Poritha kootu: Kootus and philistines, Madras and exam fever!

Growing up in a household where nutrition was god and taste was considered a poor second to “healthy food for growing bones” meant that till I was about 16, my ideas of culinary glory was ‘mudda pappu’ (boiled dal), ghee and whatever was the dry vegetable of the day! I still could live on these btw!
At 16, I moved to live in my aunt’s house in Madras for a couple of years and was introduced to many foods I hadn’t even heard of – vatha kozhambu, poritha kootu (or porcha coots as i thought of it!) and other stuff which I found initially very weird. I used to get strange looks from the cook – who was a master of his art and probably thought his skill was wasted on a such a philistine. But then again, he (Sankunni Menon) became very fond of me – okay, this kid may eat only mudda pappu but she sure studies hard (I did!) so let me take her culinary education in hand. and so, slowly, my unsophisticated tastebuds learnt the difference between sambar and vatha kozhambu (psssst… till then I’d thought of vathaks as a yuckier form of sambar!)
Sankunni was the reason i did well in the 12th standard exams too – I used to study till late in the night and again get up very early – Sankunni used to make a large flask of coffee for me last thing at night so that I’d have coffee as soon as I woke up – god bless his kindly soul!
One of the dishes I learnt to love was poritha kootu (or porcha coots as i prefer!) and when I went back to Hyderabad I pestered my mom to make it for me. She never was one to say no – even when she didn’t know how – so we ended up with a very strange, gritty dish which effectively put a stop to all further desire for porcha coots! It was only after I set up home of my own that I learnt just how simple this dish was. Here goes podalangai (potlakai or snake gourd) porcha coots:
Poricha kootu
Snake gourd – 1 tender long one (don’t buy the short ones – they’re only masquerading as potlakais!) – chopped into 1 cm pieces – (ashgourd, pumpkin, round yellow cucumbers – dosakais- are all acceptable as a substitute)
Cooked green gram dal – 1 cup
Grated coconut – 3 tbsp + 1 tsp
Red chilies – 2-3
Pepper corns – 4 or 5
Cumin seeds – 1 tsp
Turmeric – 1 pinch
Chili powder – 1 pinch
Mustard seeds – 1/2 tsp
Asafoetida – 1 pinch
Curry leaves – 2 sprigs
Oil – 1 tsp (preferably coconut oil)
Boil the snake gourd with a pinch of turmeric. Grind together the 3 tbsp of grated coconut, red chilies, pepper corns and cumin seeds adding a little water. Add this paste together with the dal to the vegetables and salt and bring to a boil. Switch off. To season, heat one tsp oil in a small pan, add mustard seeds and let splutter. Add 1 tsp grated coconut and let it roast a few seconds till reddish brown. Add chili powder, asafoetida and curry leaves and pour over the kootu.
This goes really well with either rice or phulkas. For the Iyer in my house 😉 – plate with poritha kootu, avial, appalam, vadam and majjiga mirapakayalu, taamara kazhangu – can he ask for more??