and watched the rice cook! To cut a long story short, we had rice and curd and bananas and Anil went home covered in glory! Cooking lessons with mom started the next day 😉
From there to an easy – meal in a bowl tofu rice – truly anyone can make it!
Basmati rice – 1 cup – washed and soaked in 2 cups water for about 15 minutes. Cook the rice so that the grains stay separate – by occasionally fluffing up with a fork. Let cool. abt 7-8 minutes.
1 cup of tofu (cotton tofu if possible) – cut into large pieces – tip: tofu does have much taste on it’s own but what it does contribute is a lovely chewy texture. Keeping the pieces large – about a cm square, ensures they retain the texture. Rinse cubes and if cold (not you, the tofu), soak in warm salt water for 10 mins. If you’re cold, you obviously don’t live in Chennai!
½ cup peas
½ cup mixed carrots, beans, broccoli, cauliflower, corn, capsicum – whatever is available
1 tsp schezwan paste
1 or 2 flakes garlic – chopped
½ tsp ginger – juliennes (thin strips)
¼ cup chopped spring onions
Chopped coriander  and/ or mint to garnish
Salt – 1/3 tsp and sugar a large pinch.
½ green chilli – chopped
Sesame seeds – roasted – 1 tsp – optional topping
Method: Heat 1 tbsp oil in a wok, add green chillies and chopped spring onions. Add garlic and ginger and stir fry on high for a few seconds. Add the veg and peas. Continue to stir fry on high, sprinkling water as it begins to stick. Add the Schezwan paste, salt, sugar and tofu. Mix till everything is coated with the sauce. Add 2 tbsp water, spread the cooked rice on top, cover and cook on sim for about 3-4 mins. Switch off, mix everything, add mint/ coriander, sesame seeds and serve. If you’re a normal appetite type of person, this should last you for two hungry lunches. If you’re hungrier, add a couple of eggs and scramble. Or mushrooms.

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Karepak podi or curry leaf powder: Of black hair and a centum in Maths

Eat it up! It’ll make you hair grow. It’ll make your eyes bigger! It’ll prevent your hair from growing white when you’re older! It’ll make you get a centum in Maths!
Good genes, right? for all this?? Not if you’re an Indian kid growing up in a middle class Indian household – the “this” refers to Karepak / Karuvepillai/ Kadhi patta ? Yes, the humble curry leaf which was capable of performing miracles that we couldn’t dream of, leave alone verify! There must have been some brave kid out there, right, who actually listened to all of this and then turned around and asked his greying mom – then how come yours is??….errrr….THAT much courage was a bit TOO much courage, methinks!
And then we grew up telling our kids,’ it’ll make your hair white…errr… black etc. etc…i think it was just payback time, folks, – after all, why should we be the only ones forced to eat this yucky thing – let other kids also have a taste of our medicine!!
Yep, all that till we grew up. Now i convert it into karepak podi – my grandmom’s staple cure for all ailments from the hair to the toes, including ailments of the heart and soul!
Here’s my ammamma’s recipe – the best karepak podi in the world. I still have her recipes which she wrote down for me in her spider-crawled-out-of-the-inkpot Telugu handwriting!
Karepak (curry leaves) – 4 cups – wash well and dry on a kitchen towel in the shade. Either microwave them on high in batches – 3 batches of 3 minutes each or roast them in a tawa till dry but still green. I’ve done both and trust me, the microwaving a sight easier!
Coriander seeds (dhania) – 1 tbsp
Mustard seeds – 1/2 tsp
Red chillies – 2
Pepper corns – 1 tbsp
Jeera – 1 tbsp
Chana dal – 1 tbsp
Urad dal – 1 tbsp
Asafoetida – 1 small pinkie nail size lump 😉
Salt to taste
Turmeric – 1 large pinch
Heat a few drops of oil in a kadhai and drop in the asafoetida. When it swells, add the mustard and let it start spluttering. Add the coriander seeds and the red chillies and fry till that nothing-can-quite-replicate-it aroma arises out of the dhania. Empty the kadhai into a plate, and roast the rest of the ingredients except turmeric, individually till each smells great. Add the turrmeric to the roasted ingredients. Let the whole caboodle cool and powder together into a fine powder. Add salt and run the mixer again to blend in salt.
This is a very versatile podi (powder) – you can eat it with hot rice and – if you’ve been following this blog, you’ll know what comes next – yep, ghee! Or else use it as a garnish on roast potatoes or roasted green plantain curry or yam curry. .. and watch your hair turn black and your Math marks go through the roof and your eyes grow bigger and all the rest of it 😉

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Pinwheel sandwiches: And in pinwheels lies beauty in the eyes of a 3 year old!

 
There once was a little girl who, like all little girls do, went through a phase of fussy eating – thankfully for the mother, it didn’t last long! But as long as it did, the mom (read self) stood on her head trying to think up interesting lunchboxes for the brat in question (read A!). With a full-time career, it wasn’t easy but it was a VERY determined mom! 
 
Idea after idea was tried out, some successfully, some not and then mom came up with what she thought was a brilliant idea – pinwheel sandwiches! After all, what could be more exciting to a 3-year (yes, that’s all she was!) old heart and little tummy? But mom, being who she was, also needed to not forget the nutrition part of it – so-pudina chutney and tomato relish were chosen as being ‘full of nutrients!’ The relish got ditched along the way with the pressure of office deadlines and ketchup – secret guilt 🙁 – took it’s place. 
 
All good so far? Excitedly made chutney, sandwiched it and wrapped it an wet napkin as i’d been told to and then voila, next morning packed the whole caboodle – i was as excited as her! Came back in the evening to a VERY hungry daughter who hadn’t touched her lunch! And why? “Because, Amma” (very small voice), “they were too beautiful to eat”!! Phew!! What was i supposed to do?? Cuddled her and gave her dinner – NOT sandwiches!
 
The recipe is simple – the trick or “kituku” as my mom, the grandmom who doesn’t enter this story would say, is in the chutney and the rolling of the sandwiches.
 
Here’s pinwheel 101 #
 
Pudina (mint) – 2 bunches – washed and picked
1 green chili – this is NOT for you but a 3 -year old, remember??! If you want more “kick” get it your self! 
Coriander leaves – 1 bunch
Garlic flakes – 1 or 2
Ginger – a wee bit – abt a cm
Juice of one lemon
Sugar – 1 1/2 tsp
Salt to taste
Kala namak or chaat masala or Himalayan pink salt – 1 generous pinch
Grind everything together to a thick chutney (not adding excess water because the sandwiches will turn soggy)
 
1 loaf of soft, white, unhealthy 😉 sandwich bread – edges cut off (is there any end to our unhealthiness???)
Butter
Ketchup
 
Butter the bread on one side only. Place the slice on a wet kitchen towel – obviously buttered side up!!. Spread out chutney – just a thin layer – and place another slice on top. Smear ketchup on this one.. Using the napkin to push, gently roll  up the sandwich and try not to break it! Also don’t fold the napkin into the sandwich – you don’t want pieces of cotton towel in your mouth, do you? 
 
Repeat many times till either you or your bread are exhausted! In ANOTHER napkin, place the sandwiches, cover so they fit in snugly, place in a box, and leave overnight in the frig. Next morning, they should be easy to cut. If they fail, you can have a savoury Eton mess for breakfast!
 

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