Avial by Naman Ramachandran
In the second post of our Gentleman’s Guide to Cooking series, Rajnikanth’s biographer Naman Ramachandran seduces his wife with some South Indian spice!
Laxmi is very much a Bombay girl and she writes extensively about the Minimum City, but a little known fact is that she was born in Trivandrum to Palghat Iyer parents, which means that Avial is part of her DNA.
Before we get to the recipe, a digression. Kerala’s neighbouring state Tamil Nadu and parts of coastal Karnataka also claim Avial as their own. Nice try, but sorry, Avial is very much a Kerala dish. Besides, in Tamil Nadu, they have a curious ritual of serving Avial only at tiffin time as an accompaniment to Adai, rather than as the magnificent centrepiece of a Sadya. They lost me at tiffin.
Looking back at the origins of Avial it would appear that during the events that make up the Mahabharata, King Virata had some unexpected guests and Bhima used whatever vegetables were at hand to whip up what came to be known as Avial. Another story, also from the Mahabharata, suggests that Bhima, after emerging unscathed from a Kaurava poisoning attempt, cooked a medley of vegetables together and it was called Avial. A more plausible story is that the King of Travancore gave a great feast but ran out of food and what was hurriedly cooked together became Avial. Since the capital of Travancore is Trivandrum, Laxmi’s birthplace, I’m going with the Kerala origin story. Besides, Kerala is home to an awesome rock band called Avial, so that’s that.
Despite the jumble origins of the dish, Avial is a precision dish that requires careful monitoring:
-Take a cup each of ash gourd/snake gourd, raw plantain, cucumber, drumsticks, beans and yam and cut them into equal, little finger size batons. Cut some pieces of raw mango.
-Cover with just enough water to boil the vegetables and let it stew, periodically checking the hardness. After around five minutes or so, add the mangoes, salt to taste and half a teaspoon of turmeric. Cook until just done. The vegetables must be cooked a little more than al dente, but not to the point of mush. You can also pressure cook the vegetables, but only one whistle please, otherwise they’ll start disintegrating.
-While the vegetables boil, grind together into a coarse paste in a blender a cup of grated coconut, a teaspoon of cumin and some green chillies (keep in mind that Avial is traditionally a mild dish). Add this paste to the cooked vegetables and mix well, on a low flame. Switch off the flame and add sour curd (if the curd isn’t sour enough add more raw mango in the vegetable boiling process) and mix thoroughly.
-In a separate pan, add a stem of curry leaves to a tablespoon of coconut oil. When the leaves begin to sputter, pour it over the vegetables. And, just like that, your Avial is ready. Serve hot over Palakkad Matta rice and with some pappadam on the side.
Millennia after Kerala invented the Avial, Bombay borrowed the same idea of using left over vegetables to concoct a dish. Much like how the bereft of ideas Bollywood routinely remakes South Indian hits, Bombay took the idea, changed the spicing and vegetables, mashed them up and served it with a bun, butter, lime and chopped onions. Pau Bhaji, you know who your daddy is now. It should come as no surprise that the best street Pau Bhaji vendors in Bombay, on DN Road and PM Road, are all Malayalees.
Naman is also the writer of the Sundance 2016 nominated Brahman Naman , a film about a team of misfits making an alcohol-fuelled journey across India, to compete in the National Quiz, determined to defeat all and desperate to lose their virginities.