Kootu in Tamil, literally translates as ‘addition’ in English. That explains this simple side dish from Tamilnadu. If you are taking your first steps as a cook, this is the kind of dish that gives you encouragement and confidence to venture further. It is simple, does not need elaborate prepping and rarely goes wrong. A quick equation sums it up;
“Vegetables+lentils (usually bengalgram) + coconut = Kootu”
It is a dish that is popular among Tambrahms, and the Iyer and Iyengar sub-castes have their own versions. Mine is the Iyer method, followed by my maternal and paternal families. The vegetables can be anything. Commonly used vegetables are ashgourd (zhelevan / pooshnikai / kaddhu), chow-chow, raw papaya, separately or in combination with potatoes, elephant’s foot yam (chenai / suran), and raw bananas. There are many other vegetables used but the ones listed are common to most families. In my family, we do not any spice powders to ‘kootu’, but I have noticed that some Tamilians among my friends use ‘kootu podi’, a spice-mix instead of coconut. I feel the sweetness and crunch of fresh coconut is the textural highlight of ‘kootu’, and nothing can make me do away with it.
Ashgourd can be replaced by chow-chow, purple small eggplant, or knol-khol for variation.
As an aside, I must mention that I had to pull out a recipe from my reserves for tonight’s feature.
I was invited by BBC Good Food (India) for their first anniversary celebration to ITC hotels at Parel, Mumbai. I did not take photographs with, but I met Chef Nikhil Chib and Chef Nitin Tandon, and got to taste some of their dishes along with Chef Yang Jiayu’s, at an eight course meal. I was super impressed by some of the dishes, and the presentation. A couple were lack-luster for me, but it was a new and a learning experience on the whole. For photographs please visit me on facebook.
Recipe: Zhelevan (Yelavan / Elavan) Kootu – Ashgourd + lentils + coconut
Yield: Serves 3 portions as side dish to be served with rice with a liquid gravy
Ashgourd / Kaddhu / Pooshinikai – 5 cups, cut into 1/2cm cubes, skin removed
Bengalgram lentils / Chana dal – 1/4 cup, cooked till done and drained. Retain liquid if available
Coconut, freshly grated – 1/2 cup, loosely packed
Green chillies – 2, or as per taste
Granulated sea salt – as per taste
Turmeric powder – just enough to add colour, about 1/8 tsp.
Coconut oil – 1/2 tsp.
Mustard seeds – 1/2 tsp.
Split, husked, black grams / urad dal – 1/2 tsp.
Curry leaves – 1 sprig
Cook ashgourd cubes in enough water, seasoning with salt and turmeric. The ashgourd will reduce in volume once cooked. A little stock should be retained after cooking. This dish is not meant to be dry, but not meant to have a lot of liquid either.
Add cooked and drained lentils along with coconut, saving tbsp. of the coconut.
In a mortar, crush the green chillies with 1 tbsp. of reserved coconut. Add this to the ‘kootu’. Mix well. Check for some stock in the dish. If very less, add some of the water drained from cooking the lentils. About 1/4 cup of stock should be available.
Bring to a boil, remove from fire, about 2 mins. Heat the oil in a seasoning wok. Splutter mustard seeds, followed by black gram. When the gram changes colour to pink, add curry leaves. When they crisp, pour the seasoning over the ‘kootu’.
Serve hot with rice as a side dish.