Cooking from the End of India

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[Note: I’m catching up from the the last few weeks — this post, as well as those from March 15th and 17th, originally took place earlier this month, but I’ve just published all of them this afternoon. Also, I am now blogging at the travel writing site, We Blog the World. Click on India, left sidebar. Many of the posts will be taken from Aambrosia, but there will be some new content as well. Thanks for reading and feel free to leave comments after any of the posts.]

NAGERCOIL, Tamil Nadu – Would you like diced green chilies in your breakfast yogurt? Or maybe chopped red onion? Or both? While it might sound like a bit much for an American palate — we do like our Strawberry Yoplait — the green-chili and red onion raita (a yogurt-based Indian salad) is actually a nicely cooling flavor next to the
pungent vegetable curries.

This Tamil Nadu-style raita is especially good alongside a biryani rice dish made with chicken, lamb, or vegetables. The vegetable biryanis here (rice cooked with vegetables and spices, more on these later) have strong but not spicy flavors — roasted cloves, big pieces of cinnamon — so the chili-onion yogurt goes along well.

For the past few days I’ve had my own kitchen in the guesthouse where I’m staying in Nagercoil. This town is very small and quiet with palm trees lining the narrow streets and neighborhoods. It’s nearly on the southernmost tip of the Indian subcontinent: only twenty kilometers from Nagercoil is Kanyakumari, where you can look out on the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean, and the Arabian Sea. Just by turning your head.

As a traveler, you get pretty used to taking your meals in restaurants. This is fine and also necessary. In a place like India, just being able to afford those meals each day is not to be taken for granted. But when you do, on those rare occasions, have the chance to cook for yourself, it becomes so very clear why home-cooked food is still the best kind there is.

I’ve been testing recipes from Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu. The first was upma (also uppuma) a savory breakfast dish made mainly in Karnataka and Kerala. In northern Tamil Nadu, they make a variation called pongal.

Upma is a made with semolina flour or couscous, onions, and spices, and the finished dish has a light mashed potatoes-like consistency. Solely eaten for breakfast in south
Indian (but of course could be a side dish on an American table, as couscous often is, for lunch or dinner) it’s served by itself in homes or, in restaurants, with a small cup of
sambar (tomato and lentil soup) and coconut chutney.



2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
½ inch ginger, finely chopped
½ red onion, chopped
1 green chili, finely diced
1 tablespoon chopped cilantro
5 curry leaves
2 cups water
1 tablespoon salt
1 cup semolina flour or couscous
½ cup shredded coconut

Heat oil in a small pot over medium heat. As the oil becomes hot, add mustard seeds. When they start to pop, add ginger, onion, green chilies, cilantro, and curry leaves, and stir-fry until the onions are browned.  Add water and salt and bring to a boil. Turn off heat and gradually pour in semolina or couscous, stirring while you pour. When the grain absorbs all of the water, add coconut, mix well, and serve.

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