Thirunelveli’s knowledge of kovai kai, in the ’60s, was limited to a story where two men appeared before a judge claiming that a parrot was theirs. The judge asked them to prove it and the parrot’s owner took some kovai kai from his pocket, which immediately attracted the parrot, convincing the judge that the parrot was his. We always believed that kovai kai was only for parrots and it was not available there in stores. For all I know it is still not available. When my father was transferred to Chennai, my mother spotted this in a store and came home and said, ‘They are selling kovai kai which only the parrots eat!’ We didn’t buy it because we didn’t know how to cook it. When my sister got married she found that her in-laws, who had been posted in Andhra Pradesh, cooked kovai kai at home. I had eaten that once in their house and started cooking it once I had my own establishment. I do not know if this is the exact recipe, but it is fairly close to what I enjoyed there.
Though colocasia is not a favourite, like potatoes, it is used in a variety of preparations, both vegetarian and non-vegetarian. I call this dish varuval because it is deep fried, though it is not crisp and doesn’t crackle like chips. The carbohydrate in the colocasia is slimy in nature and also very soft. Usually, colocasia is sliced thin and deep fried, giving it a chewy texture. I have cut the colocasia only into 2 chunks, making the outside of the deep fried colocasia crisp and the inside soft. I have also created the masala by adding roasted and powdered sombu to the usual turmeric and chilli powder mix to add a bit of wallop to the flavour.
In 1984, we attended a Marathi wedding. In the wedding feast, a dish of brinjal and mochai (field beans) was served, and I was impressed by the taste and even asked for a second helping. My daughter, who was only 10 years old at that time, still remembers that incident. I tried to recreate the dish, but I could not get the exact flavour and consistency. A few months ago a Facebook friend, Vandarkuzhali Rajasegar, who is also an Assistant Professor in Foods and Nutrition, posted that she had made a dish of brinjal and white channa (whole Bengal gram/white chickpea). I immediately asked her for the recipe. Though she gave me a mere skeleton of the recipe, without amounts, I knew immediately that I had hit upon that 1984 dish. I standardised it using mochai, and I got the exact flavour after all these years 😀
Prawns always help add flavour to vegetable dishes. This recipe comes from my Burma repatriate friend. When she told me that her mother combines prawn with bitter gourd I was shocked and sceptical about the taste of the product because the bitter gourd, as the name suggests, has a very strong, bitter flavour. Still, I got the recipe from her and decided to try it at home. To my amazement and pleasure, I found that this is one of the most delectable preparations of prawn with another vegetable.
Thuvaram is a kind of a fry or poriyal which is popular in the southern districts of Tamil Nadu. There are 2 varieties of thuvaram: one uses the vegetable and very few seasonings; the other includes a small amount of red gram dhal and coconut ground with garlic and cumin seeds. Pudalankai (Podalankai/Podalangai) or snake gourd is suitable for the first type. Later on I’ll be posting the second variety also.
January and February are the months when the markets in Tamil Nadu receive the freshest of the so-called English Vegetables. As a child I used to look forward to these months when we used to have peas and cauliflower very often in the menus. The peas are luscious and the cauliflower is so creamy white and crisp. In Palayamkottai (my hometown) Rich Peas Pulav and Muttai Cauliflower used to be prepared every week. My mother had a collection of recipes using these vegetables. One of the favourites was meat cooked along with peas, cauliflower, and, of course, potatoes that are always combined with meat.
In Tamil cooking vinegar is hardly ever used. It may find its way into a few pickles, but even that is very rare. That is why this recipe is honoured with kaadi (vinegar) in the title. My uncle was in the Indian Air Force, and posted in the North during his service. He used to bring his family in summer to visit the relatives in Thirunelveli, and on the way, they used to make a halt in Chennai and stay a few days with us. In those days, the most convenient train was the Janata Express, which though called express, always came a day late. Therefore, for this journey, my aunt used to make chappatis and this vinegar fry which would keep easily for 2 days without refrigeration.