I’ve mentioned on many occasions before that growing up in India in the 1970s and 1980s my sense of South Indian food—like that of most North Indians—was restricted to the idli-dosa-vada-sambhar-rasam complex. It wasn’t till much later—not till I had left India, in fact—that my limited view of South Indian cuisines really began to open up. I don’t mean to imply that this opening up required leaving India because, of course, it did not: it’s only that it was in that time period—in the late 1990s and 2000s—that I began to become truly aware of the wider world of South Indian food. This was due both to the publication in that period of higher profile English language Indian cookbooks on regional cuisines (see the titles in the excellent Penguin series) and to the first flowering of the South Asian food web on forums and then blogs. As I began to cook some of these dishes—this was also the period in which South Indian ingredients began to become easily available in South Asian groceries in the US—I was particularly drawn to poriyals.
Again, more a genre than a specific dish, a poriyal is a stir-fry of vegetables along with some tempered spices and lentils. A poriyal can be made with pretty much any vegetable and you also have a lot of leeway in how you cut the vegetable you use. (Poriyal, by the way, is the Tamil word; very similar preps are made elsewhere in the South as well.) The very first poriyals I ate and made were with cabbage, and indeed that’s been the dominant poriyal prep in my kitchen—though in recent years I’ve made the move from cabbage to shredded brussels sprouts. Our current favourite though is beetroot poriyal. The earthy flavour of red beets goes perfectly with the nutty flavour of the spices, lentils and coconut and the heat of the chilli.
And it’s very easy to make. Many recipes call for the beetroot to be par-cooked or completely cooked first but I don’t bother. Similarly, I don’t bother with shredding the beets as some recipes call for. This is because I like my beets to be slightly toothsome. I just peel and roughly dice it. Here’s how I like to make it.
- 1 lb red beets, peeled and diced.
- 1 pinch hing.
- 4-6 dried hot red chillies (the hotter the better), torn up.
- 1 sprig curry leaves.
- 1 tspn mustard seeds.
- 1 tspn urad dal.
- 1 tspn channa dal.
- 2 hot green chillies, minced.
- 1/2 tspn haldi/turmeric.
- 1/3 cup shredded dessicated coconut.
- Salt to taste.
- 1/2 cup water (as needed).
- 2 tblspns oil, preferably coconut.
- Heat the oil over medium heat and add the hing along with the mustard seeds.
- Once the mustard seeds start popping add the red chillies, the two dals and the curry leaves. Saute till glossy but don’t let the chillies scorch or the dals darken too much.
- Add the beets along with the turmeric, salt and minced green chillies and cook over medium heat for 5 minutes or so, stirring vigorously all the while.
- Cover the pan and lower the heat to medium low.
- Cook till the beets are done but still presenting some resistance to the bite. You may need to add some water along the way to keep the beets from sticking—do it a bit at a time.
- Add half the desiccated coconut, mix in, cover the pan again and cook for another 5 minutes or so.
- Stir in the rest of the desiccated coconut, give it a mix and take it off the fire. It will soften from the heat of the dish.
- Serve with rice and dal.
- My recipe is the “average” of a few recipes I’ve seen on blogs and in cookbooks and an attempt to approximate some of the better beetroot poriyals I’ve had in restaurants. (See, for example, the Sri Lankan ratu ala at House of Curry in Rosemount.)
- More traditional preps will tell you to use freshly grated coconut. It’s very good that way too but I really like the nutty flavour from the desiccated coconut that gets reconstituted from the heat of the dish.
- You can use fewer red or green chillies if you’re not comfortable with high heat but this is a dish where the balance of the beets’ sweetness and earthiness and the heat of chillies seems important to me. But make it as is most comfortable for you.