Presenting a Masterchef dish from Kerala – olan!

Every time I watch Masterchef on TV with my family and there’s this event where you have to cook with just three or four or five ingredients, my Indian cooking brain goes into a tizzy – HOW on earth CAN one cook with just that few? Everyone racks their brain to come up with stuff – the problem (also the sheer brilliance!) with Indian cuisine is the average Susila maami’s ability to get up and half asleep, throw a minimum of ten ingredients into a pan to make a (get this!) very simple breakfast of – say – upma!

At the other end of the spectrum – take a bisibele bhaat, for instance – with only thirty ingredients or a biryani with ’bout the same – festive dishes all right but the average housewife – househusbands are a new and untested species – at least in numbers large enough to constitute a reasonable sample size so I’m going to stick to “housewife” despite my feminist leanings – can and does make these on her own – and is not counted a Masterchef for having done so!

Also the sheer variety – India’s goddess of cooking – Tarla Dalal – may her soul rest in peace for the number of lives she has saved! – has over FOUR THOUSAND  recipes using potatoes! On the other hand, what “Saveur” and “Bon appetit” and other West-based food magazines have lists of the most difficult recipes in the world and the most number of ingredients I’ve seen is twenty two – for a Devils’ Food Cake! Of course, the complexity with western cuisine lies in the processes – a classic cheese souffle may have fewer than ten ingredients but getting it right takes an accomplished cook! But remember, this whole narrative is about cooking with few, very few ingredients…

The one state in India which bucks this trend and makes delicious food with just a handful of ingredients is Kerala. As a child, on a school trip to Kerala – way back in the 70’s, we were served red rice at every restaurant we ate in and for palates unaccustomed to it – only extreme hunger pangs drove us to eat some! And so, for a long time, I never did care for Kerala food.

Till I grew up and married into a Palghat family. Even familiar dishes like the majjiga pulusu/moar kozhambu (or moar kootan in Malayalam) were made using far fewer ingredients and with just as good results! What also tickled me was that ingredients with a scant two or three ingredients had names with names with more syllables than ingredients! Take the “mezhukkuvaratti” for instance (six syllables). Complicated, you’d think? Nah! It is usually made with as few as three or four ingredients! (basically a stir fry with green plantains and/or yam/blackeyed beans, salt and oil). And tasty out of all proportion to its name or number of ingredients! 

BUT, to my mind the heights of Kerala cuisine is in the very humble, very everyday “olan” – a dish so simple even a seven-year old can make it and a dish so delicious that it lives in a class by itself! 


  • White pumpkin (ash gourd) – 2 cups
  • Yellow pumpkin – 2 cups
  • Blackeyed beans (karamani) – 1 tbsp – soak for a few hours and pressure cook with a little water.
  • Green chilies – 2 – slit
  • Coconut milk – 2 cups
  • Salt
  • Coconut oil – a few drops to garnish

Cut the pumpkin into thin pieces of 1″ square. In a large saucepan, place the white pumpkin pieces at the bottom. Pour a couple of tbsp of coconut milk over the top and cover and cook for just three minutes. Cover with the yellow pumpkin pieces. Add the green chilies and the rest of the coconut milk and cook till almost done. White pumpkin takes a few minutes longer than the yellow and if you cook them together, the yellow tends to get mashed up. Add the beans and salt and cook till tender but still spearate pieces. The garnishing for this is an exercise in simplicity – just drizzle a few drops of coconut oil over the top while it’s still hot! C’est tout! Or as they say in Palghat – “ambaradaan”!

And there’s my limited ingredient Masterchef dish!