Keralan Mini-Feast (India)

The sadhya is a traditional Keralan feast: a banana leaf covered with small servings of 20 different items, from rice to curries to breads to a banana for dessert. It’s pretty awesome.

It’s also not something you’ll make for a weekday meal. So what I’ve done is to take three vegetable curries and combine them for you for a mini-sadhya of sorts. Delicious, redolent of Keralan flavors, and just fun.

Each dish has a different texture, so even though the flavor profiles are complementary, the tastes are very unique. I loved how they all worked together, so I’m going to present them as such. If you want to make each individually, I got all three recipes (plus the rice) from the cookbook Savoring the Spice Coast of India: Fresh Flavors from Kerala by Maya Kaimal.

Each recipe has its own spice mix, or masala. You’ll note that they are each slightly different, and that difference matters.

Curry leaves are the hardest part of this to get and also the most important. I bought a bunch for $1 at a local Indian grocery, so I’d recommend that. You can also order them via mail, but the premium for shipping has to be crazy.

 

Read through this first and build your mise en place before starting. Several of the steps go VERY quickly, so it’s best to have everything chopped, mixed, and prepped before you turn on the stove.

 

This is going to be a bit messy and will use five pots: I’ll note which recipe you’re working on as you go - what can be made first and what can wait until the end.

 

Serves 6

 

INGREDIENTS

  • 11 tbsp vegetable oil (divided)

  • 2 cups basmati rice

  • 1 cup thoor dhal, washed and rinsed (Or masoor dhal, or whatever dal you prefer)

  • 28 ounces fresh spinach (or 2 10-ounce packages of frozen chopped spinach, thawed)

  • 3/4 cup grated unsweetened coconut

  • 3 1/2 cups finely chopped onions (divided)

  • 1 tsp garlic, minced

  • 1 fresh green chile (serrano or Thai), split lengthwise

  • 3 dried red chiles (divided)

  • 1 tsp whole cumin seeds

  • 2 tsp coriander

  • 2 tsp ground cumin (divided)

  • 4/8 tsp cayenne (divided)

  • 5/8 tsp turmeric (divided)

  • 1 1/2 tsp mustard seeds (divided)

  • 20 to 22 fresh curry leaves (divided)

  • 2 cans (15 ounce) chickpeas, drained and rinsed

  • 1 tsp coarsely ground black pepper

  • 2 3/4 tsp salt (divided)

  • 2 tsp fresh squeezed lemon juice (divided)

  • 1 tsp ghee

  • 1/4 cup cilantro (for garnish)

  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

 

STEPS

Start with the:

KERALAN DAL

  1. In a 2-quart saucepan, combine dal with 2 1/2 cups water. Bring to a boil. 

  2. Reduce heat to a simmer, and cook, partially covered, for 30 minutes or so, until the water is absorbed and the lentils break apart under pressure from your spoon.

 

Move on to the:

BASMATI RICE

  1. Heat 1 tbsp of vegetable oil in a saucepan over medium-high heat. When hot, add 1 tsp whole cumin seeds. Then quickly add 2 cups basmati rice. Stir to coat each grain of rice. Toast for a while to bring out a nutty aroma.

  2. Add 4 cups water, bring to a boil, stir, cover, reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Remove from heat after that and set aside.

 

Back to the:

KERALAN DAL

  1. While the rice and dal are cooking, create a masala for the dal:

    1. 1/2 tsp cumin

    2. 1/8 tsp cayenne

    3. 1/4 tsp turmeric

  2. In a frying pan, heat 2 tbsp vegetable oil. Add 1 tsp mustard seeds and COVER the skillet or pot. Mustard seeds will pop like crazy once they reach the right internal temperature, and that’s what you want to release flavor, but trust me, you’ll want to keep them in the skillet instead of all over your kitchen.

  3. Once the popping subsides - but before they burn - add 1 dried red chile and 10 curry leaves. After a few seconds, add 1/2 cup onion and sauté until golden brown.

  4. Add garlic and sauté for 1 minute. Add the masala and saute for 1 more minute.

  5. Take this whole onion mixture and add it to the dal in the saucepan, along with 1/2 cup water and 1 tsp salt. Stir to combine, and simmer for an additional 10 minutes, partially covered.

  6. Add more water as needed - the consistency should be pea soup-thick, not pasty.

  7. Remove from heat and add 1 tsp lemon juice and ghee.

  8. Set aside - you can reheat when it’s time to serve.

 

Next comes the:

SPINACH with COCONUT (Spinach Tharen)

  1. Wash, dry, and chop the fresh spinach or drain the thawed frozen spinach. Set aside.

  2. Create a masala for the spinach:

    1. 1/2 tsp cumin

    2. 1/8 tsp cayenne

    3. 1/8 tsp turmeric

  3. In a bowl, combine coconut, the green chile, 1 tsp salt and the masala. Stir with about 1/4 cup water, just enough to make a paste.

  4. In a large skillet - or even a strong bottomed soup pot: I liked the high walls to keep the spinach in - heat 2 tbsp oil over medium-high heat. Add 1 tsp mustard seeds and COVER the skillet or pot. 

  5. Once they start to pop, add 2 dried red chiles, 10 to 12 curry leaves and 1 cup onion. Stir and sauté for 2 minutes or until the onion starts to soften (but not brown).

  6. Add the spinach and cook, stirring constantly for about 5 minutes or until the spinach is halfway to wilted through. 

  7. Stir in the coconut paste and keep cooking, stirring constantly until the spinach is tender. Remove from heat and taste for salt. Set this aside - you can reheat quickly when it’s time to serve.

 

Proceed to the:

PEPPERY CHICKPEAS

  1. Create a masala for the chickpeas:

    1. 2 tsp coriander

    2. 1 tsp cumin

    3. 1/4 tsp cayenne

    4. 1/4 tsp turmeric

  2. Heat 4 tbsp oil in frying pan over medium-high heat. Sauté 2 cups onions until light brown. Add masala and stir for 1 minute or until the spices start to smell fragrant.

  3. Add the drained chickpeas, 1 tsp pepper, 3/4 tsp salt, and about a tablespoon of water. Sauté over medium heat stirring constantly until a few of the chickpeas start to break down. Add a teaspoon of water whenever the mixture becomes dry: it should never be wet or saucy but it should be moist.

  4. Stir in 1 tsp fresh lemon juice, remove from heat, taste for salt and serve with 1/4 cup chopped cilantro.

 

Wow. 23 steps. I know that seems like a lot, but it’s all about careful planning your mise en place. 

 

Trust me - you’ll love this. I did. The chickpeas are my new go-to recipe, and the spinach with the coconut was particularly outstanding.

 

Recipe adapted from Savoring the Spice Coast of India: Fresh Flavors from Kerala by Maya Kaimal (2000).

Photo by Drew Vahrenkamp

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