Saturday, May 08, 2004

A Mother's Day edition of "Samaithu Paar"

“Take the kadai”, “Aaloo endral urulai kizhangu endru ellarukkum theriyum nu nenakaren” were two favorite lines that me and my sister used to laugh about so much. When I came back to Chennai for good from Thanjavur in June 2000 (after my college hostel days), we found that my mom – she of the 9 to 5 (ok for her it was 9:45 to 5:30) government job, had picked up a sudden interest in those cooking shows, particularly one in which this lady used to drone in a monotonous voice about the aaloo and its equivalents. I have forgotten the name, but she definitely had us in splits.

And though I was sure that I had to use that one year (at home before coming to the US or to the B-schools) to pick up some cooking skills, my repertoire in which consisted of a kadai-fried onion and nothing else (oh yeah, Maggi!). But having a mother who obsessed on the right way to, hear this, stir the dish with only my right hand and not my left hand and several other idiosyncrasies like this, put paid to any miniscule intent that I had to overcome my laziness and enter the kitchen. And my father’s reaction to the whole issue was a frown and the words – “Wait, you are going to go out there and find out that you cannot cook and hence you won’t have anything to eat when you come back from class". Dad, haven't you ever heard of Taco Bell? Good Fellas Pizza? Mac?

The progression from a novice cook whose idea of saambhar (which like Nana Patekar says in “Ab Tak Chappan”, is staple food for a Chennai-ite like me) - consisted of adding saambhar powder and fried onion to the cooked lentils with salt to taste, not to mention the roasted cumin and red chillies as garnish to today’s more than adequate cook has been a progression that has taken the most part of two years.

First, a couple of cooking experts who stayed next door thought that they had enough of me gorging on their good food for 4 days a week and then treated them to rubbish the fifth day when it was my turn to cook at my place. They took it upon themselves to drill the knowledge into me with ever sarcastic repartees whenever I extolled the virtues of my saambhar (which by the way was almost everyday, the loudmouthed troll that I am). From them I learnt that saambhar is not just a pot-pourri of spices, vegetables and lentils. That it is much more than that – an art form that requires supreme patience and the perfect saambhar masala.

The last mentioned I had in surplus, an overzealous aunt being the one I should thank. These neighbors of mine – A, R and to a certain extent P and M made sure that I perfected the technique in the six months of this endeavor. By the time A moved to Virginia and I moved to Mill Street with R and M also moving, I had picked up the ropes pretty well. What was left however was the practice that makes the perfect saambhar.

In six more months, I had enough practice to even experiment. And experiment I did. The result – a reputation that has bordered on celebration of the talent and the magic hand, i.e. mine! My keera kootu – palak daal for the uninitiated and keera molaguttal being my private nomenclature, is quite well known. More recently, another of my recipes has turned a number of eyes (and noses and tongues). And that is a tasty sweet and spicy rasam made with pineapple chunks (in unsweetened juice). I present here the same.

Ingredients for Pineapple rasam
1 tin of pineapple chunks (in unsweetened juice)
¼ tin of diced tomato (optional)
Rasam powder (to taste)
Thuvar Dal (amount judged by the number of people intending to eat)
Tamarind (amount judged by the number of people intending to eat)
Salt (to taste)

For extra masala
1 handful of thuvar dal (thuvaram paruppu)
1 handful of channa dal (kadalai paruppu)
1 spoon dhania
3 or 4 small red chillies
A small amount of coconut gratings

For garnish
Kothammalli - amount varied by taste
Karuvepalai (for taste)

Cook the thuvar dal in the cooker till the whistle sounds thrice and set the cooker aside without opening it.

Grind the thuvar dal, channa dall, dhania, coconut and red chillies with a bit of water to a coarse paste and keep it aside.

Put the stove on simmer and boil tamarind paste in water and once it starts boiling add rasam powder and salt (to taste). Keep it on the stove till it starts boiling again.

Open the tin of pineapple chunks and the tomato. Add the pineapple and some tomato to the boiling tamarind water and then add the ground paste and the cooked dal to it too. Bring this mixture to a boil again and remove from the stove.

Wash the kothamalli and karuvepalai in a bit of cold water. Chop the kothammalli (not too fine though) and use it to garnish the rasam along with karuvepalai. Serve warm with rice and any side-dish as required.

Note: My sister jumped up at the mention of coconut as an ingredient in rasam but as my mom clarified (to her), this is a Mysore style rasam. Actually it was essentially intended to be a hybrid incorporating the virtues of both the Mysore rasam and the Tamil marriage style pineapple rasam. Also, I expected my mom to point out (she actually did not) that the grinding of the raw thuvar and channa dals as being redundant because of the use of the rasam powder being used. And I think I missed grinding black pepper with the masala. I don’t know why I did that, but the final result was very good. So do it my way and work your way into people's hearts and stomachs.

Comments from tasters:
1. Sooper rasam machi!
2. Dei, kalakara po! Eppadi da pannina?

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