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My Brief, Busy Stint as a South Indian Sous Chef

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Sorry to be such a jerk! However, I get really worried when I see sweeping generalizations becoming adopted as canonical for Indian cooking as a whole, and people [Americans] who have NOT been exposed to a wide variety of techniques and flavors then believing they have mastered xyz and teaching  others these things with aplomb.

I would feel precisely the same way. That's not what's happening here.

I'm documenting one cook's attempt to recreate, modify, and otherwise own recipes that she learned back home and has adapted to life in the states. No one here has made any statements about canons or generalizations regarding any cuisine. Quite the opposite, in fact:

Of course, as ex-eGullet staff member and cookbook author Monica Bhide tells us in her new, excellent Modern Spice, the search for pure authenticity is a fool's errand, for "Local Is as Local Does." Cuisine Meganathan doesn't just mean the carefully maintained dishes of Tamil Nadu but also includes the sorts of adjustments that everyone makes when they transplant their cooking from one place to another.

Of course cooking ground onion paste and cooking fried onions then grinding them produces different results. But home cooks make adaptations -- you'll see more later on -- according to the conditions and constraints they face. My goal here is to share what I learned, not to stand on a soapbox and claim authenticity, describe a canon, or do anything of the kind.

And, to that end, I continue.

Chris Amirault

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Shrimp Curry


This was the first dish to which I contributed more than mise prep. Ami was squeamish about shrimp, and there was much discussion about how much to cook them. When I suggested chilling them quickly ice water after blanching, she thought that was too much work, so we settled on this approach.

Sweat 2 c minced red onions in some oil & butter over medium heat with a bit of salt until translucent. Add 2-3 minced chile peppers and stir until fragrant; add 3-4 T ground coriander and stir until fragrant. Then add a scant 2 T each of garlic and ginger pastes and cook thoroughly. You want a rich, smooth sauce without the bite of either but no browning. Add a diced tomato and 2 T almonds, heat through, and remove from the heat.

Meanwhile, peel & devein 2-3 lb shrimp and save the shells. Make a quick shrimp stock with the shells and ~1 c of water; bring it to the boil and simmer for 15 minutes or so. Strain off the shells, and, using that liquid, boil the shrimp over high heat, stirring constantly to keep the heat evenly distributed. If you're chilling in an ice bath, cook them until they're done; if you're not, cook them until they're a bit underdone, as they'll continue cooking off heat. Strain and reduce the shrimp stock by ~75%.

Blend the cooled sauce ingredients until smooth and add 3 T coconut powder. (Alternately, add 1/2 c or so of coconut cream.) Add the reduced shrimp stock and the shrimp, and bring the stock to a simmer, stirring. Add 1/4 c roughly chopped cilantro and serve immediately.

Chris Amirault

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Green Rice

Ami didn't know the trick about sauteing mushrooms without oil, my contribution to this preparation.


Prepare 2-3 c uncooked rice as you wish; firm is better than soft. Brown 1/2 c slivered almonds in 2 T butter until very fragrant and slightly browned, and set aside.


While rice cooks, melt 2 T each of butter and oil in a skillet, and add 1 T of mustard seeds, stirring until they pop. Add 2 T cumin seeds and stir until fragrant, then 10 curry leaves that you've torn or minced, stirring, yes, until fragrant. Add 1 c small dice onion with a pinch of salt and saute until it's translucent. Add 1/4 c -- yes, that's right: 1/4 c -- of sliced garlic and saute it until it's very fragrant but not brown.

Remove onion mixture to the almond pot or bowl. In the same skillet (don't wipe it!) place 3-4 c sliced mushrooms all at once without any oil. Stir the mushrooms constantly: they'll first start to heat through, then give off their moisture; when you've cooked that moisture off, they should be done.


Add them and the almonds to the onion mixture; stir to combine.

In a large pot, add 6 c roughly chopped fresh spinach to a T or two of butter, and saute until it's wilted but still toothy. Add the onion/mushroom mixture and the rice, and stir all ingredients carefully together (so as not to mash the rice). Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper and serve.

Chris Amirault

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  • 1 month later...

There were several other dishes made, some of which I didn't get a chance to photograph during production. I did take notes on method and ingredient, though, and present them here.

Green Beans with Coconut

Wash, tip, chop (3/4") and blanch 2 lbs green beans. Ice down to stop cooking and set aside.

Cover the bottom of a pan with oil. (No butter bc coconut is being used.) Add your aromatics in this order (until this state): mustard seeds (pop), chana dal (toasty aroma and slightly brown), onion (translucent), curry leaves (aroma), salt and cayenne.

Add your beans and 2-3 T of coconut, to taste. Stir to combine and heat through. I'm a fan of crunchy beans, though hearty kitchen debate ensued over bean texture. Give everything a final taste for seasoning (salt, cayenne, and acid -- a few drops of lemon or lime perhaps).



I was told repeatedly that sambar, the vegetable (usually vegetarian) stew is a catch-as-catch-can affair, driven by produce quality and availability and by guest preference. The recipe is simple: after sauteeing some onion in oil, you add sambar powder (with cayenne, turneric, coriander, and other spices -- Ami used a store-bought version) and crushed or diced tomatoes. Once they have broken down, add your stock or water, the other vegetables (Ami used chayote squash cut in large chunks), and cooked toor dal.



Ami's raita was more savory and complex than the raita I'm used to eating. Along with salt, the yogurt sauce included red onion, mint, green chilis, cucumber, and curry leaves, all minced finely. The curry leaves worked wonders in particular.

