South Indian Coconut Vegetable Curry

When we think of Indian food, the first few things that come to mind are red curries and naan bread. Little do we know that these are generally North Indian staples and there's a whole different world of cuisine in South India.

Take this fresh-looking curry for example. It hails from Karnataka, a state in the south-western region of India, and gets its appetizing green color from a curry paste made with grated coconut and cilantro. It's nothing like the curries we usually get in Indian restaurants here. 

The recipe comes from a new cookbook called Vibrant India that features food from South India, and Karnataka is indeed the home state of its New Jersey-born and bred author Chitra Agrawal, who's also the founder of the Indian condiments company Brooklyn Delhi. "This recipe is adapted from my Auntie Usha," writes Chitra in the headnotes, a line that instantly drew me to the recipe because I strongly believe that the aunties of the world hold the secrets to delicious and nourishing traditional home cooking. 

You will find many such recipes in the book as it is essentially Chitra's way of documenting her family's stories and recipes, which she adapts for her American kitchen. Her gluten-free spin on upma, a savory semolina breakfast bowl, is a fine testament. In her recipe, milled wheat is replaced with polenta (coarsely ground cornmeal), which is mixed with grated coconut and topped with seasonal vegetables. According to her, quinoa or couscous are also welcomed substitutions. And you don't want to miss the curry leaf popcorn recipe too. 

As a big fan of Indian food, I was beyond thrilled when Chitra told me about her cookbook. The majority of the Indian community in Malaysia is of South Indian descent, so the Indian food I grew up eating there was more akin to her style of cooking than what I now commonly get at Indian restaurants here.

I'm talking about dosa (rice and lentil crepe), sambar (vegetable and lentil stew), and rasam (spicy and sour tamarind soup), recipes for which are all in the book! If you'd like to find out more about the differences between northern and southern Indian food, read this article written by Chitra. 

This South Indian Coconut Vegetable Curry can be made with any vegetables of your choice. In the recipe, you will find spices that you're probably already familiar with or already have, like coriander seeds, cumin seeds, cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, and black mustard seeds. But there are a few ingredients that may require a trip to your local Indian store and they are asafetida (hing) powder, chana dalia, and fresh curry leaves. Here's what I've learned about them:

Asafetida, according to the book, is "an extremely pungent resin derived from the sap of a plant similar to fennel." When fried in oil, which is how it is used in this recipe, the asafetida powder releases an aroma and flavor similar to onion and garlic. Some say it smells like feet, hence its other name "devil's dung", but I belong to the group of people who delights in its unique bouquet. A little goes a long way, so be mindful of that pinch!

Not to be confused with chana dal, which is split black chickpeas without skin, chana dalia is roasted chana dal with an off-white puffed appearance and a crispy texture that can be eaten as a snack (see if you can resist!). It is used to thicken curries and chutneys. The name may be confusing as ingredients are sometimes labeled with their alternative names so when in doubt, ask your friendly shopkeeper, which is what I did. 

Finally, curry leaves. Oh, I love curry leaves! I love how they crackle and sputter when kissed by hot oil. And I love whole fresh leaves in a dish, not wanting the intense herby-citrusy taste to leave my mouth when I so fortuitously bite on one. In Malaysia, everyone appears to have a curry leaf (known as daun kari) plant in their yard that they pluck from but in America, I get fresh leaves from the Indian store and meticulously store them (wrapped in a paper towel and placed in a plastic bag in the fridge) to make them last for several weeks before succumbing unused leaves to the freezer (not recommended because the robustness of their flavor diminish). 

Now, let's cook some vegetable curry!

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South Indian Coconut Vegetable Curry
Adapted from Vibrant India: Fresh Vegetarian Recipes from Bangalore to Brooklyn by Chitra Agrawal. Serves 3 to 4 accompanied with rice

A dish from the south-western Indian state of Karnataka, this plant-strong curry has a base made with coconut and cilantro, flavored by spices like coriander seeds, cumin seeds, cinnamon, cloves, and ginger. In total, I used 3 cups of vegetables (a mixture of carrots, broccoli, and peas), which you can substitute with the same amount of vegetables of your choice. Other vegetables traditionally used in this dish are potatoes, green beans, cauliflower, kohlrabi, chayote squash, and spinach.

3/4 cup unsweetened dried grated coconut
1 tablespoon chana dalia (roasted chana dal) or almond flour
1-1/2 teaspoons coriander seeds
1/4 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 cloves
1 teaspoon fresh ginger, peeled and grated
2 Indian green chiles or serrano chiles
1/2 cup cilantro leaves

1/2 cup carrots, sliced into 1/4-inch thick disks
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups broccoli florets, cut into bite-size pieces

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon black mustard seeds
Pinch of asafetida (hing) powder
5 fresh curry leaves
1 dried red chile, broken in half
1 small yellow onion, diced
1/4 teaspoon turmeric powder
1/2 cup fresh or frozen green peas
Chopped cilantro leaves, for garnish

Begin by making the curry paste. Place the dried grated coconut in about 1/2 cup hot water to plump it up. Set aside. 

Place the chana dalia, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, cinnamon, and cloves in a spice grinder and grind them to a powder. You can also use a mortar and pestle to do this. 

In a blender or food processor, combine the ground spices with ginger and chiles and blend them. Then add the coconut and cilantro leaves and blend again. If necessary, add water 1 tablespoon at a time to get the paste moving and keep scraping down the sides. A thick paste is what we want so don't add too much water. 

In a medium saucepan, place the carrots with enough water to cover and 1/2 teaspoon of the salt and bring to a boil. Then bring down to medium heat and simmer until the carrots are fork tender, about 2 to 3 minutes. Add the broccoli and make sure there's enough water to cover and simmer until just tender, about 1 to 2 minutes, or as soon as the broccoli florets turn bright green. Turn off the heat and strain the vegetables, reserving the cooking water. 

Heat up the oil in a heavy-bottomed pan over medium heat. Add mustard seeds and asafetida. Keep a lid handy to cover when the seeds start popping and when the popping starts to subside (usually after a few seconds), turn the heat to medium low. Rub the curry leaves between your fingers to release their natural oils and drop them into the oil, followed by the dried red chile. Again, keep the lid handy as the moisture from the curry leaves may cause the oil to spatter. Stir all the ingredients for a few seconds to evenly coat with the oil. 

Turn the heat to medium, add the diced onion and fry for a few minutes until softened and translucent. Stir in the turmeric powder and add the curry paste. Mix all the ingredients well and cook for a few minutes to let them combine. Add carrots, broccoli florets, peas, and enough of the reserved vegetable water to get a loose gravy consistency. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are cooked through but still retain their shape and bite, just a minute or two more. Garnish with chopped cilantro and serve warm with rice.  

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