Back in 2005-06, in the early years of Orkut, I came across a song called Curry and Rice Girl, which was set to the tune of Gwen Stefani’s 2004 hit Hollaback Girl. It lampooned the whole arranged marriage rigmarole of uploading a “biodata” on a matrimony website and the unreasonable demands that are frequently made on prospective brides. It wasn’t a particularly clever song, but much like Stefani’s original, it was earwormy enough that I would frequently catch myself humming it. And, to be completely honest, it struck me at that time that I was, in fact, a Curry and Rice Girl. Not in the way the song described it (NO!), but in that my ultimate comfort dish is, at the end of the day, a plate of curry and rice, preferably the way my mother makes it.
And I’ve been thinking of home and my mother’s food a lot these last few days (as have many of us who are stranded far away from our families). It’s been that kind of week. I also hadn’t bought any fresh vegetables in over a week. The only notable ingredient in my refrigerator was a coconut and so I decided that I would make a dish featuring this wonderfully versatile fruit (Seed? Nut? Apparently, the jury’s still out on that): varutharcha pulinkari.
Very simply, varutharcha pulinkari is a curry from Kerala, made with a masala that is roasted (varutha) and ground (archa) and infused with the sourness of tamarind (puli). It can be made with a number of different vegetables: raw plantain, elephant foot yam, drumsticks, ladies’ fingers (which is what I used), yellow pumpkin, Madras cucumber, ash gourd. Ideally, the sweeter the vegetable – like pumpkin – the better, because it contrasts well with the tang of the tamarind. But the star of the dish is coconut: it is this that gets roasted and ground as part of the main masala, adding an incredible depth of flavour. It takes about 20 minutes to prepare and apart from the coconut, uses ingredients that most Indian kitchens would already have. And if you’ve never before experienced the beautiful, complex flavours of roasted coconut, this is the place to start.
The pulinkari is found across Kerala, differing only in the details. The recipe below is a (very) slightly modified version of the one used by my mother.
½ coconut, grated
250 gms ladies fingers
1 small ball of tamarind, about 1 inch across
1 tsp coriander seeds
½ tsp fenugreek seeds
Asafoetida, a pinch
Turmeric powder, a pinch
1 sprig of curry leaves
6-7 dried red chillies
1 tsp mustard seeds
2-3 Madras onions (optional)
Salt, to taste
Heat (don’t boil) about half a cup of water and let your tamarind sit in this. Clean and chop ladies’ fingers into 1 inch pieces and, on a medium flame, fry them in a little bit of coconut oil (or any neutral-flavoured oil, if you don’t have this). Take the ladies fingers out when they’re still green, but starting to crisp up. Now take that tamarind water that you had made (having discarded any seeds and hard bits of the pulp), add about two cups of water, the fried ladies fingers, turmeric and salt and cook on a medium flame. While this cooks, roast the coconut along with the coriander seeds and the dried red chillies (save two for use in the tempering later) on a low flame. Once the coconut starts to brown, add the methi seeds. You’ll be able to smell that rich, coconut-y aroma at which point, add the asafoetida, and turn off the heat. Let this masala cool down before grinding it to a paste. Make sure you get a smooth paste by adding water bit by bit. The bhindi will have fully cooked in the tamarind water by now, so go ahead and add the coconut masala and let it come to a boil. Temper this curry with mustard seeds, curry leaves, the remaining two red chillies and, if you want, roughly chopped Madras onions. The sweetness of these onions contrasts fabulously with the sourness of the tamarind, so you might want to give this a shot.
Pour onto some freshly-cooked rice, drizzle with a little ghee (optional, but recommended) and serve.
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