Saturday, February 7, 2009

Sweet Potato Vatha Kuzhambu – Mum’s special

‘Vathal’ in Tamil refers to sun-dried food – ‘vathal vadams, sundakkai vathal, manathakkali vathal’. If one were to traditionally translate ‘Vatha Kuzhambu’, it would mean a Kuzhambu with either ‘Sundakkai’ (Turkey Berry), ‘Manathangalikka’ (Black Nightshade) or similar sun-dried herbs. These herbs possess medicinal properties that detoxify one’s system. The Black Nightshade is especially consumed by women who have delivered a baby, and by people with stomach disorders. These herbs have a bitter taste and aren’t very popular amongst people. Unfortunately, I haven’t found these sun-dried herbs in the US so far, at least not at the place where I live.

Mum makes all sorts of Vatha Kuzhambu – With Shallots and Black Nightshades/Turkey Berry – the shallots’ flavour camouflages the Black Nightshade’s / Turkey Berry’s bitterness; with Murungakkai (Drumsticks); with Vengayam (Purple onions); with Vendekkai (Okra, Lady Finger); with Poondu (Garlic); with Urulaikezhangu (Potato); and also with Sarkaraivallikezhangu (Sweet Potato).

The last option is not quite common – I don’t think many households cook a spicy tangy kozhambu with sweet potato. However, this dish is unique in its flavour and amazingly delectable, simply because the sweet potato eases down the spice and blends with the kuzhambu so well. This used to be a popular dish amongst friends too – it was always a hit at the lunch table at work. I dished this up for S several times and this was yesterday’s dinner. However, the American Sweet Potato is not as tasty as the Indian version.

Traditionally, our Vatha Kuzhambu does not contain Paruppu (Cooked toor dal), so it is usually accompanied with a side-dish that contains lentils – yes, the Paruppu Usli. My Paruppu Usli is slightly different from the recipe published in this blog by my teammate. I used Toor and Channa Dal in a 3:1 measure, and grinded the soaked Dals coarsely, without water. If you add water, it takes longer to steam. With just a couple of sprays of oil from a can, this method yields crispy Usli. Covering the pan and cooking it in medium heat crumbles the dals finely and makes it crisp. Traditionally, this is made with Cluster Beans (Kothavarangai). That is a bit more bitter than beans, but delicious.

Here’s what you need for the Vatha Kuzhambu –
1. Sweet Potatoes

2. Sambar Powder – 3 spoons

3. Chilli Powder – 1 spoon, not heaped

4. Tamarind - Lime sized ball extracted with water

5. Channa Dal, Mustards, Curry Leaves, Hing, Turmeric Powder, Fenugreek Seeds, Salt

6. Corn Starch/Rice Flour - Optional

7. A small piece of jaggery/A pinch of sugar - Optional

Here’s how you dish it up –
1. Heat the oil in a deep vessel, allow the mustard seeds to splutter. Follow in the curry leaves, channa dal, and lastly, the fenugreek seeds

2. Add the tamarind juice and turmeric.

3. Add the sweet potatoes, sambar powder, chilli powder and salt.

4. Cover and cook in a medium flame till the raw tamarind odour disappears and the powders are cooked and blended. Allow it to come to a rolling boil. Sometimes, mum adds a pinch of sugar or a piece of jaggery. This helps all the flavours blend well and does not make the dish sweet. This is an optional step and can be avoided.

5. Since this Kuzhambu contains no cooked toor dal, the consistency will be watery. Traditionally to thicken this, a spoon of rice flour dissolved in water is added. I used a spoon of corn starch dissolved in water, since the purpose is the same. The corn starch we get here does not produce a glossy texture, unlike in India. So, if you are cooking this in India, you ought to use rice flour.

6. Give the mixture a good mix after adding the thickening agent and sprinkle some hing.

7. Your Vatha Kuzhambu is ready to serve with rice, sutta appalams, paruppu usli and yogurt.

This is a dish that doesn’t get spoilt easily, even in Indian weather conditions, simply because you don’t add cooked dal. It can be refrigerated and used for up to 4 -5 days. Mum-in-law's Vatha Kuzhambu is different, I presume the spices are grinded fresh, and so the consistency is different. S says she also adds cooked toor dal at times. Iyengar Vatha Kuzhambus are also different. However, this is the recipe I have grown up on - my soul food.


  1. Yummy... I havent tried sweet potato vatha kozhambu...

    On paruppu usli... if you use more channa dal, it gives you more a softer and udiri udiri usli :)... got this from my athai paati...

    Is this coincidence or telepathy... I just made usli, vatha kozhambu and I was going to post the recipes :)

  2. Wow neeyum Vatha Kozhamba, lol... I make it with 1/2 and 1/2 sometimes and 3/4 and 1/4 ... Idukum it comes well, but we need to crumble it first real well and then let it roast in the pan. Try the sweet potato vatha kozhambu, it tastes better in India though. We prefer taking sweet potato this way...

  3. hey rumsie i usually add the sambar podi to the tadka just after the mustard crackles and we saute vendayam etc and just saute the sambar podi too and them immediately add the tamarind water then rest is as usual.This way the raw flavour of the podi goes instantly and that kind of gives that special flavour to the vatha kozhambu.Since the podi smell goes fast the kozambu can be cooked faster too.Just till the vegetables are cooked

  4. Oh wow ok, I have never done that so far. The next time, I'll do that.

  5. Just read Manni's comments on Vetha Kozhambu. Infact I do the same way Manni commented. The raw smell of the podi goes away if you saute the podi imm after the mustard seeds crackle. This way you even get a real good taste and flavor to the Vetha Kozhambu.

  6. Yeah I never did that because I allow it to cook and reduce, so usually by that time, the raw podi smell is far gone. Sauteing the podi in high heat makes it bitter at times so I always avoided it. Will try this next time. Taste doesn't make a difference because my vetha kozhambu turns out exactly like amma's :)

  7. Thats good then coz mine turns out diff whenever I did the way you mentioned.