Saturday, January 5, 2013

Keerai Kuzhambu - South Indian Spinach Gravy with Lentils

One of my  cooking handicaps is the inability to identify different types of spinach. In Chennai markets I used to be awestruck by the way some ladies used to ask for siru keerai, mulai keerai or vendhaya keerai by name, then proceed to check if they were good (Whatever they check for I wouldn't know. I only check for holes. And that is also to make sure that the vendor doesn't think I am naive) and buy accordingly. I wouldn't be able to identify regular spinach from hibiscus leaves. Yeah. I am that bad. I used to stand next to some of these experienced ladies and carefully pick up whatever they had picked up. Sometimes I ask them directly what they would do with it - poriyal or kootu and if all else fails I will ask the lady who sells it who would give me strange looks.

Coming to Penang I saw the innate love for greens with both the local and the Chinese population. And of course the rows and rows of different types of greens in every market. Most of the times the shopkeeper would give me only the Chinese or local name and I would come home and google it to see if it is in anyway related to the ones I have cooked in Chennai. So by trial and error I have shortlisted couple of varieties here and luckily the supermarkets have their names on them. So it is not difficult to select the right ones. 

But sometimes I am overcome with the eagerness to try new variety of spinach and just last week the market lady showed me something which I thought looked like palak. She also said it is good with stir-fry. So brought it home and promptly made it into a keerai poriyal with onion and garlic. After a couple of minutes of stir frying, I realized something was not right. Yeah. the darn thing was generating some gel-like substance that coated the entire stuff in a gelatinous glob. Of course it did not make it to the lunch table. So now I have vowed to abstain from trying anything new. It may last for a week until I see some other new vegetable.

But not to worry, today's recipe is a basic South Indian comfort food especially in Tamil Nadu. It is very close cousin of the North Indian Dal Palak. It is made regularly in most households almost on a daily basis. Traditionally, this is made in a "mannu chatti" or terracota pots. The heat and the porous nature of the vessel along with the labor-intensive hand blending with a "mathu" brings out the best in the dish. I have seen my mom do it the traditional way. Cook in the chatti, then take it off the heat and using a kitchen towel, sit on the floor deftly holding the pot and churning it with the mathu.  Any type of spinach would work for this but apparently it tastes best with "paruppu keerai". If you know what that is and can identify it - go ahead and use it. But if you are "spinach challenged" like me, then you can use any edible spinach. (stress on the word edible after my last experience).

Keerai Kozhambu - A Spinach and Lentil based Gravy


Spinach - 1 bunch
Tuar Dal - 1/2 cup, pressure cooked till soft and mashed
Onion - 1, chopped
Tomato - 1, chopped
Green Chilly - 1, slit
Garlic - 1 clove, smashed
Tamarind paste - 1t
Sambar Powder - 1T
Turmeric - 1t
Salt to taste

For Seasoning
Mustard seeds - 1/2t
Broken Urad dal - 1/2t
Asafoetida (Hing) - a pinch
Curry Leaves - 1T
Vadagam - 1t (Refer Notes)
Ghee - 1t


1. Pressure cook and mash the tuar dal with a pinch of turmeric.
2. Rinse and chop the spinach.
3. Heat oil in a kadai/ pan. Add the green chilly, garlic and onions and fry well.
4. Add the tomatoes and fry well.
5. Add the spinach, sambar powder and fry well.
6. Add the tamarind paste along with 1/4 cup of water and mix well.
7. Add the dal and add some more water and allow it to come to a boil.
8. Traditionally a "mathu" is used at this stage to blend the spinach and dal. But if you find that time-consuming, then go ahead and use a mixie/blender. I have used the stick-type hand blender. If using a hand-blender, then mash the dal and spinach-onion-tomato mix directly on the stove. Do not make into a smooth blend but leave a few bits of spinach/ onions etc. If using a blender, then switch off the stove,allow the mixture to cool and blend.
9. Add salt and bring the blended mixture to a boil.
10. In a small pan, heat some ghee. Season with the seasoning ingredients mentioned above.
11. Add the seasoning to the boiling kuzhambu
12. Serve hot with rice.


1. For best results use mann chatti and a mathu. But that is extremely labor intensive. So if you are like me - then use a pressure pan and hand blender for fast results.
2. Vadagam - It is a kind of dried seasoning made up of onion and garlic and other spices that are made into a ball and stored for the rest of the year. Adds great flavor to south indian gravies. Check out the recipe here. I have not attempted to make these at home but get mine from India. Please note that it is quite pungent even in its dried form - so you can imagine the nasal assault it will have during the making! Do not try this at home unless you have an independent well-ventilated house. On hindsight - maybe I will make it at home to take revenge on my durian-loving neighbors ;-)

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