30 August 2007

What I mean in the Book ... in Pictures!

Last night, when Steve got home from work, he went to town on the leftover stir-fry and sambhar. He demolished the stir-fry. The sambhar was left over a bit, but not by much. I'd be surprised if I could pull one meal out of that! On top of that, because Steve is a big eater, I wasn't about to risk it. So there I was, foraging about in the fridge, as I do on many nights. I hope that I can show you how things come together in my house, so that you understand that I'm not some great genius or something.

I'd used up three chayotes in the sambhar, but I still had two left over. The latin american store (Sedano's) had a sale on them for five for a dollar, so that's why I had so many! That same store had tomatoes on sale for $0.69 a pound, so I had one of those lying around from when I bought them two or three weeks back. In other words, said tomato was still edible, but too soft to eat in a sandwich. It wouldn't hold up to the strain. The string beans that Steve had picked up on Sunday were starting to look a little dodgy. While I was there, I figured that a potato would round things out nicely. Earlier that week, Steve had eaten a tomato and onion open faced sandwich with some avocado slices in it. I still had half that onion left over.

I began by chopping up the chayote and potatoes into evenly sized pieces. I was tempted to wait until I had the onions and tomatoes in the pot first, but I didn't really trust myself to get everything cranked out in time. I certainly didn't want to get the dish started, only to have the whole thing be a burnt mass! That being said, I knew that if I gave myself enough time, I would have the opportunity to pay attention to the size of of the pieces of potato and chayote. When I'm in a rush, things like that don't matter so much, and the vegetables get chopped whatever size they got hacked at, and anyone who doesn't like it can eat something else.

While I was chopping, I had Steve break off the ends of the string beans. It is the one thing I hate the most about dealing with fresh green beans, and he wasn't really doing much else at the time. Then, I got my onions and tomatoes choppped. I started out with my mother's wok. It's old, and it's not pretty, but it turns out an excellent dish every time. It's also got all those years of spices and foods that have been served to so many different people. I get kind of sentimental about things like that. They're so well used for a reason!
I preheated the wok while I dashed outside to grab a branch of curry leaves. I gave them a very rough chop. When the oil was hot enough that it was moving around in the wok freely, I added in mustard seeds. I waited about 45 seconds or so for the mustard seeds to get hot, and pop and explode, and make a bit of a mess. If you make this dish at home, feel free to use a deep, large stock pot. It'll ensure that you don't get splattered by the hot mustard seeds.

Trust me when I say that it is a distinctly unpleasant experience to have a screaming hot seed come fly up at you and hit your skin. Once the mustard seeds have popped, add in the sesame seeds. Because sesame seeds have more fat in them, they'll come up to the proper heat more quickly, and will pop more quickly as well. You can see that the sesame seeds did indeed pop, because you see how they're littering the sides of the wok. This is why you want to stick with as high a temperature as the stove will go to.

This next step is mostly optional. I added in a very large handful of curry leaves. (This step is optional. If you don't have curry leaves, leave them out.) They exploded like crazy as well. I sprinkled in a dash or three of asafoetida powder. (Again, optional. If you can't find asafoetida, don't bother hunting far and wide.) I then added the chopped onion and garlic, and let the three get stirred around until the spices and oil combined completely. The third image from the left shows how it should look when it's been stirred around enough.

Once the onions and garlic had a chance to cook like that for a minute or two (it gives them time to settle in to the oil, and flavour everyting properly), I was ready for the addition of the turmeric powder and salt. Tumeric powder gives the dish a delectable yellowy orange colour. Salt, on the other hand, allows the onions to leak out their water more quickly. When the onions dehydrate more quickly, the sugars in the onion will caramelise (cook down and turn brown) more quickly, and you can get on with things. I stirred the turmeric, salt, and onions around in the wok until they were very well combined.

When the onions are in your pot, along with the turmeric and the salt and the curry leaves, this is what they should look like, once you stir everything around. I'm going to stop at this point for a reason. From here on out, you can add pretty much any vegetable that your heart desires. This is the base of any typical South Indian curry. The reason that I use sesame seeds is because in Chennai or any other typical South Indian city, we buy this sesame oil called Til oil. It's got a very distinct flavour, and the smell is amazing. Til oil is fairly expensive outside of India, and I don't want to send you all out there looking for this stuff, and getting frustrated that you can't make Indian food. The reason that the asafoetida and curry leaves are optional is because both of those components only add polish to the final dish. You can make a delicious, mouth-watering dish at any time without those ingredients. With the curry leaves and asafoetida, however, you'll get that authentic South Indian flavour that you'll get when you're at a restaurant or home in Madurai or Chennai or any other such city.


  1. What a great combination of colors and flavors -- and I have much of the stuff at the house, surprisingly. I was wondering what to make for dinner and was debating whether to pitch my super-soft tomatoes, but this is a great, quick idea. Thanks for the inspiration!

  2. Oh very cool! I certainly hope that you experiment, and figure out something that works for you! :)

  3. Hey Dino!!
    I've been living with a South Indian for nearly three years, although he grew up in Deli so he mostly cooks North Indian curries. He's taught me a lot about Indian cooking (being myself but a humble Canadian) and I've absolutely fallen in love with the ease and artistry of Indian Cuisine. I became vegan a few months ago and the transition was pretty seamless since my love of Indian cooking meant that I was already cooking only vegan dishes at home (my flatmate is a vegetarian, but aside from a bizarre fascination with yogurt almost all the dishes he's taught me to cook are vegan by default).

    It's really nice to read about the details of cooking from you, stuff like adding salt to the cooking onions to leach out the sugars... I had no idea, and it's extremely useful information when you're cooking onions every other day :) You're book is in the mail, so I expect it to contain many more useful tidbits... if not I'm sure I'll complain to you :P

    This post sort of epitomizes one aspect of Indian cooking that I love the most, 80% of all dishes start the same way, and slight variations on the theme result in wildly delicious and unique dishes. And with minimal guidance it's more-or-less risk free. You might make a few small mistakes at first, but it doesn't take long to avoid major disaster.

    I have one question too, why did you leave the garlic whole? And even more generally when should it be added? And does this change if I press, chop, or throw it in whole?

    Anyway, thanks for all the info and your love of cooking, if you're ever in Vancouver Canada let me know, there's always room at our home for visitors.