Farewell to paneer, an ode to avial

After moving house for the 28th time, the author starts a new kitchen and kicks off a rediscovery of the South.

When I lived in the US during the early 1990s, I spent a lot of time on the road, traveling thousands of miles by rented car or — when money was low — by Greyhound bus. I liked the feel of rolling along the flat prairie, under big Midwestern skies and countryside more open than I had ever experienced.

What I did not like was the gastronomic sameness from sea to shining sea. A big Mac or fajita in gray Gary (a depressed, depressing town of rusting factories), Indiana, was no different from one in posh, sunny Key Largo, Florida. That’s more than the distance from Guwahati to Wayanad. Who could imagine the same food in Assam and Kerala?

Indeed, India’s great explosion of economic activity has brought some dreaded standardisation to our lives but not so much as to scrub the here-we-come-new-country thrill of relocation across India. And so I am happy to report that I am presently reveling in introducing local flavours into my shiny, new kitchen in Bangalore.

This is the 28th time I have moved home. Never before have I been as acutely conscious of the change as this time. While in Delhi, for example, I loved that great Punjabi staple, paneer (cottage cheese), and though I now find that southies love it as their own — the ultimate horror was to find it in the specials of the day in a cosy, family run neighbourhood restaurant called Mangalore Pearl — it feels alien in my kitchen. First, the paneer here is nothing like its soft version up north. Second, what’s the point of paneer when everyone including little old ladies seems to be eating paya?

I haven’t yet learned the art of making paya, those soupy trotters I loved as a boy. While more people here eat meat — a wide variety at that, including rabbit, quail, pork (ah, and a variety of rasam infused with crabmeat, another with bone marrow) — than in the north, I have been focusing on vegetarian food, so that the wife’s moving-induced stress levels can be brought down.

Though I love duck eggs (freely available at local stores), squid, clam and sardine pickles, I am also trying to befriend split black gram dal. In doing so, I am discovering that a lot of south Indian cooking is not as difficult as I once believed. Take, for instance, avial, a coconut-curd stew familiar to Tamil, Kerala and Udupi cuisines. It’s one of the few things vegetarian that I like. For years I assumed it was unsuited to my brand of go-with-what-you-have cooking.  It took the move to Bangalore to make me realise that avial is particularly suited to adaptation. It’s easy to make, and you can use whatever vegetables (also, I am thinking, prawn?) you like.

Some things are gloriously easy, thanks to the flood of condiments available at the flood of neighbourhood supermarkets that cater to citizens of the new Bangalore, those who directly or indirectly make their living off the economy of technology. This is how I found a 50 gm sachet of lemon-rice spices in at the local Reliance Fresh. A little guilty (I mean, really, slinking out with a tin-foil pouch from a Reliance store?) and not a little skeptical, I felt better when my lemon rice was ready within 10 minutes and tasted like the real deal.

And it is just so nice to use fresh, greenie things, such as curry leaves and dill. I did grow curry leaves in Delhi but used them only with chutney, occasionally for fish. As for dill, I had forgotten how the Tamilians use it with meat and potatoes. I have enlisted serious help for my southern explorations. From my collection, I have dug out two outstanding books. One is Aharam, a guide to various culinary traditions of Tamil Nadu, written by Sabita Radhakrishna, who, appropriately, was born and brought up in Bangalore, frequenting areas around my home. The other is a trim version of a 1951 three-volume classic called Samaithu Paar, written by the great S Meenakshi Ammal, a Tamil housewife who broke oral traditions by writing down her cooking methods.

These books serve as great guides, but as is my wont, I stray often from their strict methods and recommendations. Consequently, there were no yam, plantains or pumpkin — as many recommend — in my avial.  But it took kindly to drumstick, brinjal and turai (ridgegourd). As for good, old paneer, I haven’t eaten or even seen it since I moved to Bangalore last month. I am clearly not in Kansas, or Karol Bagh, any more.

Three-vegetable Avial

6 small brinjals, cut into ¼-inch pieces

1 drumstick, cut into ½-inch pieces

½-foot-long ridgegourd, cut into ¼-inch pieces

15-16 curry leaves

Salt to taste

For the paste:

½ coconut

2 green chillies

½ tsp cooked rice

½ tsp cumin seeds

½ cup yoghurt

Grind the ingredients, with a little water if needed, to a coarse paste. Set aside. In a flat-bottomed vessel, bring 4-5 glasses of water to a boil. The size of vegetables is only a guide; cut them roughly into same-size pieces. When water boils, add the vegetables. Add salt and cover until cooked. Discard excess water (I poured it into a storage container and mixed it with the baby’s khichdi later). Essentially, water level should be above the vegetables. Blend in the coconut-yoghurt paste. Bring to a boil and remove from the fire. Add the curry leaves and mix. I made the avial thin — the family liked it that way. You can thicken it by reducing the water. We ate it with lemon rice.

Serves 3

Boiled potatoes with dill

½ kg potatoes

1 cup dill, finely chopped

1 tsp split black gram dal

1 tsp mustard

1 onion chopped

1 tsp ginger-garlic paste

½ tsp turmeric powder

2 tsp coriander powder

1 tsp chilli powder

2 tbsp oil

Salt to taste

Boil potatoes in their jackets. I used six medium sized. When cooked, remove skins and chop into eight to 12 pieces each. Heat 2 tbsp oil (canola or olive) and when hot add mustard and black gram. When they splutter, add the onion and fry till translucent. Add ginger-garlic paste and sauté for a minute. Add the turmeric, coriander and chilli powders and sauté for a minute, sprinkling water if needed to keep spices from sticking. Lower heat and add the dill. Blend well with spices. Add the potatoes and mix well. Add salt and toss.

Serves 3-4

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