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Tambram Comfort food: Vetha kuzhambu & Usli

One of the more memorable dialogs (very euphemistically put) I remember between my parents, growing up went something like this:

Appa: 'I almost always end up being fed 'vetha kuzhambu' & 'chutta appalam' whenever we visit your mother'
(try to imagine the indignation rising within my mom on hearing this)
Amma: What were you thinking?, you keep eating all that garbage at every station that the train halts and ruin your stomach..  And you expect to be fed Payasam??

This happened every year up until my grandmother passed away. Every summer vacation, we'd fly down to Madras (present day Chennai) and board the Tirunelveli express for a day long trip, Appa had this encyclopedic knowledge of the signature food items that were sold in each & every stations, be it  fruits, baby cucumbers, coffee, masala vadai, or Poli (a sweet dal stuffed bread). What made it all the more exciting was that, eating out was one sin short of blasphemy amongst the Tambram community in those days, and that too buying from the vendors... woah, unspeakable!!

And so Appa would arrive in Tirunelveli in less than optimal shape and my grandmother would quickly whip up (you really could not make faces and roll your eyes at the son-in-law, although I'm willing to bet she probably was thinking.. 'Here we go again'..) a soap stone pan referred to as a 'kachchatti' (or kal (stone)  chatti (pan)) and cobble up this amazing gravy using dried preserved veggies, tamarind & finished with EVSO (Extra Virgin Sesame Oil, also known as 'chekk yennai'), I'd hope that appa wouldn't polish it all off, since this delectable treat only got better with time!

Vetha kuzhambu is a tamarind based gravy almost exclusively reserved for near and dear ones. In fact, in many homes, its a faux pas to serve this to guests. Etiquette requires that guests are served gravies like sambhar & rasam with dal. and this is especially true when the revered sons-in-law come to visit!!
The reason behind why this may be regarded as unsuitable for guests is that it is made with ingredients that probably have more in common with preserved pickles. Tamarind is acidic and any veggies in it are of the salted preserved kind.

This 'poor mans gravy' doesn't offer too much in the nutritional department, its forte is taste. Tart, spicy, redolent with the heat of peppercorn and a touch of sweetness from jaggery, that cuts through the acidity of the tamarind. Its often paired with mashed spinach or amaranth greens and served with rice.

why do I bring the guest aspect?  lets see....In this one year of food blogging, one of the most delightful discoveries has been the exposure to so many other food bloggers, a lovely supportive set of individuals whom I've never laid eyes on, an anonymous support system encouraging, advising & goading one another to put their best food forward! Some of my offerings here have been posted for the specific purpose of sharing on other blogs (like the artichoke dishes on, or the cranberry rasam for D at Yet again, its D who's been instrumental in encouraging me to share this recipe, based on a casual conversation on Chefinyou's Facebook page. In theory, one should never be dishing out dal-less gravies for such a fabulous supporter, but that's exactly what I'm doing in the virtual sense..D' if we ever meet face to face, I owe you a fabulous 'Saddhi chaapadu' ( a full 3 course festive  meal). Until then its vetha kuzhambu, panfusined of course.

The discussion that started it was this gorgeous dish that D had created, Butter beans with tomatoes using thyme as the defining spice. One comment led to another & D had convinced me to share this with everyone. Its been a keeper dish at home for quite a while now.. Thyme & Sundried tomatoes, two  Mediterranean outsiders taking center stage in this traditional Tambram gravy.

It's paired with a Rapini Usli.

Rapini is a common vegetable in Southern Italy and is most commonly prepared by lightly sauteing in oil with crushed garlic, salt and pepper.

For the Thyme & Sun dried Tomato Vetha Kuzhambu you need:

4-5 pieces sundried tomato, cut into strips
2-3 sprigs Fresh Thyme
2 tbsp sesame oil
1 tsp mustard seeds
1/2 tsp Ajwain seeds
1 dried arbol chilli broken in two
1 pinch asafetida
1 large marble sized lump of tamarind pulp
1 tbsp Sambhar powder
Salt to taste
2 cups water
1/2 tsp powdered jaggery (or sticky brown sugar)

In one cup of water, soak the tamarind pulp till soft, squeeze to extract the pulp and discard fibrous residue and seeds.
heat the oil in a pan. When almost smoking hot, add the mustard, Ajwain seeds and red chilli. when the mustard seeds sputter & pop, add the sun dried tomato strips and the thyme leaves (stripped off the stem).
Saute till the tomatoes appear to brown and then add sambhar powder and asafetida.
Stir well to incorporate and then pour in the tamarind pulp.
Add salt and the remaining water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, add the sugar/jaggery.
Cover pan & allow to simmer for about 5-10 minutes.

Transfer to a serving dish.

Rapini Usli.
1/2 cup tuvar dal
1/2 cup chana dal
2 dried red chillies
12-15 curry leaves
1 pinch asafetida
Salt to taste
3 tbsp sesame oil
1 tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp dehusked split urad dal
1 bunch Rapini greens

Soak the Dals in warm water for ~ 1 hour
Wash the greens, remove the buds & the tender leaves, chop & set aside.
 Drain the dals, add the red chili, curry leaves, asafetida and salt. Process to a coarse paste in a blender.
Transfer to a microwave safe dish. Rinse out the blender jar and add the water (~ 1/2 cup) to the paste.
Nuke in the microwave for about 5-7 minutes till the paste cooks into a solid mass. Allow to cool and crumble the lump of par cooked dal.
Heat 2 tbsp oil to smoking hot in a large wok. add the mustard seeds and urad dal. When the dal turns golden, add the crumbled dal and stir fry it till it starts crisping up and changing color.

Simultaneously, heat the remaining oil in a skillet and toss in the rapini greens to wilt.

Transfer the greens into the wok, stir to combine the dal & the greens well.

Lower heat & allow to cook till the flavors blend. Transfer to a serving dish.

Serve with plain rice. Bon appetit!


  1. Very interesting use of thyme and sun dried tomatoes in Vatha Kozhambu. I have come to love thyme off late and blending it into our own traditional recipes seems like conquering the best of both worlds.

    And that Kalchatti brings back fond memories for me. There was a huge one specially meant for pickling and small ones for making buttermilk in my grand dad's place.

  2. Vethakuzhambu and paruppu usli-a poor man's delight indeed.Enjoyed reading this article.You pen down your thoughts so evocatively.This blending of new flavours into a traditional dish sounds exciting.Must try immediately.

  3. just linked this article on my facebook account. it’s a very interesting article for all.

    Gift to Chennai


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