Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Kerala cooking series: Learn to cook lentils!

Its been one year since the Kerala Kitchen cooking event was launched and our little event has grown by leaps and bounds, thanks to you all! It has been wonderful to see what has been cooking in your kitchens and learn so much over the months, about the cuisine we all love with a passion and also to meet so many wonderful bloggers who share a common love for Kerala,  thanks to this event!

I am so thankful to all of you who have taken part month after month and to those of you who kindly and enthusiastically signed up to host the event and take it forward to your wonderful blogs. We are signed in till May this year and there is space for hosting later on in the year. The current month's host is the lovely Prathiba of Cook- Ezee and I am waiting to see the deliciousness that you all send her this month!

With the round ups for Kerala Kitchen happening across the blogosphere, while absolutely wonderful has left this blog looking a little sad and empty. I thought that it would be a good idea to post a series on Kerala cooking basics on this blog which would be useful to those new to Kerala cooking. This series would focus not just on recipes, but learning the basic techniques and "formulas" so that you can make up your own recipe and don't even need to really rely on one. It's an attempt to put forward how our mothers and grandmothers cook: cooking not just by a recipe but with all our senses: checking the color, smelling something to make sure it is not under cooked/burnt, tasting to check if it is seasoned properly..things that come naturally to a seasoned cooked but maybe skills to be learnt by the new cook. 

The first post is from me, Rose of Magpie's Recipes but I invite all of you to send me articles on simple or advanced Kerala cooking, or other topics focusing on Kerala to be published here.

We would also love to read about a recent visit to Kerala perhaps, a list of must see places or eat outs there, an article on an  inspiring Malayali who is making great strides in any field,  maybe an article on art and culture or even shopping in Kerala.

If you have something to share on Kerala email me your original article or pictures to magpiemails @ gmail dot com to be featured here as a Kerala Kitchen Guest Blogger.

And now to the first in the series of Kerala cooking:

Learn to cook Lentils: Muthira Horsegram Curry 

Many lentil dishes are part of our Kerala cooking repertoire much like the rest of India. There are many varieties of lentil dishes that are made across the state, with little nuances changing from region to region.  All kinds of dals or lentils are used, which are cheap, readily available and long keeping pantry staples like Toor dal or thuvara parippu , chick peas or kadala, red gram or van payar, green gram or cherupayar etc. (Here is a good Multi lingual glossary of pulse terms if you like to know them)

Several lentil dishes form part of the Onam Sadhya ( the harvest festival feast of vegetarian sides served with mounds of rice on a banana leaf, typical to the Hindu community but celebrated throughout Kerala ) They are usually served with rice as a complete meal rich in protein and nutrients. It is one of the first things that most new Kerala and Indian cooks learn to make after they have tackled cooking rice.

My mom made sure I learnt both as soon as I could be trusted to watch over milk being boiled without forgetting and letting it boil over! Whenever she was away, my dad and siblings were subject to many, many dinners of parripu curry, rice and and inventive omelets which included everything from grated carrots to mango pickle! Those first attempts might have not been very good. But thankfully over the years I have cracked the lentil code and perfected many types of lentil dishes!

Most lentils are usually cooked in the following way:

1 part dried lentils boiled in 2 parts of water and 1 tsp of salt per cup of lentils till soft + a tempering 

Tempering or tadka in hindi and kadugu pottikuga in Malayalam is the spluttering of mustard or cumin seeds/ heating of spices/ and aromatics like onions or garlic, curry leaves etc. lightly sauteed or browned in hot oil  that is an essential flavour building block. Tempering enhances the spices making them come alive and also ensures that they become better digestible. The sizzling hot tempering is usually added to lentils after cooking them and the dish is left to simmer to combine the flavours. 
This is the crucial part about cooking Kerala and other Indian food.  You must ensure that the spices are fully cooked so that they darken slightly and no longer smell raw. If using mustard seeds you must hear them pop. Cumin seeds sputter and turn a light brown. You must be careful not to burn them because this can happen in a few seconds and then you must abandon it and start over.

Sometimes in Kerala add-ins like grated coconut is added to the tempering. A pinch of  asafoetida  kaayam in malayalam / hing in hindi  is also sometimes added to the tempering to make digesting some lentils easier. Cooked vegetables like tomatoes, potato, drumsticks, pumpkin etc. are also added in the end or cooked alongside the dal itself.

