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.
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.
Just like brinjal, drumsticks are one of the most commonly used vegetables in Tamil cooking. Most houses in Tamil Nadu have a drumstick tree and when in season they not only use the drumsticks in almost all the preparations, but also sell or gift them to their neighbours. Home-grown drumsticks are tastier than store bought, but I get mine from the stores as I don’t have a drumstick tree. In Thirunelveli, the vegetarians combine drumsticks and brinjal to make this very tasty fry; the proportion of drumstick used is much less than then brinjal due to the drumstick’s strong flavour.
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.
We Tamilians love our drumstick trees, and in villages every house would have one. In Chennai, however, only those with large plots of land have them and the rest of us have to buy drumstick leaves from stores. Drumstick leaves are used to make poriyal (fry). They are not usually combined with other vegetables, but non-vegetarians cook these with either fresh or dry prawns (karuvadu).
Bitter gourd is a vegetable which, in spite of its bitterness, is cooked in different ways and served almost every week in Tamil Nadu because it is widely believed that it lowers the blood sugar level. I do not consider this to be true because I’ve always found holes in research which claimed this effect. My mother used to make this very simple preparation but not very often because of the labour involved in removing the seeds from the small bitter gourd, which was the only variety available then. Now that the larger variety is available throughout the year, it has become much quicker to make this poriyal.