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Sunday, July 31, 2011

Bittergourd in Spicy Tamarind Sauce: Pavakkai Vatthal Kuzhambu

Vatthal Kuzambu (Vatha-kozhambu as we say it at home) is a spicy Tamilian dish made with tamarind-based spicy sauce, using dehydrated (dry) vegetables. Anything sun-dried (the easiest way in India) is a vatthal.

When vegetables are in season I remember my mom sun-drying batches and batches of eggplant slices, tomatoes, citron, and of course the usual vadaams - tapioca+lime+chilies, or rice or urad dal concoctions enjoyed deep-fried once it is dried. Sounds weird, but, it was a way of life. These were 40 °C summer days when wasting all that solar energy felt criminal and families stocked up for those soggy monsoon days when not many vegetable are in season.

The popular ingredient for vatthal kozhambu used to be Chundakkai (Sundakkai - 's' becomes a 'ch' as in chair in my family lingo) - the bitterest thing I have ever tasted and to this day have not developed a taste for, despite loving bitter gourd. A favorite of mine (although my tummy would disagree) is appalam/pappadam vattha- kozhambu - made with dry, un-fried pappadam/appalam.

Anyway, after having my mom's special vattha-kozhambu during my recent visit with my family, I was craving for a bit more of that home-made goodness, so made a slightly non-traditional version of bittergourd vattha-kozhambu.

Now, the name would be misleading, in that it is not dried bitter gourd that I used, but, let's just say it is vattha-kozhambu in spirit, a sort of wanna-be, made with bitter gourd and some other things that I like.

I use Tamicon™ tamarind concentrate usually, which is a thick blackish paste that is intensely sour and can be diluted as needed. But there are liquid tamarind concentrates that are mellow and brownish. Or, if available, use fresh tamarind - just shell it, soak in hot water to extract as much tamarind juice as preferred.

I like the hot-sour-sweet combination, so, I usually add a liberal amount of brown sugar, which, according to my mom is an abomination.

1 large Chinese Fu Gwa bittermelon or 2 small Indian bittergourds
1 small yellow onion
1 large tomato
salt to taste
1 tsp canola oil

for the sauce:
1 Tbsp Tamicon™ tamarind paste
1 Tbsp red hot chili powder
1 Tbsp coriander powder
2 Tbsp brown sugar (more or less)
6 cups water

  1. Clean the bittergourd by removing the spongy insides, chop into bite-sized pieces; dice the onions and tomatoes as well
  2. Heat the oil in a pan, add the vegetables plus a pinch of salt and sauté them for a bit
  3. Add the sauce ingredients, stir well, cover and allow to simmer till the sauce reduces in volume by half
  4. Taste and adjust flavors; if too spicy or sour, can always add more water, simmer some more; then thicken with rice flour, or corn starch
  5. Serve with hot basmati rice, home-made naan or simple rotis

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