Last weekend we squeezed in another supper club get together. This one was a South Indian theme, so we had a nice spread of curries.
We served all the main dishes family style. There was rice, Goan shrimp curry, Keralan chicken, a pot of mixed vegetable curry with sweet potatoes, and our contribution, a coconut milk curry with cauliflower and fresh spinach. We also brought several chutneys, which were made for our appetizer, bhel puri, but also worked nicely with everything else.
I’ve wanted to try making bhel puri ever since I first read about it in My Bombay Kitchen by Niloufer Ichaporia King:
“…nowhere is it as good as it is on a street corner or on a beach by the light of a kerosene lamp, with the salt breeze blowing in from the Arabian Sea and a thousand other scents and sounds, your portion handed to you on what could very well be someone’s recycled algebra exam…
…There is nothing else like it in the world, and it’s impossible to describe easily…basic bhel consists of crumbled crisp puris mixed with sev, chopped onions, chopped boiled potato, chopped fresh coriander, perhaped some chopped green mangoes in they’re in season, puffed rice, and a bit of each of two chutneyes, one sweet, the other killingly hot…
…In fancy places, everything comes on a plate with a spoon. In less-fancy places, you get two spoons.”
The combination of little crispy things with fresh spicy chutney, eaten messily off of newspapers, just seemed too good to miss. I bought a bag of sev (fried chickpea flour noodles) last year and ended up eating most of it out of hand, like peanuts, and we never got around to trying bhel. This time I bought the nylon sev that King recommends, plus some awesome crunchy chickpea flour puffs. I couldn’t find the right kind of crisp puris or plain puffed rice, so instead I crumbled up some thin potato chips. To keep things simple, we just added a bit of chopped onion and the fresh chutneys right before serving. Of course, it started to get mushy right away, but there was just enough textural variation to make it really fun to eat. And the green chutney was really hot.
Because I hadn’t found puri, we used pappadums to scoop up the bhel. It worked fabulously, I would totally do this again.
As King points out, you can buy cilantro-mint or tamarind chutney in any Indian grocery, but they’re much better made fresh. We used the green chutney recipe from Sanjeev Kapoor’s How to Cook Indian, but for the tamarind Jon adapted a few different recipes and wrote down his method:
First, make tamarind paste:
1 good-sized chunk of “wet tamarind” pulp, maybe 6 oz. or so. The package always says “seedless”, but it never is. Put this in a bowl and cover with boiling water. Let it sit for a couple hours, occasionally mashing it up with a knife or the back of a spoon. Scrape it into a strainer and scrape it around over a second bowl with a silicone spatula or wooden spoon. Scrape off outside of strainer into the bowl, then transfer what’s left back into the first bowl and cover with hot water again. Repeat this a couple more times until the pulp has been removed from the skins, fibers and seeds. Discard the skins, fibers and seeds.
5 dates, chopped into small pieces
2 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp New Mexico chile powder
1 tsp Kosher salt
¾ tsp black salt (available in Indian groceries)
½ tsp ground ginger
1-2 tsp brown sugar, to taste
up to 1 cup water
Combine the tamarind paste, chopped dates, cumin, chile powder, Kosher salt, black salt, ground ginger and brown sugar in a saucepan. Add water until it’s a somewhat thinner consistency than you want the final product. Bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer. Simmer, stirring occasionally, for 5-10 minutes. Remove from heat and adjust seasonings until you have the desired balance of sweet, sour, salty and spicy.