Edited by Chris Amirault
pix addition (log)

Chris Amirault

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I kept hearing this phrase throughout my stay, not only at Ami's house but in conversations with others over the course of the long weekend: "the downstairs fridge." From the sound of things, most of the South Indian families in the extended family had second fridges in the basement, the better to store their extra food. Indeed, if I couldn't find something in the upstairs fridge (or pantry, or hallway, or dining room, or counter, or...), invariably Ami would say, "Oh, that's in the downstairs fridge." I never saw the thing -- she refused to allow me to get anything from it -- but the copious amount of food that came up those stairs suggests a 400 square foot walk-in.

One of the things in the downstairs fridge was a pretty hefty supply of Laxmi brand ginger and garlic paste, which Ami used infrequently but without shame. "On weekends like this, I don't want a blender cluttering up my counter," she said at one point, and given the flurry of activity I can understand why. I dipped a spoon in the jars quickly and didn't taste any off notes, though the intensity of both pastes was, as expected, a bit dulled as compared to fresh.

Chris Amirault

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Of the many, many, many sweets sitting around the house for the duration of the weekend, two stood out. One was son papdi, which are sweet little squares of ghee, nuts, and sugar. At one point, I was sitting at a table with about ten other people, and I realized that I was eating every other square: which is to say, I was eating as much as the other ten people were eating. I decided I had to cut back after that.

I never got the name of the other item, which had a rich, sweet dough wrapped in a ball around browned coconut. If anyone knows the name of these, I'd be eager to know what it is. Thankfully, the stash of those was at the other end of the Valaikappu ceremony hall, and by the end of the cooking/eating marathon it was painful to waddle across the floor, so I only ate about forty of them.

Chris Amirault

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  • 1 month later...

I realized that I didn't post any photos of the food at the ceremony itself. It was catered; I took mediocre notes and so will just do my best to describe what's here.

Pre-meal snacks:


Rice with sauces, including raita:


More rice, plus a beet and coconut dish that I really loved:


Stews and idlii:



Coconut rice in the foreground, regularly served at the end of meals:


The dosa line and chef:



My first two (of four) plates:


Rice pudding, fresh fruit, and those burnt sugar and coconut treats:


The ceremony stage, with fruits and sweets:




Chris Amirault

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Great post and pictures, Chris! Loved reading about and imagining the flavors of each and every dish.

I have to ask. Is the little baby with his arse in the air traditional or an inside joke? Is he made of marzipan? It is amongst the sweets on the stage so I presume there's some story there. PLease explain if you know the answer. I'm curious to the point of morbid fascination...

Katie M. Loeb
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Author: Shake, Stir, Pour:Fresh Homegrown Cocktails

Bartendrix,Intoxicologist, Beverage Consultant, Philadelphia, PA
Captain Liberty of the Good Varietals, Aphrodite of Alcohol

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Thanks, everyone.

IIRC, that little guy is either marzipan or some quasi-edible sugar creation. A few months before the proud papa, Jith, was born, the figurine adorned a cake at his mom's ceremony. Mom saved it, and, three decades later, he's again waving his candy-ass in joy.

Chris Amirault

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  • 9 months later...

Here's a fairly simple recipe for the kind of chutney you're referring to (though this has a tadka that Chris' friend's version doesn't seem to have.

1/2 cup peanuts

1/2 cup grated coconut (if you can't get fresh, use frozen that's been thawed a bit, but never use dessicated)

A small piece of tamarind (remove any seed) (In South Indian cooking terms, we'd like to measure size by asking to use a lime-sized ball of tamarind)

2 cloves of garlic, slivered

2 green chillies, chopped (optional; use less or more as per your heat preference)

For tadka:

1 tsp mustard seeds

4-5 dried red chillies (the longish ones)

1 1/2 tsp of urad dal

1 1/2 tsp of channa dal

First you dry roast the peanuts on a low flame. Then in a pan take a tsp of vegetable/peanut oil, and add slivers of garlic (or more if you like garlic). Add chopped green chillies, and saute for a bit. Add the dry roasted peanuts, coconut and tamarind piece, and warm through for say 30 seconds (coconut should not brown).

Grind the whole mixture to a paste of a consistency you desire (with some water if needed), adding a little salt for seasoning. It should not be watery, and it's typically around the consistency of guacamole. Also, don't grind it too fine since you would like some texture to the whole chutney.

Now for the tadka, heat 2 tbsp of oil in a regular pan or the tadka pan (Usually you would heat the oil to just bring it to smoking point, and then bring of heat immediately, and then let it cool down say 10 seconds and then add the ingredients in order), add mustard seeds and after they pop, add the channa dal and urad dal, and saute lightly till the lentils turn light golden brown. Pop in dried red chillies, and saute them as well (the aroma will tell you wen the chillies are done). Pour this tadka mixture over the chutney. and mix well.

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Thanks! I think that you're right that Ami didn't have a tadka in that chutney, but it sounds like a great idea.

Learned two new words: tadka and vaghar, which seem to be the same thing in different languages, yes?

Chris Amirault

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Thanks! I think that you're right that Ami didn't have a tadka in that chutney, but it sounds like a great idea.

Learned two new words: tadka and vaghar, which seem to be the same thing in different languages, yes?

That's correct, Chris.

Depending on the region in which you are it could be vagar, tadka, chouwnk or poppu.

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