“Anu atha, what is Vat-ral-koz-ham-bu?” asks my nephew Shriram who’s just landed in Madras and been taken to visit the sights – one of which is a famous local sweets and savouries shop. Puzzled, i walk over to the shelf that he was staring at in fascination.
Omg, you’s better start learning a bit of Tamil, or rather, Tamizh, now that you’re going to be here for five years! You’d better learn to pronounce Vatra kozhambu properly or else you’ll get beaten up sometime in the years you’re going to be here!” And he proceeded to receive his first of many lessons in pronouncing the Tamil “zha” – the lessons continued for five years till he left Madras but he never got beyond a “C” in pronunciation!
Can’t blame him though, i married a Tamilian and it took me 6 months of hardcore Tamil immersion before i got it right! Not to mention having an uncle whose Ph.D thesis in phonetics (honest-to-god, I’m NOT making this up!) was based on this one sound – unique to the Tamizh language! For those of you still struggling with it,, try curling your tongue upwards into a “U” and saying “llll” through the curve – enjoy!
My own first encounter with this dish was a disaster – it looked like a browner version of the familiar sambar and so i piled it on – four large ladlefuls – on to my rice – only to have my tongue curl up backwards and upwards in the sheer shock of the sour taste and i went “llllll” in disgust! Am pretty sure now that’s how the Tamilians got to invent the sound “zha” – the shock of vatral kozhambu (or vatha kozhambu – easier to say!) – the first guy must have gone “llll… ” and his “paattu master” (the ubiquitous music teacher in every good Tamilian household!) must have decided he had a prodigy on his hands!!! ZH-UH!!!
Here goes the dish dear to the hearts of everyone south of Nellore!
Drumsticks (not chicken, i’ve told you this earlier but the hard, 2-foot long bean called “murunga” in Tamil and “moringa moringa” to give it it’s botanical due) – 2 cut into 2 cm long pieces. Or spring onions – 1 handful. Or dried “vatral 2 tbsp – salted and sun-dried variety of seeds
Sambar powder – 3 tbsp
Tamarind paste – 2 tsp
Jaggery – 1 to 1.5 tbsp
Rice flour for thickening – 1 tsp)
Sesame oil – 2 tbsp
Fenugreek seeds – roasted and powdered – 1 tsp
Turmeric – 1/4 tsp
Asafoetida – 1 generous pinch
Curry leaves – 2 sprigs
Garlic pods- optional) – 10
Mustard seeds – 1/2 tsp
Chana dal (bengal gram dal) – 1 tsp
Urad dal – 1/2 tsp
Heat the oil in a pan, add the mustard. Let it splutter and add the chana dal and the urad dal. Let them turn golden brown and add the curry leaves and asafoetida. Add the sambar powder and turmeric and turn over for about 30 seconds. Add the vegetables and mix well. If using shallots, fry for a little longer. If using garlic, add at this stage and fry for a couple of minutes.. Add two cups of water, cover and cook for 5 minutes. Add the tamarind paste, jaggery, salt, fenugreek seed powder and a slurry of rice flour. Cook for a further 10-15 minutes till the vegetables are tender and the fragrance is so overpowering that you begin to lick the ladle ;).
Switch off, serve with hot rice and appadams.
Vathaaks (our nickname for this) tastes even better the next day. Keeps for a week – I challenge you to!
Oh, an btw, roll your tongue over and say “lllll…..”!!
btw, working with only one eye open – having a small polyp removal today -so there may be some spell errors – please to forgive!!!!