Years ago, when my dad was based in Srinagar with me and my siblings studying in Madras, my mother used to shuttle between the two cities. I’m guessing she was torn between wanting to take care of us in Madras – I was in the first year of college and my sister and brother still in school – and being with my dad whose health was not good at the time.
It was a fairly odd sort of arrangement for us, because we kids lived with our maternal grandparents in their large home… except that we occupied the upstairs and they lived in the downstairs portion. My grandmother would cook for herself and my granddad, as they were very orthodox and did not believe – quite rightly, too – that I could maintain their high standards of “patthu” and “yecchal” and all the rest of the overdone Brahmin Iyer kitchen rituals. My grandparents might also have suspected that I couldn’t be bothered about observing any of it… something that they could not accept for themselves.
Also, our school and college timings and my granddad’s morning puja rituals (with my grandma cooking food only after her morning bath, and that food allowed to be eaten only after the puja was over) were totally incompatible – if we had waited for all that to take place every morning, getting to school on time would have been impossible.
Whatever the reason, therefore, I had use of the kitchen upstairs to cook basic stuff for me and my sibs, with my grandma providing things like sambar or kootu or whatever took her fancy.
So, every time before my mother left for Srinagar, she would make some fridge staples to last us a few weeks and save me having to cook anything more than the basic rice and dal – I was not particularly enthusiastic about kitchen duties at that point. One of the things she made was black pepper vattha kuzhambu– but in concentrated form, like pulikachal. Anytime I wanted a quick kuzhambu, all I had to do was boil up some tamarind water, dissolve 2-3 tbsp of the concentrate in it – and voila! The gravy was ready in a jiffy.
This recipe that I came across reminded me strongly of that long-ago milagu kuzhambu, so I decided to make it, to see if it was anything like that in my memory. And do you know what… it was actually exactly like my mom didn’t make! (sorry about the anticlimax). :o) But… it was fiery and aromatic and a little of it was plenty for one meal, so it lasted me ages in the fridge. I thoroughly recommend this milagu kuzhambu to anybody who likes the hot peppery taste generated by plenty of hot black peppercorns supplemented with some dried red chillies. That, some hot plain rice, a dollop of ghee and – yes, yes, yes, always the pan-fried potatoes for perfect nostalgia and a satisfying meal… ahhhh…
Recipe for: Milagu kuzhambu
2 tbsp black peppercorns
2 tbsp cumin seeds
2 tbsp tur dal
2 tbsp coriander seeds
1/4 tsp asafoetida powder
12-15 curry leaves
4-5 dried red chillies
1 htsp tamarind paste
Salt to taste
2 tsp oil (Nallennai for preference)
1/4 tsp turmeric powder
1/2 tsp mustard seeds
1/2 tsp urad dal
Salt to taste
Water as required
1. Heat 1/2 tsp oil in a pan, add the peppercorns, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, tur dal, curry leaves and red chillies and fry on medium heat. Take the pan off the heat when the dal turns golden and let it cool.
2. Grind the roasted ingredients to a fine powder. Then add 1/2 cup water along with the tamarind paste and grind to a homogenous masala paste. It will thicken quite quickly, so add a little more water as required to make it thick and pourable.
3. Heat the remaining oil in the pan, add the mustard seeds and urad dal, cover the pan and let the seeds pop on high heat for a 30-60 seconds. Add the asafoetida powder now along with the turmeric powder.
4. Dissolve the masala paste in 1-1/2 cups water and pour into the pan. Add salt to taste and stir.
5. Let the kuzhambu come to a boil (add water if it is too thick, but dont make the kuzhambu runny), then simmer on medium heat for 5 minutes.
Serve hot with steamed rice, a serving of cooked tur dal if you like, and a topping of ghee. Mix, eat and immediately enter pepper heaven.
This kuzhambu stays good for a couple of weeks in an airtight container kept in the fridge. Use a clean dry spoon every time.