Monday, January 26, 2009

Olan – A simple yet mouthwatering Malabar delicacy

Olan has not been a ‘soul food’ for me. If you’re wondering what I mean, here it goes. Every dish I cook has a deep childhood or growing-up memory attached to it that is fond, and something that I cherish to the depth of my soul. Similarly, S has his own ‘soul foods’ that I have gladly and easily accepted as part of my life because we were raised on pretty much the same kinds of basic food. So, no, it’s not African-American cuisine. It’s our own ‘soul food’ that makes us remember home, our mums and grandmums every time it is cooked.

Mum didn’t cook many Palakkad dishes at home. I can’t really remember when I was introduced to Olan, but I do know that I loved it at the first encounter. I don’t remember if it was served at Sanjeevanam, one of the healthiest restaurants in Chennai, where we once ate a Rajakeeyam Sadya lunch. I certainly recall Sundaram Mama serving Olan for my wedding. My dear friend Jam once cooked it for us – she’s my authentic source for Malabar food. S doesn’t recall Olan being cooked a lot at home, so it is not much of a ‘soul food’ for him either. Olan is served as an accompaniment dish in Sadya meals, but I decided to make it today’s main course.

With no reference but the web, I decided to dish this up my way. It is traditionally a bland dish but we all know by now that I worship spice. However, my dish didn’t turn up as spicy as I thought it would. I would call it a mild version of vegetable Thai coconut milk soup. I have no regrets with the way my Olan has turned out and perhaps some other time, I’ll ask Periamma (Mum-in-law’s elder sister) or Ma (That’s how I fondly call Mum-in-law) or Jam how it is traditionally cooked.

Here’s what I used:
1. White pumpkin – diced into bite size chunks

2. Black eyed peas – 1 cup soaked in water for 2 hours

3. Thin coconut milk – 1.5 cups. We don’t get great coconuts here in the US. I use coconut milk powder whenever I need to. According to the instructions on the box, one tablespoon of coconut milk powder mixed with 1 cup of water yields thin milk.

4. Thick coconut milk – 1 cup. Three tablespoons of powder mixed with 1 cup of water.

5. Green chillis – 10 small sized ones

6. Fresh grated coconut – 2 tablespoons

7. Curry leaves – 4 sprigs

8. Salt, Hing, Turmeric, Coconut oil, and 1 teaspoon of corn starch.

Here’s how I dished it up:
1. Pressure cook the soaked black eyed peas up to 1 whistle.

2. In medium heat, cook the diced white pumpkin in thin coconut milk with salt and turmeric.

3. When the pumpkins are half cooked, add the strained black eyed peas. I normally don't drain this water. If it were any other dish, I'd have used this water in the cooking. But I couldn't afford to water down my Olan further!

4. Grind the chillis and fresh coconut to a paste, adding little water. Traditionally, the dish is kept white by adding slit chillis and no turmeric. I wanted my Olan to be spicy by grinding the chilli to a paste so it blends well with the dish. Since the dish turns green, one has to add turmeric.

5. Add this coconut-green chilli paste to the cooking vegetables. Throw in the curry leaves. Mix well, cover it and allow it to cook till the pumpkin is soft, not mushy. Usually, the curry leaves are tempered with mustard and added at the end. But this dish, much to my satisfaction, follows my faith - adding the curry leaves upfront or midway so it’s wonderful flavour and aroma blends with the dish. This dish doesn’t require mustard seeds.

6. There is nothing that adds consistency to this dish – no dals. It is supposed to be cooked with lots of vegetables and lesser gravy, but when it turns out to be a two-person-consumption, we can’t do that. And in order to bring out the coconut milk flavour, we must use the specified measures. Besides, powder mixed in water is not as thick and creamy as the real coconut milk. So to bring some consistency to the dish, I had to add a spoon of corn starch mixed in water. This doesn’t change the flavour, nor does it give the dish a Chinese-glossy finish. It just thickens the gravy a little so you can serve it with rice.

7. When everything is cooked well, including the raw green chilli, add the thick coconut milk and a pinch of hing. Make sure you have lowered the heat on your stove.

8. Give the olan a final mix and turn off the heat. Cooking thick coconut milk will cause it to split.

9. Drizzle some coconut oil on the dish and keep it covered, allowing all the flavours to blend well.

As soon as I finished cooking, I gobbled up a bowl of Olan like it was some ‘Yellow Thai Coconut Milk Soup’. It is not authentic; it is adapted from the million recipes found on the web and it is cooked to our taste. But it still turned out bland like I mentioned. I guess the coconut milk brings down the spice factor. Either ways, I loved it and we’re eating it with rice and potato curry.


  1. I see a book coming. Dei Subbu, photos super da.

  2. Pops, I clicked them all! NOT Subbu's work :( I loved the Olan I'm sure you would have too :)

  3. Child! That would be tedious... Wow. I'd like loose all my patience. That is super. I like having just olan, rice and pappadam... how does the combo sound? Like I also like rice scrambled egg. Wierd, I guess...

  4. Well, when I cook at home, he's at work. So it's all my work. clicking, collaging, blogging. I love olan and rice. That's how we had it :D But I didn't fry pappadams :( No deep frying in this house unless there's a big crowd