Skimming through my recipe file today, I found a recipe for a chettinad kara kuzhambu. It is one of those elusive foods which I try to cook many times, but in my head, never get right. In certain ways I am a purist myself. Kara Kuzhambu has to taste a particular way – the way it tasted when our cook (V) during my childhood days made it. She had been around with us since before I was born until I was 16 years old. My mom had taught her to cook food our way and she made everything that we ate. She cooked our breakfasts, packed our lunches, gave us our evening snack (including making sure we drank our milk) and came by at night to make hot rotis. I was spoiled – I have my mom’s tastes and V’s tastes – two different breeds to look up to and learn from. Both of them indulged the foodie in me.
I loved eating South Indian food as a child, more than the rest of the family. I mean we all enjoyed idli with sambhar and chutney on Saturday and masala dosa on Sunday and the occasional rasam rice with aloo. But I wanted more. The story goes that as a baby my mom once left me with our upstairs neighbours for a while and came back to find me sitting in their kitchen sink eating spicy sambhar rice. This despite the fact that I hated spicy food at the time! So as you can see, my love for variety started young. V would make different kinds of sambhar with vegetables, spicy coconut vegetable kurma, coconut rice, lemon rice, curd rice with grapes (who knew), tamarind rice – the list is endless. I would go to her house sometimes and eat the food there. I particularly remember the crab curry and the mutton. We never had crab so it was a revelation. She even taught me how to chew the crab and squeeze the flavor out of the body. Who knew where such life skills would help me! And the sweets – for every festival she would make things like murukku, kesari, athirasam and kozhukattai and bring some over for us. Each was a separate taste, each a different texture. The crisp and savory murukkus; the grainy, sweet and bright kesari; the thick, soft, jaggery-tasting athirasam which disintegrates with one bite; the pillow-like kozhukattai with the thin cover and smooth and sweet coconut filling. These were completely different from my mom’s North Indian sweets. It was this difference, the innovation and the creativity which got me. What all it is possible to do with the same set of ingredients! How much fun it would be to have some of these sweets again. But it will have to wait for a while – most of my experiments to make these have been flops until now. It will take some time and courage for me to try again.
Whatever of V’s food I liked, she would make for me at home. Two of my favorites are tomato rice with egg thokku and kara kuzhambu. The tomato rice was sweet and spicy and the egg thokku was basically a boiled egg topped with a chunky masala of onions, tomatoes and garam masala. The whole meal would be electric and as I ate it sitting outside in the hot sun in my school, I would sweat and my nose would run. I would sip on water every two bites and go ah ah, but at the end of it I would be left wanting more. The kara kuzhambu was something different. It was a smooth gravy with brinjals in it, spicy and sweet because of the sambhar powder and the coconut. I ate it with rice and fried papads which gave it some crunch and balanced out the whole meal. This was perhaps my favorite thing that she cooked. To this day I only dream of eating it again. But- I think it is important to have those tastes that linger on your tongue forever – they motivate you to keep trying to get to that perfection.