Today I would like to share one of the simplest lentil dishes- my grandmother's muthira or horsegram curry, made with very few ingredients. She is from trichur and this is the way that she makes it usually as a chaaru or gravy and in my husband's home they evaporate the water so that it is dry. I prefer it with the liquid as I think it has lots of flavour and one spoonful is enough to whisk me away to my childhood in Kerala.

Muthira called horsegram in English is a tiny brown lentil that is popularly used to feed cattle although it is also commonly found in Kerala and other South Indian cuisine. In other parts of India it is called Kollu (Tamil Nadu), Kulith ( Maharastra), Ulavu ( Andhra Pradesh) Muthira is nutritious and rich in iron. If Muthira or horsegram is not available, you could try this simple preparation with other lentils like green gram.

Muthira / Horsegram Curry 


  • Horsegram or muthira 1 cup ( If you don't have it you can use green gram or most other lentils) 
  • *Salt 1 tsp or to taste
For tempering:
  • Large onion or sabola  1/2  - chopped fine  or use shallots or cheria ulli  4-5
  • Garlic or velutha ulli 5-6 cloves
  • Curry leaves or kari vepalla 1 sprig or 5-6 leaves
  • *Red chilly power  or chummantha mullagu podi 1 tsp
  • *Red Chilli flakes or unnaka mullagu 2 tsp (Optional)
  • Turmeric power or manjal 1/4 tsp
  • Oil ( coconut oil preferably else any other neutral oil like canola, corn, sunflower etc. Olive Oil is generally not used) 
*Note: Please adjust seasoning as per taste and spice tolerance 

Cook the Lentil: 
Check that the Muthira is free from stones as is common if you buy it in small local stores, although most supermarket brands would be already picked over.
Wash the Muthira with clean running water and soak it overnight in enough water to cover it.
The next day cook the soaked Muthira in a deep covered pot or pressure cooker with the salt and  2 cups of water until soft but not mushy.
( If you prefer it as a chaaru or liquid y add more water and if you prefer it dry then only add as less as 1/2 a cup of water while cooking the pre-soaked beans )
Empty the cooked Muthira into a serving dish along with the water that is left after cooking it.

Make the tempering: 
Dry the pot you used to cook the muthira or in a separate pan heat some oil in it on medium heat for the tempering:
Add the chopped onions/ shallots that have been crushed in a mortar and pestle to the hot oil.
Add the garlic and stir occasionally until it is just starting to turn brown.
Add the curry leaves and stir till they crisp a bit
Add the chilli powder, turmeric and chilli flakes and stir just until the spices darken but careful not to burn it.

Pour back the cooked muthira, stir to mix with the tempering and simmer for about 10 minutes.
If you like it dry, you can cook it longer until the water has evaporated, although I like it with some liquid.
Serve with rice or even with bread.

Here are some more recipes for cooking lentils:

How to make Parripu curry/ Mung dal curry  
How to make Cheru Payar Olathiyathu/ Green Gram stir- fry 
How to make Eriserry/ Red beans with Pumpkin / Squash in Coconut 

Am sending this to my good friend Prerna of Indian Simmer's event Indianfoodpalooza held by her and the other awesome bloggers Kathy and Barbara Do join them with your Kerala and other Indian dishes with  prizes to be won too!
And don't forget this month's Kerala Kitchen Host Prathiba of Cook- Ezee   is waiting for your Kerala food entries to reach her by March 31st too!


Torviewtoronto said...

very important part of the meal :)

Sarah said...

This is a staple at my house :) I make it at least once every week :) I usually do this with channa as well :) love it any time of the day! btw, I realised after marriage that this simple dish is missing in the southern parts of Kerala! And what a loss it is!

themustardseed said...

I am so glad to see this recipe. I recently picked up a bag of horsegram lentils from our grocer and since then it has been sitting in the pantry. Your recipe looks tempting. I will be making it this way.

Rose /Magpie said...

Yes lentils are definitely an important part of our meals

Sarah- very big loss! muthira used to be looked down upon because it is quite cheap in Kerala, but its my favourite too!

I'm so glad mustard seed :) Do let me know what you think!

PrathibhaSreejith said...

My Grandma use to cook this regularly for dinner when we were kids. Love them now though I didn't used to like them a lot as a kid :-) Nice Post Rose and many thanks for putting up the link for Kerala Kitchen Event Announcement Page...

Unknown said...

Thanks Rose, for this recipe.......... .specially after u mentioned its the Trichurian way of cooking, which i have been wanting to learn for a long time....... Thank u.

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