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.