Before Saturday, if you had asked me (Miranda) to describe the most painful experience of my life, I’m actually not sure what I would have said. I’ve been pretty lucky, injury-wise: I’ve never broken a bone, I’ve never been kicked in the testicles (for obvious reasons) and I’ve never experienced the legendary agony of childbirth. The best I could offer would have been a sprained ankle or a headache or a papercut or something.
Then sambar happened.
Anyone who’s eaten sambar before is probably wondering what I’m on about. After all, it’s a fairly mild vegetable curry, and shouldn’t cause pain of any kind. The killer element, though, is the collection of whole dried red chillies that flavour the curry as it cooks. Now, most normal people probably do the sensible thing with these chillies and discard them before serving. And I did actually do that, for the most part, although I did accidentally put one on Ash’s plate. He tasted a bit of it (with the rest of his meal) and said it wasn’t that pleasant, ‘a bit leathery’ being the phrase with which he described the experience. So when I was portioning out the leftovers and found a behemoth of a chilli, I thought I might as well taste it. It wasn’t that hot, so I ate all of it.
Then the capsaicin kicked in, and I finally understood what ‘my mouth was on fire’ actually means. That metaphor has not been cultivated just for the fun of it. I honestly cannot remember experiencing such pain in my whole life. Temporary sweet relief was brought about with each mouthful of milk I swilled around, but that still wasn’t enough to relieve it all together. I did fleetingly think that I might die, whilst also considering the fact that if anyone ever wanted to torture me for information, this would be the way to do it (with sleep deprivation definitely following close behind). Fortunately, the pain eventually subsided, but not before I swore to never do anything so recklessly ridiculous again.
Chilli trauma aside, we did have fun dedicating nearly a whole day to our South Indian extravaganza (which it nearly was by the time we’d chosen recipes, bought ingredients – including three different types of dal – and spent a few hours putting all the dishes together… then washing up).
When considering Indian dishes, we soon realised that there was no way to choose an Indian ‘national dish’, as it is such a big country with such diverse regions, so we’ve split it in half. ‘North India’ and ‘South India’ still doesn’t really do justice to the range of the nation’s food, but if we went any further we’d end up stuck there forever! This weekend, we enjoyed exploring the side of Indian cuisine that isn’t as commonly found in Western curry houses. Next weekend, things may look a little more familiar (not that we’ve chosen our dishes yet!)
For the soup and sambar recipes, we consulted that well-known guru of Indian cookery, Gordon Ramsay, and his extensive lists of ingredients. For the dosa and masala ‘filling’, we used a book called 1000 Indian Recipe Cookbook which is less glossy and more authentic – although Ramsay’s recipes were admittedly based on his visit to India, so we’re willing to trust him on this one.
For the masala:
2 tsp fenugreek seeds
1 tbsp yellow split peas
2 tsp coriander seeds
6 curry leaves
4 dried red chillies
For the sambar:
200g split pigeon pea lentils (tuvar dal)
6 curry leaves
100g tamarind pulp
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp fennel seeds
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
4 dried red chillies
1 aubergine, trimmed and cut into 2cm pieces
1/4 butternut squash, peeled, deseeded and cut into 2cm pieces
3 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 2cm pieces
1 tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp salt
50g okra, washed, dried and trimmed
4 tomatoes, skinned and finely chopped
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp red chilli powder
1. Roast the masala ingredients in a frying pan over medium heat. When fragrant and roasted, remove from the heat and allow to cool completely. Use a spice grinder to grind the spices into a powder. Add enough water (about 3-4 tbsp) to form a thick paste with a slow dropping consistency.
2. Bring the tuvar dal, curry leaves and 1 1/2 litres of water to the boil, skimming off any scum that rises to the surface. Reduce the heat slightly and leave to simmer for 25-30 minutes or until lentils are tender. Drain and set aside.
3. Soak the tamarind in 200ml of hot water for 20 minutes. Strain the mixture through a sieve and discard the husks and seeds.
4. Heat the oil in a large pan and add the mustard, fennel and cumin seeds and dried chillies. Cook until very fragrant. Add the aubergine, butternut squash and carrots, stirring well to coat the vegetables in the spices. After 2-3 minutes add the turmeric, salt and tamarind water to the pan and bring to the boil. Boil for 8-10 minutes or until vegetables are tender (not mushy).
5. Add the okra, cooked lentils, masala paste, tomatoes, ground coriander and chilli powder and stir well. Add more water if necessary (it should be quite thin in consistency). Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and leave to simmer for 5 minutes until the okra is just tender.
6. Serve with steamed rice and/or warm Indian breads. We used our slightly malformed dosas (recipe below). (Gordon also suggests garnishing with chopped fresh coriander, but we forgot that.)
Cooked rice dosa
50g steamed rice
125g gram flour
1-2 green chillies, finely chopped
1/2 onion, finely chopped
25g coriander leaves, chopped
4 curry leaves, finely chopped
1 1/2 tbsp yoghurt
Salt to taste
75ml water (we needed more)
6 tsp vegetable oil (we used less!)
1. Mix all the ingredients together. Mash lightly and add a little water to make a thick batter.
2. Grease and heat a flat pan. Pour a spoonful of the batter over it and spread to make a thin crepe. Cook on both sides until brown.
Makes about 6.
Spiced tomato and coconut soup
(Generally served with rice as a second course after sambar)
500g tomatoes, peeled, deseeded and chopped
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
2.5cm ginger, peeled and chopped
2 large garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
Salt and pepper
2 red chillies, deseeded and finely chopped
1/2 tsp dried fenugreek
1 bay leaf
1 tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp ground cumin
100g tomato puree
400ml tin coconut milk
Coriander leaves to garnish (you could also use toasted flaked coconut)
1. Heat the oil in a medium saucepan and add the onion, ginger, garlic and some salt and pepper. Sweat for 4-5 minutes until the onion begins to soften. Add the chillies, fenugreek, bay leaf, turmeric and cumin and cook for another 3-4 minutes. Tip in the tomatoes and tomato puree and stir well.
2. Pour in the coconut milk and use the tin to measure out an equal amount of water. Add this to the pan and bring to a simmer. Cook gently for 15-20 minutes until the tomatoes are very soft and have broken down.
3. Puree the soup in a blender (you could also use a stick blender) and season well. Garnish with coriander.
Would we make these again? Well, given that we somehow seem to have made a lifetime’s supply, we may never have to!
But in seriousness: the soup was nice, but quite coconutty (a typical Southern Indian flavour), and given that Ash doesn’t like coconut, we probably won’t bother with it once we’ve eaten all our leftovers. The sambar was a tasty, simple vegetable curry that would definitely be worth another try (again, if we ever get through the leftovers). The dosas were a disaster and didn’t resemble pancakes in the slightest – not sure what we did wrong but if we attempt dosas again, it will be with a different recipe! Having said that, they were very nice nonetheless, and went well with the sambar. We also made a potato masala to go inside them (if they’d resembled crepes), which was nice, but would have been better wrapped up in a dosa, if they’d actually worked! In the end, we just ate it for lunch the next day…