A for Avial - South Indian Curry

So I've decided to do this A-Z Blogging Challenge and my topic will be Tambrahm Cuisine. It does seem like a maniacal idea, given my crazy schedule these days. But what better way to push myself to be more regular on the blog than this.

A is for Avial

In my mind, no celebratory traditional lunch is complete without Avial. This is one of the popular Indian curry recipes from some of the regions in South India. It reminds me of Deepavalis, weddings, birthdays and many such happy times. If someone asks me what I'd like for my last meal, I'd say avial, sambar, potato curry, without even taking a moment to think. It's simple, sublime and solely relying on the flavours of the vegetables used, without the aid of any strongly flavoured ingredients like onions or garlic. And despite that, it has a such an intense fragrance and flavour that even as I imagine it, the flavours hits my tastebuds, loud and clear.

On avial-for-lunch days, my grandmother used to get down to work by first reducing a large wedge of white pumpkin into uniform thin batons on her cast iron aruvamanai. This is a sigmoid cast iron blade fitted to a wooden base. It also has a round feathery blade on the top, to multitask as a coconut grater, I suppose. But from what I remember, she would use the aruvamanai only for chopping. You need a lot of practice to handle this contraption. To use this, one cannot be standing and cutting on the countertop or sitting at a table. It requires you to sit on the floor, with one leg or thigh steadying the wooden base and the other leg outstretched, which is why all the chopping at home, was always done on the kitchen floor, with some newspapers spread out to catch any spills or seeds. While I can chop at ninja speed with my chef's knife, I don't think I would be able to manage cutting up a single cucumber with this traditional chopping implement.

After skillfully chopping up the round pumpkin into straight sticks, a medley of other root vegetables like sweet potato, colocassia, potato, carrots would get the same treatment. The women of my family won't resist adding brinjal to any dish, so a few errant brinjals would also be sliced up and added to the other delightful mix of vegetables. [Isn't it quite obvious that I don't like brinjals in avial!] 

With the vegetables chopped up, they would be collected in a heavy bottomed, somewhat high walled pot, with some water, salt and turmeric. Just the right quantity of water, and not too much because the white pumpkin is after all, mostly water. This mix of vegetables would then be brought to a simmer, until the veggies were cooked. A modern cook might question as to how vegetables of different textures end up being cooked together. I never asked this question to my mother or grandmother. Amma has this one cautionary tip though- if one plans to cook these veggies in the pressure cooker, we need to be attentive enough to switch it off on time, as a mushy mix of vegetables are no good for an avial.

The focus would then be on making the fresh paste that makes the avial what it is. This is minimalistic cooking at its best. Freshly grated coconut, 'oru moodi' my mum will say, which means half a coconut. But me being the health freak cook, I often take a shortcut on the calories here and use just half of a half. Some cumin seeds and 2-3 green chillies or more would be ground to a fine paste along with the coconut. In modern times, the grinding would happen in the chutney jar of the mixer and in older times, on a stone built into the end of the kitchen counter, with a thick stone kozhavi (rolling pin), with the aid of sprinkles of water.

Once the vegetables were cooked, the freshly ground paste would join them in the pot. After this, there wouldn't be any vigorous boiling, only a slow simmer as the delicate flavours wouldn't survive too much heat. For the finishing touches, a little slurry of rice-flour in water, would be added to the avial makes it a little thicker and not run all over the plate (or banana leaf), especially if you short-change on the quantity of coconut used, like me. In my home, they'd also add some fresh yogurt towards the end to add a slight tanginess to the sauce. The finale would be to heat some coconut oil, crackle some fresh curry leaves and this fragrant oil poured over the top of the dish.

Avial has an interesting play of textures from the different kinds of vegetables, the stewy pumpkin, the carrots with a bite and the potatoes, almost dissolving in your mouth. You'll realise the beauty of using a single whole spice, cumin, in this recipe, that showcases its smoky, unique flavour to the maximum. The sharp fieriness of the green chillies is mellowed down by the coconut and the final garnish of curry-leaf flavoured coconut oil adds a whole new dimension of flavour to the dish.

There are two kinds of variations to this dish, very slight though. If avial is had as a vegetable side, it is made thicker, so the overall water used along the recipe would be much reduced and you can't really skimp on the coconut usd. This is how it is served in marriages. The other version that I'm slightly partial to, is what we call at home, the 'avial kozhambu' - where it's got much more liquid or sauce. It's perfect to mix into white rice and have another veggie roast or something on the side. The latter version even gets a slight tamarind treatment, where a little bit of tamarind puree is mixed into the dish and allowed to simmer until the raw taste of tamarind wears off. 

A lot of different communities in TamilNadu and Kerala make avial and every home has their own style and recipe. This is how my family makes it, and this is what makes my mouth water, even as I type out this story.

Recipe for Avial 
Serves 4 as a side dish

All vegetables to be cut into batons of equal size
750 grams white pumpkin, peeled, seeds scooped out
2 medium carrots
2 medium potatoes, scrubbed, peels retained
2 medium sweet potatoes, scrubbed, peels can be retained
4-6 colocassias (arbi), peeled
4 small eggplants, quartered
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
3/4 tsp salt
1/2 a coconut, freshly scraped
1.5 tsp cumin seeds
3 green chillies
2 tsp rice flour + 2 tbsp water
1 tbsp coconut oil
1 sprig curry leaves

In a large pot, bring 1 cup of water to boil with salt and turmeric. Add all the vegetables. Once it comes to a simmer, reduce the flame, partially cover the pan and cook until all the vegetables are cooked, but don't let them get mushy.
In the mixer, grind the coconut, cumin, chillies to a very fine paste using as little water as possible.
Add this mix to the cooked vegetables in the pot. Add the rice-flour slurry to this and bring to a simmer until thickened.
Heat the coconut oil in a small tadka ladle and crackle the curry leaves in it. Pour over the avial. Serve hot with steamed rice, arachuvitta sambar and preferably, fried appalams / pappadams too!

Other vegetables you can add: Snake gourd, drumstick, peas

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