Earlier this week when I was feeling very industrious, I grated two whole coconuts and then wondered what I would do with it all. Of course, I could have used it to make a slew of Kerala-style curries, but I also had a rather strong craving for something sweet. And so, I made kozhukatta.
I like to describe kozhukatta as “the robust Malayali cousin of ukadiche modak”. Both are basically steamed rice flour dumplings filled with a coconut and jaggery mix, but while the best examples of the latter, a Maharashtrian delicacy, are shaped like the perfect onion domes of Mughal architecture, the former are almost always round or oblong. They also don’t have the fine pleating that makes ukadiche modak so lovely to look at. Not that kozhukatta isn’t visually appealing. In its simplicity lies the Malayali aesthetic philosophy of restraint, as Vijayan Kannampilly wrote in The Essential Kerala Cookbook. “The guiding philosophy of Malayali cuisine…aspires to produce a harmonious balance through a sparing use of ingredients and by simple methods of preparation,” he wrote. Based on everything I know about Kerala’s culinary culture, I agree, even as I accept that this broad view certainly sandpapers away some tendencies towards variation.
But I digress from my main point which is that I wanted kozhukatta so I made kozhukatta. Of course, I’m referring to the madhura (sweet) kozhukatta, because there are also savoury versions. My mother would make both sweet and savoury kozhukatta for the occasional Sunday breakfast because for some reason I could never understand, my baby sister had set her face against the sweet one (but she would dip the savoury kozhukatta in powdered sugar so you can see why I was confused). The rest of us happily ate the version stuffed with coconut and jaggery. Indeed, this is the more loved version around Kerala; it is this kozhukatta that is being referred to in Kozhukatta Perunnal, the Saturday before Palm Sunday, when the dumpling is made and eaten by the faithful.
There are versions of madhura kozhukatta which also use ripe plantain or a sweet jackfruit preserve known as chakka varatti, but the recipe here is for the basic coconut and jaggery filling. Also, usually, parboiled rice is soaked for a few hours before being dried and then ground to a fine powder, although more people are recognising that readymade rice flour is a far more convenient option that delivers perfectly good results.
1 cup – Rice flour (not roasted)
1 cup – Water
½ cups – Fresh, grated coconut
½ cup – Jaggery syrup (made by boiling jaggery in water. You can increase this, if you like it sweeter)
2 – Green cardamom pods, peeled and crushed
1 tsp – Ghee
A pinch of cumin seeds, preferably roasted
Salt, to taste
In a wok, roast the coconut till it starts to turn a light gold in colour. Add the jaggery syrup and stir it until the coconut is completely coated and the mixture has lumped together into a thick mass that is no longer sticking to the sides of the wok. Mix in crushed cardamom, switch off the flame and set aside.
While the coconut-jaggery mixture cools, boil water with salt, ghee and cumin seeds, and slowly add rice flour. Stir continuously to keep lumps from forming. Don’t ever use cold or room temperature water because then you won’t get a proper dough. Rice, unlike wheat, doesn’t have gluten, so boiling water is needed to activate the amylopectin content of starch so that it gets sticky (I wrote about the role of amylopectin in rice-based dishes in my post about mango phirni).
Once all the water is absorbed, which should be soon, turn off the heat and dump the rice mixture onto a plate. Wait for it to cool just a little. When you knead this into a smooth dough, it should still be warm (but not so hot that you burn your fingers). If it feels dry, add a teaspoon or two of warm water.
Now, wet your palms with some water (room temperature will do) and break off a lime-sized portion of the still-warm dough and make a smooth ball. Keep the rest of the dough covered, preferably with a clean, moist kitchen towel, so that it doesn’t dry out. Using your fingers, make a deep pocket in the ball you’ve made and stuff this with the cooled coconut and jaggery mixture. Don’t worry if the rice dough coating is not too thin, but be careful about not overstuffing it with the filling. Seal this carefully, so that no gaps remain (otherwise the stuffing will leak out when it’s being cooked and while that doesn’t matter if all you care about is eating, it does matter if you want the kozhukatta to look nice). You may need to keep wetting your fingers as you do this, so that the dough doesn’t stick. Then smoothen it into a ball.
Once all the dough has been used up, steam the kozhukatta on medium flame. If there’s any stuffing leftover, just eat it. It’s so good, even by itself.
Just like with other steamed dumplings, the kozhukatta doesn’t take longer than 10 minutes to be done. You can tell it’s cooked when you stick in a toothpick and it emerges clean. Allow the kozhukatta to cool a bit, before taking it out, otherwise, it will stick and you’ll end up with a deformed dumpling.
Serve for breakfast or as a teatime snack.
[The Back Burner is a biweekly blog that will talk about all things food (with recipes, of course)]
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