I know, it's a clunky title. But I couldnt come up with a better description in English for pulikachal, which would translate from the Tamil literally into "tamarind (puli) boil-up (kachal)" - descriptive enough but not particularly useful informative.
I dont make pulikachal very often because there's always the impression at the back of my mind that it takes too long to make, and now that I'm working full-time, there doesnt seem to be enough free time to do all the things I want, let alone spend lots of time on just cooking. But the impression is not quite right, because once the masala has been made for it, pulikachal kind of cooks itself. It doesnt need looking after every single minute.
The best pulikachal I've ever had was when I was an apprentice sub-editor at the Indian Express, my very first job. My boss (and mentor) there was a wonderful old gentleman called C P Seshadri, fondly and universally known as "Master". He was a very knowledgeable person, a living bit of history - a contemporary of Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Nehru and all the other stalwarts of the Indian freedom movement... and what is more, he was personally acquainted with them.
Anyhow, long story short, Master was very affectionate and kindly, more grandfatherly to me than my own grandpa! When he discovered that I didnt bother to bring lunch from home but sometimes ate junk food at the little stalls outside the office gates, he insisted on me sharing the hot lunch that was delivered to him from his home, waving aside my embarrassed protestations. (But the food... oh the food! - embarrassment quickly took a back seat!)
His wife (Mrs Master to me) was a very dignified, stern looking lady - but in reality very kind. Not to mention, a SUPERB cook. Everything she made was wonderful, but her tamarind rice was out-of-this-world good. Iyengars are traditionally considered to make the best pulikachal and I have to say that Mrs Master was living proof of that. I wish I'd been interested enough in cooking then to ask her for the recipe.
That said, though, I've evolved a pretty good recipe for pulikachal, based - but of course - on my mother's. My version has coconut in it (and yes, I do realise that for someone who doesnt like coconut in a lot of things, I seem to be using the stuff rather a lot!).
Anyway, while trawling through the Net a couple of years back, I came across a comment in some food-chat board that said the writer added toasted grated coconut to the masala for pulikachal. After a lot of thought - and a great deal of hesitation - I decided to follow that tip. And what a surprise to find that the coconut adds texture but doesnt register on the palate... and you cant smell it either. JUST the ticket.
No more babbling for now - here's my recipe!
Recipe for: Pulikachal (spicy sauce/chutney for making tamarind rice)
1 tbsp tamarind paste (Tamicon) dissolved in 6 cups warm water
1 lemon-sized ball of tamarind, soaked and pulped to make 6 cups of tamarind water
For the masala:
1 tsp oil
2 tbsp coriander seeds
1/2 tbsp chana dal
1/2 tbsp mustard seeds
1/2 tbsp cumin seeds
1 tbsp sesame seeds
1 tbsp urad dal
1 tbsp black peppercorns
1 tbsp peanuts
1/2 tsp fenugreek seeds
8 dried red chillies
10-15 curry leaves
1/4 packed cup grated coconut
For the tempering:
3 tsp oil
2 tsp mustard seeds
2 dried red chillies, broken in half
1 tsp urad dal
2 tsp chana dal
4 tsp roasted peanuts
2 tsp sesame seeds
5-6 curry leaves
1. Roast all the masala ingredients (except the coconut) in one tsp of oil till the seeds pop and the dals become a lovely golden brown. Set aside to cool.
2. Roast the grated coconut separately, turning it over frequently, till it turns golden brown. Let it cool as well.
3. In a coffee grinder or spice grinder, grind the roasted masala ingredients and the coconut to as smooth a paste as possible. This might be easier done a little at a time, because the resulting paste is very thick. Dissolve the paste in a cupful of water and set aside.
4. In a wide but deep vessel, heat 3 tsp oil. Add a pinch of asafoetida (optional), then all the tempering ingredients and cover till the seeds finish popping.
5. Pour in the 6 cups of tamarind water and stir. Let the water come to a rolling boil, then stir in the ground masala paste, mixing till well incorporated.
6. Leave the heat on high and cook the mixture till it reduces to a third and starts thickening. Add salt to taste now. (The reduction could easily take 20 minutes or more, depending on the depth and width of the pan. Basically, the deeper the pan, the longer the time).
7. When the pulikachal is thick (the consistency of honey, more or less), turn the heat off. It will become thicker still as it cools.
Pulikachal can be used to make tamarind rice - about a tbsp mixed with a cupful of cooked rice, but you can add more or less depending on taste. This recipe makes quite spicy pulikachal.