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Cooking With Wilbur: Recipes From A South Indian Village

Pepper water, Goli soda, unbearably hot chilis, old rice with pickles. Wilbur Sargunaraj introduces us to some of his favorite foods in his family's ancestral village in India. Produced by Wilbur Sargunaraj for NPR, John W. Poole and Ben de la Cruz/NPR.

Wilbur Sargunaraj YouTube

Wilbur Sargunaraj eats and drinks his way through his father's home village in his video "The Village Way: Food." And he's clearly having a good time, even when he downs some very hot "pepper water"!

(Perhaps the antidote is Goli soda, South India's favorite carbonated drink, with a marble sitting atop the bottle to seal in the bubbles.)

To learn how to make this village fare, we turned to Vijitha Shyam, who blogs about Indian food at spicesandaroma.in. Heads up: You'll need to make a trip to an Indian grocery store to find some of the ingredients.

Murukku

Murukku is a savory teatime cracker — crunchy on the outside, but it'll melt in your mouth when you bite in. It's made with rice flour as a base ingredient and white lentils, chickpea flour or roasted chickpea powder as a binding agent. A well-flavored murukku is a treat by itself. A dash of asafoetida powder adds depth in taste. You'll need a murukku press to create the round shape — a cylindrical container that comes with mold plates of different shapes. The prepared dough is stuffed inside the press. Tighten the lid, then press down to release a circle of dough, which is then deep-fried in oil.

Ingredients

- 2 cups rice flour
- 1/4 cup white lentil flour
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1/4 teaspoon asafoetida
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
- 4 tablespoons cold butter
- 1/4 – 1/2 cup room temperature water
- Vegetable oil for deep-frying

Equipment

- Murukku press
- Large deep pan for deep-frying

Directions

  1. Sieve the rice flour, white lentil flour, salt and asafoetida together in a large bowl. Add cumin seeds and mix together.
  2. Cut the cold butter into small cubes. Add them to the bowl and break them into tiny lumps with your fingers. Pour in 1/4 cup water and knead the mixture into a smooth dough, about 10 minutes. Add more water if needed.
  3. Heat oil in a large deep frying pan to 375 F.
  4. Place a sheet of parchment paper on a flat surface. Pinch about half a cup of the dough and stuff it inside the murukku press. Seal and squeeze the press to release the dough in concentric circles. Repeat with remaining dough until done.
  5. Deep-fry the dough circles until golden brown, about 5 to 8 minutes.

Murukku can be stored at room temperature for up to 15 days in an airtight container.

Idly

Idly is a fermented rice-lentil cake, eaten for breakfast in South Indian homes and also mixed with water and vegetable puree and served as baby food. These fermented rice-lentil cakes are steamed in an idly rack in a pressure cooker (you can also steam them in ramekins). First, the rice, white lentils, flattened rice and fenugreek seeds are soaked in water for 4 to 6 hours. Then they are ground to a smooth batter using a wet grinder. Leave the batter out to ferment overnight at 70 to 75 F.

Ingredients

- 4 cups idly rice (sold in Indian grocery stores)
- 1 cup white lentils
- 3 fistful flattened and dried rice (also known as poha, and sold in Indian groceries)
- 2 teaspoons fenugreek seeds
- Enough water to soak and grind
- 1 tablespoon salt

Equipment

- Wet grinder (You can use a food processor, but the idly won't fluff up as much)
- Idly rack
- Pressure cooker

Directions

  1. Wash rice, lentils, flattened rice and fenugreek seeds with running water three to four times to remove any grit or dirt. Soak them all in separate bowls for 6 hours. Remove water and set aside.
  2. In the grinder or food processor, start grinding the white lentils and fenugreek seeds with 1/2 cup water. Let the machine run for 15 minutes until the white lentils turn into a smooth paste. Now add the flattened rice and 1/2 cup water and continue to run the machine for an additional 10 minutes. Turn off the power and transfer the batter to a clean bowl.
  3. Add rice along with 1 cup water to the grinder. Grind to a smooth paste. It takes about 20 to 25 minutes. Add the rice paste to the bowl. Mix using hands or spatula. Add salt and let the batter ferment at room temperature (70 to 75 F). In colder countries, the batter can be fermented by placing in a warm oven. Set the oven to "keep warm" setting, then turn it off after a few minutes to let the temperature drop a bit.
  4. The following day, transfer the batter to the holders on the idly rack and steam in a pressure cooker for 15 minutes. You can also steam them in ramekins in a sealed pot. Serve hot with coconut chutney and sambhar.

Coconut Chutney

Chutney with coconut is a popular dip in South India. Green chilies or dry red chillies add heat; tamarind or lemon juice adds tartness. The coconut meat provides the creaminess. When these ingredients come together, flavorful chutney is created.

Ingredients

- 1 cup coconut meat, cut into cubes
- 2 green chilies, minced
- 1 inch ginger root, minced
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 tablespoon roasted chickpeas
- 1/4 teaspoon asafoetida
- 1/4 - 1/2 cup water to grind them
- 1/2 tablespoon salt
- 1/2 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
- Pinch of asafoetida
- 10 curry leaves (sold at Indian grocery stores)

Equipment

- Blender or food processor

Directions

  1. Grind coconut, green chilies, ginger, garlic, roasted chickpeas and asafoetida into a smooth paste. Transfer to a medium-size bowl. Add salt.
  2. Heat oil at high heat, add mustard seeds and let them pop — 5 to 10 seconds. Then add asafoetida and curry leaves and turn off the flame. Pour over the freshly made chutney and mix well to combine. Serve with idly.

Sambhar

Sambhar is a spicy lentil broth made with vegetables, tamarind pulp and spice powders. Its consistency is similar to a lentil stew. It is eaten with rice as a main dish.

