I think that’s one of the reasons that on days when we are stressed or the world becomes too cacophonous, most of us reach into that cupboard where we store the recipes of the food our parents fed us. It reminds us of a time free from all responsibility, when we knew that someone else would be around to feed us and look after us, hurt could be healed by a simple kiss and hug and someone knew all the answers. No matter how sophisticated a palate we develop as adults, or how accomplished we become as cooks, we reproduce the food that our mothers put on the table, and for a few minutes, in the act of eating the familiar tastes of childhood, we can forget the ambiguity of life as an adult.
For me, as a South Indian, comfort food has to include rice. I grew up on it, and we ate rice everyday, at a time when no one thought carbs were the enemy. We did have rotis occasionally – the unleavened bread of India. Dad made the most exquisite rotis I have ever eaten, thin, soft and multilayered, a lovely caramel colour, with darker spots of brown which were crisp. The rotis were so delicious that we didn’t need much else by way of accompaniment, a cucumber kosambri( salad) or even just a piece of homemade lime pickle and a bowl of homemade yoghurt – curds, as we call it – was enough. There is something about food that is made with love and dedication that elevates it into balm not only for the body but the soul.
But every day food for us was rice, and a variety of lentil preparations – saaru, huli, kootu, a south-indian style salad of finely chopped or grated vegetables with a splash of lime juice, finely chopped chillies and coriander leaves and the oil seasoning – hot oil with exploded black mustard seeds and curry leaves, and a vegetable made with the same seasoning but topped with grated fresh coconut. We would occasionally have something North Indian – chholey or rajma – but this was very much the exception, indulged in only when dad was out of town, because like most South Indian men, dad is a creature of habit. A meal means rice with the lentil dish, followed by mosaru-anna – rice topped with yoghurt, had plain or with a dash of salt, with a spicy pickle on the side.
Whenever I am feeling stressed out, I reach for my repertoire of rice dishes, accompanied by a lentil gravy. That and potatoes, which are the great comfort food cutting across cultures. The potato dish that comforts me most is a crisp potato sabzi, made from chopped, boiled potatoes. In a 1 tbsp quantity of hot oil seasoning of cumin seeds, you pop in the potato pieces and cook them slowly until they turn brown and crisp on the outside. You then flavour them with salt and chilli powder, and that’s it. I find it interesting that comfort food in many cultures is about bland and soothing food – for us Indians, whatever be the emotion, food has to be spicy!
My favourite lentil gravy dish for comfort is saaru.
Saaru is topped with a seasoning made by heating fresh ghee ( clarified butter) – I always use homemade ghee which tastes and smells much better. You wait for the ghee to turn hot and then drop in a teaspoon of mustard seeds. Once they are done exploding, you pop in a pinch of asafetida-which I love the smell of – and curry leaves. The saaru is garnished with this and chopped coriander leaves which make a bright green contrast to the rust-red colour of the saaru. It is had with hot rice and in my opinion, best eaten by hand. You pour the hot saaru onto the rice which you have mashed slightly in your plate so it mixes better with the liquid. You quickly mix the two together, take a small quantity and make a ball of it, using just the tips of your fingers. You scoop up a morsel of the crisp potato vegetable ( or papad which is what is in the picture) alongside and pop the mouthful into your eager mouth. Aaah...bliss!
1 - 2 tbsp saarina pudi
1 lime-size ball of tamarind, soaked in hot water
1 lime-sized ball of jaggery ( use 1 tbsp brown sugar of jaggery is unavailable)
1 tsp chilli powder ( use kashmiri chilli powder to make it less spicy)
1/2 cup pigeon peas( toovar dal) and a tomato
Salt to taste
Handful curry leaves, washed and dried
1 tbsp home made ghee
1 tsp mustard seeds
Cook the pigeon peas along with a tomato in a pressure cooker or in a sauce pan with water until well cooked and mushy.
Squeeze the tamarind into the hot water and strain the brown liquid into a deep saucepan. Put it on to heat, with the pinch of turmeric, and heat for 3-4 minutes until the raw smell of the tamarind wears off. Then add the saarina pudi, chilli powder, salt, jaggery and half a cup of water and let it boil away for some time. Meanwhile, blend the cooked lentils and tomato together in a blender until mashed into a fine broth.
The fragrance of the saaru should be emanating from the tamarind-masala liquid by now. add the lentil-tomato broth and a cup and a half of water and let it come to a boil. Keep it boiling for 4-5 minutes before turning the heat off.
In a small pan, heat the ghee. Add the mustard seeds. Once they finish exploding, add the asafoetida and the curry leaves and turn off the heat. After a minute, add this to the saaru in the saucepan and top with coriander leaves.