Ingredients

- 1 cup yellow split peas
- 3 cups water
- 1 tablespoon butter or ghee
- 1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
- 1/4 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
- 1 dried red chili
- 1/2 teaspoon asafoetida
- 10 curry leaves
- 1 cup red onions, finely chopped
- 1 teaspoon turmeric powder
- 1 teaspoon red chili powder
- 1 tablespoon coriander powder
- 1/2 cup chopped vegetables of choice (carrots, beans, eggplant)
- 1 tablespoon tamarind pulp
- 1/2 tablespoon salt

Equipment

- Pressure cooker
- Cooking pan

Directions

  1. Pressure-cook the yellow split peas with 3 cups water for 15 minutes (or 3 whistles from the cooker). Once cooled, reserve the water (it'll be about 2 1/2 cups) and mash the peas into a smooth paste.
  2. Heat ghee or butter in a pan at high heat and let it melt. Add mustard seeds and cook until they pop. Toss in fenugreek seeds, cumin seeds, dried red chili, asafoetida and curry leaves. Saute for 30 seconds.
  3. Add the onions and cook for 5 minutes. Add turmeric, chili and coriander powder and saute till the raw smell disappears, about 5 to 8 minutes. Add the vegetables and mix well.
  4. Pour in the 2 1/2 cups of split pea water and cook covered for 15 minutes. Add tamarind pulp and bring it to a boil.
  5. Mix the mashed peas and add salt to taste. Cook for 10 minutes. Add more water if needed to dilute the sambhar. Check for seasoning. Serve hot with idly.

Tomato Rasam

This is what Wilbur calls "pepper water" in his video: a watery soup made of tamarind pulp, tomatoes, peppercorns, cumin seeds and garlic. It is typically made from the leftover lentil stock. Like sambhar, rasam is made on a daily basis in South Indian homes. It can be eaten with hot rice or as a soup. In some homes, tamarind is replaced by lemon juice as a souring agent. In the photo at left, plums were substituted for the tomatoes for plum rasam shots.

Ingredients

- 1 tablespoon yellow split peas
- 1 cup water
- 1 tablespoon butter or ghee
- 1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
- 1/2 teaspoon asafoetida
- 10 curry leaves
- 1 dried red chili
- 5 garlic cloves, smashed
- 1 inch ginger, minced
- 2 red tomatoes, chopped
- 1 teaspoon turmeric powder
- 1 tablespoon coriander powder
- 1 teaspoon red chili powder
- 2 teaspoon crushed peppercorns
- 1 tablespoon salt
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 1/4 cup cilantro for garnish

Equipment

- Pressure cooker
- Deep-frying pan

Directions

  1. Pressure-cook 1 tablespoon yellow split peas with 1 cup water for 15 minutes or 3 whistles. Reserve the water.
  2. Heat ghee or butter in a deep-frying pan and let it melt. Once superhot, add mustard seeds and let them pop. Throw in cumin seeds, asafoetida, curry leaves and dried red chili and saute for 1 minute.
  3. Add garlic cloves, ginger and tomatoes. Cook for 5 minutes. Sprinkle turmeric, chili and coriander powder and crushed peppercorns and pour in the split pea water. Stir to combine and bring it to a rolling boil.
  4. Switch off the flame and add lemon juice and salt. Garnish with cilantro.

Thuvayal

Thuvayal is a chutney that follows the same principle as an Italian pesto, substituting herbs like cilantro, curry leaves or mint for the basil; white lentils for the pine nuts; and coconut instead of cheese to add creaminess. For thuvayal, the final step is to garnish the ground paste with hot oil tempered with black mustard seeds, asafoetida and curry leaves.

Ingredients

- 1 teaspoon vegetable or olive oil
- Skin of 1 long ridge gourd
- 1/4 cup white lentils
- 2 dried red chilies
- 1/2 tablespoon tamarind pulp
- 2 tablespoons unsweetened dried or fresh coconut
- 1/2 tablespoon salt
- 1/4 - 1/2 cup water
- 1 tablespoon vegetable or olive oil
- 1 tablespoon black mustard seeds
- 10 curry leaves
- 1/2 teaspoon asafoetida

Equipment

- Blender or food processor

Directions

  1. Wash and clean the ridge gourd. Cut in half and scoop the flesh using a spoon. Discard the flesh. Cut the skin into small cubes.
  2. Heat 1 teaspoon oil in a saucepan. Once hot, add the ridge gourd skin and cook for 15 minutes. Remove it and let cool.
  3. To the same saucepan, add dried red chilies and white lentils. Cook for 5 minutes. Add tamarind pulp and saute for couple of minutes. Switch off the flame and add the coconut and cooked ridge gourd. Remove and let it cool.
  4. Add a quarter cup of water and grind all the ingredients into a smooth paste. Add salt to taste. Mix well.
  5. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a small pan. Once hot, add mustard seeds and let them pop. Then add the curry leaves and asafoetida. Pour this mixture over the freshly made thuvayal.

Pazhaya Sadam

That's the way to say "day-old rice" in the South Indian language of Tamil. This is a common breakfast dish made with leftover rice, soaked in water overnight and mixed with fresh yogurt and salt the following day. Shallots and green chillies are thrown on top or served on the side. This is a common meal consumed by laborers in South India, with plenty of carbohydrates.

Ingredients

- 1 cup cooked white rice
- 3 cups water
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup yogurt
- 10 shallots (you can cut in half but you should be able to bite into them)
- 1-2 whole green chilies or sun dried chilies

Directions

  1. In a large bowl, soak the rice with water for 6 to 8 hours
  2. The following day add salt and yogurt. Mix well to combine.
  3. Transfer them to bowl and eat with sun-dried chilies, green chilies and shallots. It's hot, it's salty and it's yummy.

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